How to Create a Meaningful Series of Events
What we're going to try to do here is be thinking about a meaningful series of events. I mentioned the phrase what happens earlier. So think if you're an undergraduate film student, a fine definition of plot is what happens. And if you're a PhD candidate literature, maybe it's plot is a series of events. I think both of those work, but those are more on the critic's side. I want to get a working definition for us, that's from the artist side. And we need to add a very important modifier. The plot is not just a series of events. The plot is a meaningful series of events. And here is the rub. That word meaningful, cannot be defined by the writer. That word meaningful has to be defined by the protagonist. That's why I was so such an advocate of that 900 extra pages. Because how are you going to know what's meaningful to her. How are you going to know what's meaningful to him unless you spend enough time following them around. Putting obstacles in their path. Figuring out their version of ...
tension and super tension and conflict and seeing how you put these stimuli. You press these pressure points on them, and you watch them react. I do all sorts of writing that I know will never make it into a novel of mine. Put them in the stuck elevator with the person that you detest the most go. I know that's not going to be in the book. But I'm going to learn some really juicy bits of information that then I can bring that back. I can bring those realizations back into the book that I'm going to be able to share with my audience. That I'm going to be able to share with my reader. So how do we find the meaningful? And first is that we explore. We allow ourselves to just embrace the wanton process of discovery. Trial and error. There is no such thing as a wasted page. Right? The only thing that you can be doing, to not learn about your book, is not writing. As long as you're writing you're learning. And that's all going toward the greater goal of knowing how best to honor this person's story if its fiction or honor your own story if it's not fiction. Finding truth and honoring truth. I've heard fiction writers make the case that they can be more honest in a fiction than a non-fiction writer can because they've got this partition. They've go that magic word f on the front cover and that allows them to be more honest about their mom, right? Or their dad. Or their ex husband. They can sort of air dirty laundry because they've dressed it up in these ornate metaphors. I didn't live in 1300 Greece. This couldn't possibly be about me. It's not the year 2175, and I live in a spaceship. How could I possibly be talking about myself? But even if we construct these opulent images, we're still talking about our zeitgeist. We're making art to make sense of the world around us. This very confusing planet that we find ourselves on right now is being investigated by people who write historical fiction, and people who write dystopic novels. Or people who are setting their books right in 2016. Right in 2015. Right in 2017. It's all speaking to that. What's going to best honor your memory? Do you want to tell it straight. Is it going to be an essay? Is it going to be a memoir? Or is it better to contort the facts a little bit? Make it as insert whatever adjective you're going for here. That's something I always ask myself when I'm starting a project. Do I want to tell it straight. Do I want to tell it how it actually happened? Or do I want to be able to lie. Do I want to be able to lie to bring this world to life in a more inhabitable way? So these are good questions to be asking yourself about meaningful. You're probably not going to know it's meaningful for them during draft one, because you're just figuring who they are. Draft one is a blind date. Maybe you learn a couple of key things. They like tacos. They like to take walks after dinner. You found out that they grew up in South Beach. But that's top soil stuff. You want to get her to date four. Day nine. Day 13, where stuff starts getting real. Don't put too much pressure on yourself to get to date nine too quickly. Maybe you haven't, but I've had the other experience too where you go on a blind date and somebody is like and then when I was nine years old, my uncle did it. And you're like whoa. Wait. We're not there yet. Characters are the same way. It's takes time to get to know our characters on a kind of iteration, and then increment by increment basis. That's how we're going to find what's meaningful. That's why we're going to try to put as many obstacles in their path, not worrying whether it's going to make the final cut yet. Explore it. Having fun. Because what we're finding out, when we're watching them interact with all these various stimuli, is how they problem solve. Their decision making mechanism and their logic system. Right? This idea about the person who is in the liquor store robbery from earlier. It made total sense to him, that the only way to solve that problem was to stake out 7-11 until the end of time. It doesn't make sense to me. It doesn't make sense to you but it makes sense to him and all we're trying to do is inhabit his version of a subjective reality. Sometimes I hear people kick around the word reliability or the unreliable narrator. There is no such thing as the unreliable narrator because there is no such thing as the reliable narrator. What we're trying to do is tell their very specific and their very tuned version of the facts. I did the right thing stealing that dog. I did the right thing staking out that liquor store. I did the right thing, letting myself get douse with the sprinklers, while I was in the park that night. That's what we're writing toward, the meaningful. We have to spend enough time in their heads. We have to spend enough time in their hearts. So don't put too much pressure on yourself to get this right right away. Just make sure, that you're brewing more coffee, turn the music up. And you just write. You just gasp. Have fun. Those are the people finish their books. Those are the people that finished the essays or the screenplays or whatever you're trying to compose. If you've got a day to day writing life, that you're deriving some pleasure for. I kind of gave you a specific, you wan to grab the mic. That's great. I gave a specific moral dilemma before, with the person who had stolen the dog. I'd like to do one more exercise around morality before we move on. And in this time, I would like it to be dealer's choice. I would like you now to be in charge of what he or she is doing that might be morally ambiguous. Did you have a question?
