A story about a story:
A year or two ago, I wrote a first draft of a piece. Normally, I operate under the assumption that everything I’m writing is terrible and no one will ever publish it and all my students and colleagues will figure out that I’m a huge fraud and I’ll be sad, sad, sad. I think this is called Being a Writer. But this story was different. Right from the start, this story had a little energy to it. With this one, I caught myself thinking “Yeah, this is the kind of thing I should’ve been doing all along.”
The details of the story are largely inconsequential here, except to say that early in the writing, an idea for a scene popped into my head. This scene would take place at a creek that had been set up early in the story. At the creek, the central character would Discover Many Great Lessons About Life. I, of course, wasn’t thinking about the scene in those terms. I just thought it’d be a great way to end the story.
I have always ascribed to the pretty standard idea that in literary fiction, you ought to just write the first draft. Don’t plot it out. Don’t over-think it. Just sit down and see what happens. That’s what I was taught, and it’s what I teach now. In general, it’s pretty good advice. If you’re plotting out the story before you write it, well, then how will the story surprise you? It’ll just be a fill-in-the-blank, where you plug in the missing pieces of your outline. It’ll be, god forbid, almost like those essays we teach in Freshman Comp.
Because this idea was hammered home during the course of my education, and because I continue to hammer it home, it never occurred to me that the fundamental problem with plotting out a story before you write it can still pop up even if you’re just Writing the Story.
So I had this idea for the creek scene. It was going to be killer, but I didn’t put it on paper, because it was going to be the last scene, and I needed to Write the Story first. Like a good fictioneer, I kept myself from thinking about that last scene while I was writing. Scene by scene I built the story. And it wasn’t half-bad. A few things about it surprised me, and I had a feeling that with a good polish, this could be one of my better pieces. When I felt like the story was winding down, I popped in a little space-break, and I wrote, “Caitlyn, Susan, and I get to the Lux later than we planned.” From there, I committed to paper the scene that had been knocking around my head while I wrote the rest of the story. And it did all the things I was hoping. It gave my character a moment for reflection outside the bustle and conflict of the rest of the story. It tied the end to the beginning. Most importantly, it just felt like a scene I’d like to see at the end of a story. Here’s a father swimming with his disabled daughter! What a great scene!
When I’d finished, I dug into a revision, fixing and cutting and shuffling and altering scenes, but I left that last one alone. It was, after all, doing exactly what I expected it to do. When I was done, I shot it off to a handful of journals.
Months went by, and I got a handful of rejections. Eventually, I got an acceptance. Through all of that time, from when I finished the last scene to when the story got accepted, that initial burst of happiness and energy I felt faded away. By the time it got picked up, I didn’t feel much of anything for the story. Intellectually, I knew that it was doing all the things that I want a story to do, but it still felt hollow to me. By that point though, revisions were out of the question. It had been accepted. I moved on to other work.
Shortly after the acceptance, I went back to my alma mater to give a reading. I decided that I’d like to read that story, since it was my most recent accomplishment, and in my head, I was still quite proud of it what it was doing as a piece of fiction. The problem, I discovered, was one of time. I had X amount for the reading, and with a page count of Y, I’d need to pare the story down to its bare bones. I got after it, cutting superfluous words and trimming out repetitive dialogue. I left that last scene largely untouched. When I’d finished, I looked back at my gutted story and found that it felt even more hollow. I thought for a while about reading something else, but for an easy-going guy, I can be shockingly bullheaded when it comes to tangling with my own writing. I went back to the full version of the story, and I read it through again. As I went through, I looked for scenes to cut. I got more and more frustrated as I realized that I couldn’t part with any of them. They were all necessary. Except the last one. Finally, I looked at that scene with clear eyes, and I realized, that while the scene itself was well constructed, while I’d plugged it full of all the necessary elements for a good ending, it wasn’t actually a good ending for the story that contained it.
I cut it.
Nothing’s riskier than going into the unknown. As with a lot of advice, the idea of writing a story without planning it gets bogged down in the details, and the core truth gets lost. I followed that advice the way I’d been taught to, but I still ended up with that last scene. I still ended up with the problem that the advice should have prevented. That’s because the problem wasn’t that I’d come up with the scene before I wrote it. It was that I made that scene into a safety net for the story, and as any ten year old at the circus can tell you, nothing takes the thrill out of a high-wire show quite like seeing a huge net waiting to catch the performers.
At the end of the day, embracing the unknown in the writing process isn’t directly related to how much you plan a story before or as you’re writing it. It has much more to do with how you allow the characters to move through the world that you’re constructing. It’s also got an awful lot to do with honesty. That closing scene wasn’t honest to my characters because it was cramming in all the elements that I thought a story might need at the close. By doing that in the last two pages, I was showing a fundamental lack of faith in the preceding fifteen. Having faith that you don’t need those standard closing beats – that you don’t need to wrap up a story in the way we think stories ought to be wrapped up – is a risk. You’re risking your readership. You’re risking failure. But the payoff for writing into the unknown in an effort to discover an end for the story that’s dictated not by your intellectual understanding of stories but by the needs of that one story is a bigger payoff every day of the week.
Christopher Lowe is the author of Those Like Us: Stories (SFASU Press, 2011). His fiction has appeared widely in journals includingThird Coast, Bellevue Literary Review, Grist, and War, Literature, and the Arts. He teaches English and Creative Writing at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, LA.