Saturday, August 30, 2008

Writing as muscle memory

Here's how to identify and track your own dramatic genome.

Start by compiling a list of all the elements you can think of at swim in the sea of story. Some such elements are character,scene, suspense, reversal, conflict, beginning, middle, end, dialog, narrative, tension, plot, subtext, backstory, pacing, denouement, protagonist, antagonist, rising action, point of view, humor, voice, goal,motive, detail, setting, point of narrative, beats, blocking. You, writer that you are, will surely find others or may find fault with this list, thinking some are mere repetitions of others. No matter; this is you: Will the real genome stand up. Having compiled your list and considered each element, the next step is to thoughtfully assign a numerical order to them with 1 being your first choice, your candidate. Never mind your friend's choice. Never mind your sense of importance from the author of the last book on writing you liked. This is your genome (which actually sounds like a title for a TV interview show). Number all your selections in order of your preference.

As an example of how this numbering system works, the writer of these vagrant words unhesitatingly selects voice as his candidate for the long haul, accordingly # 1. If his list of elements were limited to those in the previous paragraph, his candidate for #30 would be plot. For this writer, # 2 would be character; # 29 would be middle. He can rationalize these choices, but since he was merely listing them as example instead of arguing for their primacy and occupancy of the rat tail of the curve, he feels such rationale unnecessary.

What's your list?

After you sort it out, date it, then file it away. A year hence, take the test again. And a year after that. It is neither right nor wrong for you to change your order of things; it is right for you to evaluate and consider. If you do not change your preferences, you are not being presented with a sign that your writing vision is on a stagnation curve, nor does it imply positive change if you shift your regard for one or more traits.

This is a picture of you, with your best side turned to the camera; this is you aware of your strengths and your weaknesses. It is a hint of what to pay attention to, what to look for in your work and the work of others. This is the door opening wide on your discovery of what kind of writer you are and want to be, why certain writers appeal to you and why others do not arouse your interest.

Question: If Herman Melville had taken this survey, would he have listed "interest in whales" as one of the elements of story? Would Stephen King have added "frightening people"? Would Poe have listed ravens or Lenore?

Knowing where you stand with your tools and techniques is your way of twisting the kaleidoscope to effect the design that most interests you, one that gives you a hand in setting forth the details and elements of your story in ways that stamp it to all who read it as yours.

You began by recognizing the presence of the genome within you. Now, having taken this test and committing yourself to stop by for a yearly check-up, you have begun the process of knowing what to feed it. Make no mistake, it is hungry and wants to be fed, the better to supply you with more stories, more stories, more.

This is the equivalent of turning your awareness to muscle memory--the place where it needs to be.


Anonymous said...

Listing things in any order has never been easy for me--I read a lot into every choice--but I'll give this a try.

Querulous Squirrel said...

Love the list. Love the numbering. Always a sucker for lists, but love that it's given as a prompt for our own lists. Immediately thought about contrast between humor and tragedy probably being up there near number one for me. Thanks for this exercise. I think it will be very helpful for me.

Anonymous said...

I'm with mapelba: thank God for the ranking-neutral "alphabetic order."

Really liked this idea, Shelly. I've started to work on a list of my own, using your 29 as the base and adding anything I and others can come up with. (I'm not finding it as easy as it looks, but you probably anticipated that.)