Each month, writer Jeff Bowles offers practical tips for improving, sharpening, and selling your writing. Welcome to your monthly discussion on Craft and Practice.
The Ultimate Tool in the Toolkit
Remember when you were a kid and you had to lie to your parents? Maybe you trashed the house while they were away, dented the passenger-side door of their new car, or perhaps you can go back even farther with me and you remember drawing with crayons on the wall or stealing the last cookie from the cookie jar.
Whatever you did, I’ll bet you had to tell one heck of a story to get out of trouble. Maybe it worked, maybe it didn’t. Odds are, if you told a real whopper, they grounded you for a week. Too many details, or maybe too few. Too many working components you couldn’t keep track of, or maybe you introduced logic gaps and they picked the damn thing apart on you, literary-critic-style. The key all along would’ve been balance, believability mixed with a healthy dose of surprise. And boy were they surprised. What lovely colors you added to their wall.
As storytellers, we often do something similar, draw all over the walls and then spin an incredible yarn about it. Although, if you feel the need to call us liars, remember that the preferred technical term is “professional liars”. Story synthesis relies on your reasoning skills, ability to drive a narrative in fun and creative ways, and your talent for convincing your readers everything happened just like you said.
Story synthesis applies to every level of the storytelling process, from brainstorming and outlining to drafting and revisions. It applies to character histories, plot details, scene details, dialogue choices, and you must believe me when I tell you this, if you can’t synthesize spare parts on the fly in an organic, natural, and logical manner, you’ll leave your readers cold, and no one wants cold readers, now do they? In very real terms, story synthesis is the most important tool in the toolkit, one not every author has developed to its full potential.
It’s a bit of a magic act, a spell you’ve got to cast on yourself. It happens while you’re writing, which of course means it must be at least somewhat subliminal and unconscious. What we’re really talking about here, though, is completion and resonance. Do all the different parts of your story add up? Do they make sense in context? Does anything come out of left field? Or conversely, is your story just too milk toast?
Story synthesis isn’t hard as such, because your brain synthesizes concepts from disparate elements all day long anyway. It does, however, require a bit of practice to do well, especially if you’re writing a long-form story, like a novel. Much as a spider would, your job as an author is to take all the loose threads you’ve spun and collect them together into a coherent web. This is why it’s usually a bad idea to abandon a project and then pick it up again later. Those threads might be lost on you. The process by which you were synthesizing the narrative died an untimely death, and now you can’t pick your way through and reassemble it, at least not in the same manner.
Story emerges from character, unless you’re outlining too heavily, in which case story emerges from, well, an outline. What’s the difference? In one scenario, it appears to the reader that your characters are making their own choices. In the other, it’s clear you’ve rigged the deck, and that the whole experience is artificial. In my experience, people who rely too heavily on outlines doubt their ability to synthesize story in a natural way. Either that or they think outlining will save them time and effort. As Stephen King once said, “Outlines are the last resource of bad fiction writers who wish to God they were writing masters’ theses.”
At any one moment in the process, ask yourself what your characters want and how, reasonably so, they can go about getting it. The rest will flow from that, though not effortlessly, so don’t get it twisted. Maybe you’ve written yourself into a corner. A common enough situation. And though you’ve had a general plan all along, something ended up rushed and malformed. You may need to go off the rails to land back on your feet. So to speak. I say blow the whole thing to pieces. Do something to really shake yourself loose. You’ve got to navigate your own twisting waterways with grace, or put another way, all those balls you’ve tossed into the air? They’d better be in your hands and not on the floor by the end of your routine.
Don’t be afraid. Some of the best writing you’ll ever produce will be wholly unexpected. Be the trapeze artist, the reed in the wind. Be willing to exert a little nonchalant flexibility when you feel most worried all your herculean efforts have gone up in smoke. The synthesis of your tale into something readable and engaging begins when you relinquish a little control and trust your creativity and rational mind. Because really, it requires both.
Synthesis in this context applies most especially to story climaxes, the worst of the worst, the hardest to pull off. Sure, beginnings are tricky, and middles are a tough nut to crack, but the endings, oh, the endings. I’d like you to imagine a pot of boiling stew. Now imagine your readers watched you cook this amazing stew from start to finish. They watched you cut up the veggies and meat, saw you season everything and stand at the stove for hours, stirring and tweaking. They’re even aware you’ve been taste testing, which is important because it means they trust that you at least find the flavor remarkable.
But let’s say that stew wasn’t synthesized properly. Maybe you were working off a recipe and failed to notice it needed certain improvements, or maybe it just came to you and you rushed the chopping and cutting. Potato pieces the size of peas. Celery stocks that may as well be whole. If dinner doesn’t go well, it hardly matters what you think you did or how well you think you did it. I mean just look. You left a whole pile of carrots sitting on the cutting board. Why didn’t you throw those in? And that beef broth you only used half of? It probably explains why your stew tastes like wet cardboard.
You see? Good story synthesis means combining all of your disparate and seemingly unconnected ingredients together creatively, confidently, logically. In fact, if you do find yourself in no man’s land over a piece of fiction, get excited, because it means you’ve got the opportunity to pull off something truly magical. As you’re writing, keep track of everything you still have to pay off. You know what a payoff is, right? If someone mentions a mountain in Chapter One and we never see its summit, not even by Chapter Forty, that’s not a good payoff. You might even keep a list running so you miss not a single opportunity to pull one more good thread together.
Like the man said, “Not all who wander are lost.” I urge you to get lost in your writing this month. Check and see that this particular superpower is performing at peak levels. And remember, good story synthesis isn’t about shock and awe, not necessarily. It’s about balance, inevitability, structural harmony. Plus tons of shock and awe. You wouldn’t want people to get bored, now would you? I’ll be back in September with more Craft and Practice. Good hunting, everybody.
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