Writing a Good Story Means Creating a Lot of “Waste” in the Process
by Brad Windhauser
When I was a kid, I loved these wood dinosaur models. I couldn’t wait to crack the box, pop all the bones out of the sheets of wood, and get to gluing. I’d meticulously punch out all the necessary pieces, setting them to one side and all the scraps to the other. When I was done, I was left with a cool-looking skeleton of a t-rex. Maybe not as impressive as the one pictured on the box—an expert obviously assembled that one—but still cool. I was rather impressed with myself, and looking at my finished product, I couldn’t ignore all the left over scraps of wood sheets, instructions, and bits of glue that should have made it onto the model but had instead gunked up my desk. This cool thing came out of all this junk? Why couldn’t they just make the model without all this excess?
Writing is like creating one of these models. You’ll be left with a lot of waste and you need that waste to help you form the necessary parts.
The components of a story—the plot, the characters, the setting, the dialogue; use of summary versus scene—don’t find their way to the page fully formed as if from some immaculate mold—they have to be pressed from a larger source. And if you’ve ever put a model together, you know there is a lot of seemingly needless waste. But when you write, do you encounter the same amount of waste?
No, you should expect a whole lot more.
The most obvious “waste” (what doesn’t make it onto the final page) involves the multiple drafts you compose in order to understand not only your characters but also your story in general.
Obviously, if you don’t know your characters your story will fall apart. So how do you get to know them? You may not know exactly who your characters are at the outset, but your early drafts certainly help you figure out who they aren’t: no, she wouldn’t slam the door; no, she wouldn’t wear that outfit to a job interview; no, she would never hold her tongue when he says that to her. In terms of plot, you can tell that no, it wouldn’t make sense for him to drive straight home after work; no, he would never play football with his friends on Thanksgiving; no, he is clearly not going to attend a Mets game just because he can.
Learning what all the nos are opens more possibilities about what the yeses should be.
Think of this as boxing your characters in, forcing them closer and closer to their true characteristics. Once you get a better feel for them, do some character journaling: what is a day like for this person? Where does he or she work? How does she take her coffee? What does she think about her job? Does she like her boss? What does she think about on the commute home?
Answering these questions will provide a much better feel for your characters but this work won’t appear on the page. Rather, your feel will inform the image of the character that does. But you can’t typically get this feel without all the background work.
These early drafts also help you fashion your settings. Where are they when they have that conversation about their son? Describe that restaurant in total in those early drafts and then shave away the details that don’t contribute. Does the low lighting matter? Does the song playing through the sound system? Do we care about the flatware pattern?
Knowing these details may help you, the author, get a feel for where your action happens but it doesn’t help the reader follow the story. That’s why this work also doesn’t make the page directly.
This is the type of work you put into every component of your story—such as plot, dialogue, etc. It might seem like a lot of wasted effort—but like doing sit-ups to get in shape—it will pay off eventually. The good thing about writing on computers is that you aren’t killing lots of trees to embrace this concept, so keep drafting without any guilt or sense that you are wasting your time