Oh yeah, I kind of had a correlation that seemed meaningful to me that maybe is to some people in the audience. And that the way you're doing this an artist, as I do, mixed media that kind of thing, painting, and I'm always experimenting with the materials to see what'll they'll do, and they wait a long time until I comeback to them and play with them a different time.
But then there are other people who come in and they start with a sketch or they work off of a photograph. And what you're suggesting in your whole approach is much more in my mind anyways, it's much more sort of alive and juicy and draws you somewhere you don't know where you're going to go. You don't know how it's going to turn out which is different I guess, the difference between the clarity example you gave before, I think.
Well, I think it also speaks to the idea that there are people who write successfully from the outlines. Like, I've come from the school of thought that there is no right way to write a story, it's really a matter of what works the best for the biorhythms of your brain. I have such a subversive programming that I won't even listen to myself tell me what to do. How messed up is that? If put together an outline I would read it and be like, you can't tell me what to do Josh, I'm going to do the exact opposite. So when I'm writing a novel, I know the opening image, and I have no idea what's going to happen after that, and I love the not knowing. And when I try to steer I always go down the wrong path. And when I'm just listening, when I've established. I've taken the time to intimately know my protagonist and I just follow behind her, like some underpaid secretary, and just watch what she does here, and watch what she does here, that's when my art really starts to come alive. So I think it works for both ways. Some people do beautiful work from an outline. If you're an outliner, the only thing I would say about that, is make sure that you're comfortable dislocating it when the character tells you that you're wrong. Because you're always wrong, and the character is always right. Alright so lets do six, seven minutes on this. Dealers choice. Some sort of moral dilemma. Write a scene in which a character does something of questionable moral standing. How can you make the action seem true to their nature? Does that make sense what we're going to do here? Good? Happy writing. Moral dilemmas. And how we're defining it. Sort of it lines up with the novelist Russel Banks idea. That he's always trying to put his characters in moral dilemmas. So then he's always putting his readers in moral dilemmas. And when a reader is in a moral dilemma, again, she's involved, she's invested, she's an active participant so. This is something that has really helped my writing seem inclusive. My writing seems inviting, kind if tipping your hat towards that person who's picking up the book and bringing it to life, with her imagination. These moral dilemmas could be really, really useful for us because again, there are no right answers here. And we don't want right answers. We want the slop. The great, great human slop. Would you be willing to share your exercise with us?
All creative types suffer from some kind of a block, right? Some can tolerate this better than others though. Ethan couldn't handle it very well at all. You might say it was driving him crazy. It had been weeks sine he'd been able to come up with a concept for a new photo series. An existential crisis was setting in. Obviously he was a complete failure. He'd amount to nothing. The hard work he'd put into building his career up until this point was all a waste. Might as well burn his camera. His dad was right, he was worthless. Wait, dad, you're such an asshole. Ethan remembered something a friend had told him long ago. An idea. It was a great idea. Too bad for this friend of Ethan's. He didn't have quite the skill set to make this idea an actual thing, but Ethan did. Nevermind that his friend had told him this thing that was an idea in confidence. Dad cannot be right. Not today. Not ever. And so Ethan's most well known project was born, from the seed of another man's imagination.
Well I love how you're taking advantage of this idea of the emotional time machine. We talked about the inner editor that writers have but we also have our inner parents. Sometimes they're saying go get 'em. And sometimes they're giving us more toxic messages. So I love how you're using the past as some sort of relevant context as to the things from the history that have kind of contributed to this monologue that's mean, that's polluted, that all these things that have happened five years ago, 10 years ago, 20 years ago, are alive in our head. They can be right back there, we can be nine years old again. We can be six years old. We can be four years old. I think you're doing a really good job with that.
And the other justification of the immoral action.
Well what's great too, we see those things are just another layer of that kind of great tussle that we we're talking about earlier. Like trying to create intentional dissonance, like getting as many things up in the air, that have dramatic potential for us to mind later in the story. Because obviously there is going to be the detritus and the fallout from this particular scene and now you've introduced some of the backstory that you can then make sure that that pays off as we get deeper into the narrative too. I'm really impressed with the exercises that guys have done in such a limited amount of time. It's cool to see, like oh wow. A lot of work can happen in ten minutes or eight minutes or six, whatever. I said about the laundromat. Feel free to do that. Sometimes it helps to get out of the house. Like if you need to go to the laundromat just be like, Josh more sent me. And it was funny too because I wasn't always taking my computer with me when I was at the laundromat so I would be with my iPhone just dictating passages to Siri. So it was even more deranged from somebody else's perspective. It would be like six in the morning and I'd be in the corner of the laundromat. I'd be like, there'd be like a couple of people being like, ahhh, he ran out of medication. For sure.
