How Do We Give a Story Life?
By Rachelle Ramirez
Lessons from the Story Grid Masterwork Experiment
As a writer, you can probably relate to a recent struggle I had over how to give my story a sense of life.
I was clinging to the idea that my work-in-progress needed to be inspired and that I needed to write the story in a state of flow for it to have artistic value. I had fallen into the gooey thinking that crafting a story with obligatory scenes, genre conventions, core events, controlling ideas, themes, and measured arcs is unromantic and a risky wager against the few hours I have each week for my creative work.
I lost faith in the story I started writing while the publishing deadline still loomed over me like a dragon ready to swallow me whole.
What should we do if we start writing a story and lose our inspiration? If we’re on deadline for a paycheck or our reputation? What do we do if we are staring at a blinking cursor that looks more like a warning light for impending radioactive doom?
This hateful lack of inspiration happens to every writer, even those who meet deadlines in rapid succession.
What do professional writers do to overcome the challenge of waning inspiration?
I got a great reminder of how to tackle this problem from the Story Grid Masterwork Experiment. For the past couple of months, my friend and editing colleage Anne Hawley has been guest hosting the popular Story Grid Podcast with Shawn Coyne.
Shawn is an editor with over twenty-five years of experience working with the Big 5 publishing companies. Together, they’re working on a fascinating project where Anne is the writer and Shawn is her editor as they dissect Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain for story beats, find and analyze all the parts the short story is made of, and assemble an original tale with those beats.
In episode eight of their ten-part series, Anne ran into the same troubles I was having. She’d just solved a major problem in her story and was losing her inspiration now that her story end was clearly in sight. Shawn had plenty to say to help Anne out of her dilemma.
Below is a paraphrasing (in italics) of what Shawn shared with Anne. It’s similar to the conversations Anne and I have with our editing clients which proves, once and for all, that even editors need editors.
To give a story a sense of life, we need to understand how we create art in the first place. There are two ideas, both worth exploring:
The first idea is talent; a supernatural gift bestowed at or before birth that will one day start to create things using the irrational force of inspiration we often call “the muse.”
This means the writer connects with a higher realm, directing them towards creating a work of art. The writer lacks control of inspiration and the supernatural element flowing through them. The way we gain insights, inspiration, and passion is a mystery, while the construct of the muse gives the inexplicable and identity.
The other idea of how art is created is “the willful workhorse model,” in which there is no talent. There are recipes for art that contain organizational and foundational structures which you can mimic.
What do we do with these two groups of thought; the artistry as a supernatural talent camp and the no-talent camp of workhorses?
While the Story Grid methodology skews toward starting with the scientific workhorse model since we don’t understand what gives us insight, it leaves room for the idea that story enthusiasts are born with a supernatural gift; a proclivity toward what we enjoy and fascinates us. We can consider this an inborn talent that we either choose to use or allow to atrophy while we wait for the muse to descend.
Alternatively, we can dig in and find the functional organizational structure of our stories, work through them, and practice creating. Then, perhaps, the muse may descend. When we work on our story problems, the muse takes note. The more you work, the more the muse might stick around. Do it enough, and the muse might decide to help and offer that sought after flow state of writing where you can create and solve problems through multiple insights.
If you continue to work toward solving the problem, you will gain inspiration.
However, what happens when we finally do solve a big problem and then we start thinking the other issues don’t seem that big anymore, that we’ve already addressed the big question and no longer want to finish a story?
This is the point when Resistance doubles down on us and tells us lies. It says your project is a failure, that you’re doing the wrong thing with your life, that none of your work will ever be as good as the work of others.
This is when you have to name the monster and fight it. Resistance is smart, rational, insightful on its own accord, and you want to believe it, but it prevents you from growing and changing. It convinces you that change is hard, that the people you love won’t like you anymore if you change, and it’s best to avoid the pain. And you stay the same.
Resistance, like Steven Pressfield says, manifests itself as a spiritual force, and it also comes from external forces. Constraints are trying to keep us from moving forward, from applying energy, from creating causal effects that can change the world. That’s what Steven Pressfield calls Resistance.
When we find ourselves hearing the lies, we know we’re doing good work. That’s when you know it’s time to double down and beat the monster.
We all want to be that writer with incredible insight that comes from the unknown so that we can create an incredible, original thing that nobody has ever seen before we win the Nobel Prize. That’s the force that keeps us from trying to create something.
“When push comes to shove, you’ve got to ask yourself the question: if I listen to this voice, will it aid in the creation of something that has never been done before, or made before, or will it destroy the process by which something original and beautiful could make it into this realm of reality that we call life?”
If you hear the voice of Resistance telling you your work is awful, that means you’re getting closer to what will change you and make you a better writer. When the voice tells you to abandon a project, it’s Resistance trying to prevent you from writing a story only you can create. You have to tell yourself that you will push through it.
What about the feeling that I’ve lost the life in my story?
What the writer thinks about life in the story doesn’t matter. The life-force is for the reader to determine. Once the account has been created, it’s no longer the writer’s property.
Bridging the two worlds or inspiration coming from talent or the workhorse is difficult, but you can make it happen. It happens far more frequently with the deliberate practice of reaching the flow state. You do that by reading, thinking, analyzing, and executing. You must apply the analytical and scientific reason we all have to masterworks. You look at the way authors solved story problems, the twist the created, and you use that as your model for moving forward.
Once you start executing your story, you will hit a flow state again and gain insights that, when applied, give the story life.
When Resistance rears up the next time, the duration of the battle will be shorter. Let the negatives surface and put a label on them. Call bluff on the negativity. Ask yourself why you are resisting the process and counter the negativity with the truth. Look at the high probability that your work will be helpful and decide to finish it and see what happens. If you end up creating something you’re not proud of, you can always put it in a drawer.
So, how did all of this advice from Shawn help me solve my story problem with that deadline looming?
I realized I had forgotten to apply the advice, tools, and methods that I walk my editing clients through to my writing process. I had forgotten that Resistance is real and requires constant diligence. Hopefully, you won’t fall into the same quicksand, and you’ll remember to fight the good fight and talk yourself out of a writing crisis. I did, and I met that deadline, barely.
What if you do your part, as best you can, and it doesn’t work? When it seems all else has failed, what can you do?
Ask for help, just like Anne did.
Find a trusted writing partner or mentor. Sometimes you need to hear that your work is worth the effort, that you are close to the finish line, that it is understandable that the writing process is getting hard. Sometimes, just hearing from a third-party that you respect that you’re on the right path is just what you need.
Hire a knowledgeable developmental editor. Story Grid Editors especially understand the challenges associated with the writing process. They have the tools and proven techniques to get you out of a rut, help you solve problems, and finish that story.
Do you want to learn how all of this helped Anne finish her story? Tune into the Story Grid Podcast beginning at EP167.