I had a great time this past weekend at Enigma Bookstore in Astoria, N.Y., at a panel discussion with fellow Codorus Press authors Wayne Lockwood, author of Acid Indigestion Eyes: Collected Essays and Musings on Generation X and Alex Segura, author of Silent City. First off, the bookstore was really cool. They specialize in science fiction, fantasy and mystery. You could just tell by browsing the selection that the owners have a genuine love for — and excellent taste in — the aforementioned genres. It’s the type of bookstore I’d make a roadtrip just to visit. And I really enjoyed sitting on the panel and talking about writing with Wayne and Alex, too. It was funny. We got so engrossed in our talk that somebody had to remind us — hey, you guys might want to sell some books, as long as you’re here.
One element of our discussion that I found particularly interesting was a conversation about how a story comes together. This mainly had to do with fiction. And while “Acid Indigestion Eyes” is nonfiction, Wayne is currently working on a novel so he was able to share some insights as well.
While I’d read and admired “Silent City” (see my review here), Alex and I had never met or discussed the writing process before. So I found it interesting that he also experienced a phenomenon I encountered numerous times when I was writing The Freak Foundation Operative’s Report. It’s the moment when my characters did something I hadn’t expected. And the book took a turn that made me say: “Whoah! Didn’t see THAT coming!” That was kind of unnerving, since I was WRITING the freakin thing!
Before I wrote “Freak Foundation,” I’d heard a quote by William Faulkner to the effect that he’s simply following his characters around with a notebook. I’d also read Stephen King’s “On Writing,” in which he says that storytelling is good, but plotting is bad.
That was confusing to me at first, and it’s confusing when I try to explain it to people. The plot is the stuff that happens in the book, right? So how can plotting be bad?
The way King defines the storytelling process is more about coming up with a basic premise or setting, and developing characters who are fleshed out enough that you can get a good idea how they’d react to a given situation. Then you send those characters out to deal with the basic premise or setting, let them bounce off each other and see where they take the story, as opposed to you as the author making them conform to a template that you’ve already crafted for them.
What does that mean?
Here’s an example that I mentioned during the panel discussion. The 1971 movie “Dirty Harry” features a subplot where Harry Callahan (played by Clint Eastwood) is assigned a rookie partner. Callahan, initially, treats him like shit and says he doesn’t work with rookies.
Now “Dirty Harry” Callahan, of course, is not presented as a particularly nice guy. That behavior is entirely consistent with his character. It works.
Largely as a result of “Dirty Harry,” that story element became a cliche for subsequent generations of mediocre and derivative police thrillers. Many times, I’ve seen movies featuring a police officer who appears to be a friendly, professional, reasonable person. Then he’s assigned a partner. And just like somebody hit a switch, he’s suddenly all: “I don’t work with partners! You can tell the boys in the glass office to shove it!” Actually, somebody did hit a switch. A screenplay writer turning on the plot machine.
I was in a play in high school, and I remember an exercise the director would have the actors do. He would stop a scene in the middle and ask us to explain, in character, what we were feeling or why we were doing something.
Say you could stop Dirty Harry in the middle of the scene, and ask him why he’s being so rude and dismissive to a fellow cop who’s done nothing to deserve that kind of treatment. Harry would tell you that he’s seen people get killed in the job, and he’s learned to keep others at arm’s length in order to protect himself emotionally.
What if you asked the same question of a police officer in one of those subsequent generations of Hollywood action movies? “Hey, up to now you’ve seemed like a nice-enough guy. Why are you suddenly doing an about-face and being an asshole to this other guy just because he got assigned to be your partner?”
He’d have to say something like: “Well, because I’m a character in a mediocre police thriller. That means I’m required to say something like ‘Forget it! I don’t work with rookies!’ when I’m assigned a partner. And I’ve got to keep that up until we have some kind of male bonding moment. Or until he gets shot. Those are the rules. What are you gonna do?”