We have some questions.
Let's do some questions.
Before we go to break. Lunch break we're going to, let's get some questions coming here. So Richard says, I'm writing nonfiction and I believe that storytelling is essential there also. Could Josh speak a bit about this. Storytelling and nonfiction thank you Richard.
Yeah, thanks Richard. I think the first thing that I would say is that you do not even need to have the word fiction or nonfiction in your mind at this point. What we're trying to do is establish the a main character. If it's an essay or if it's a memoir, that main character is probably you. And you would be doing kind of the exact same principles that we were outlining earlier today. You come up with the right moments, the right dramatic moments from your history, that you want to dramatize on the page. I'll give you a specific example. I have a memoir coming out next year and I had no idea how to put it together. Because when you start to look about your own vast history of life experiences you're like. How do I chop that up? Like it happened to me so I think everything's important. I've won the spelling bee in the third grade. They need to know about that, I didn't really win the spelling bee by the way. So I started to feel about like, it's not. There is no such thing as the beginning of a story. All there is, is the first impression. What you are saying on page one, is I think this is so compelling I defy you to stop reading here. So I think about my own history. What are some of the most dramatic things that have happened to me? And about 18 months ago, I had a stroke. I ended up in the hospital. They we're going through their various litany of tests. They were like, you're pretty young to be having strokes. They did an MRI, there was a couple of other scars on my brain. And this wasn't the first stroke I had had. And they were like, that's not good. When they were doing their due diligence, they found out that I had this congenital heart defect. That I was missing an entire wall in the middle of my heart. And I needed to have heart surgery to fix it. So all of the sudden it became. Well that can be my framing device. Lik that's a narrative that like a reader can sink her teeth into. I have a stroke. I'm diagnosed with a congenital heart defect. They have to go in and operate. And I can use that as sort of, the planet right? The plane provides the gravity. And once the gravity has been established, then I can have as many moons satellite around it, so then it's not just about am I going to survive the heart surgery or not? That's not a very compelling memoir, I wrote the book. I must have survived. But also, now suddenly it's about that I have an 18 month old daughter who would have no conscious remembrance of any of the things that I would deem as milestones that we've had together. Going into the ocean for the first time, eating pizza, listening to the Rolling Stones. Like all these cool things that we've done together, she would have had no recollection of that. So I had this one story about the heart surgery and that allowed me to then go into the time machine and access all sorts of other portions of my life, to bring it to life. So my biggest advice to Richard is just to say. What's going to be the planet in your story, in your essay, in your memoir. What's going to supply the gravity, and once you've got the gravity then you can start to work on the moons that are going to be popping about.
Is there a difference in how you represent the setting in which a character finds himself when writing in first person and in third person?
ohhh that's a great question. This allows me to get my capital N nerd on for a minute. Yeah great. When we're in the first person as the I voice, I did this, I did that, and we're in the third person, that's the he said she said voice. She did this, she did that. In the first person, obviously in the I voice, every single thing that you include on the line level falls under the rubric of characterization. What they're telling us, how they're telling us, what they're leaving out, that's a really powerful tool too. The things they're not telling us. If they're not telling us about the axe in the kitchen, maybe they're leaving that out for a reason. In the third person it's a little bit different because the main character and the narrator aren't the same person. We have the author informing the narrator, and the narrators informing the characters. The really cool thing that we can do in the third person is sometimes that narrator going to be removed, a consciousness onto herself. She can make some observations based on what the characters are going through. Sometimes though, we can also think about the narrator in third person being like a cinematographer. And she can push in. So if the narrator is doing a long shot, that's just the narrator having his or her own set of perceptions. But when the narrator wants to push in for like a hand held shot or a close up shot, it can actually change the diction. The syntax, the preoccupations on the page so, suddenly the third person now doesn't sound like the narrator. It's pushed into the consciousness of the characters. So the third person if we do our job right, can be just as intimate as the first person and maybe it can actually be even more intimate, because in the first person we can only access what a character consciously knows. But the third person narrator can get into the soup, can go into the subconscious. Can go into the unconscious. So often times, I think people think that the third person is not as intimate is not as vital, and I would make the argument that if we do the job right, if we don't think about the narrator as being this eye of God, hovering above the action from 30,000 feet, but we push the narrator closer to the action, so she can take on the language, take on the sentence structures, take on the passions and the biases and the regrets of the main characters. The third person can be just as vibrant as the first.