In today’s Journal
* Quote of the Day
* The Fiction Writer Is an Action Correspondent
* Of Interest
Quote of the Day
“The miracle isn’t that I finished. The miracle is that I had the courage to start.” John Bingham, running speaker and writer
The Fiction Writer Is an Action Correspondent
I define an “excellent question” as one that forces me to think about and explain a concept in a different way, a way that might get through to more students.
I received such a question yesterday from my longtime writer friend and dedicated Texan Gary V. As is often the case, my response here is more complete than the response I sent to his email.
Just curious. You talk a good deal about trusting your characters. Have you ever had a character mislead or betray you? I’m not referring to The Bad Guy who’s supposed to be shifty and cruel, but a character who leads you on a fool’s errand, diverting or weakening the story. In other words, wasting your time and causing plot problems, rendering the tale waterered down or just plain stupid.
Actually, that’s kind of a trick question, not that it was intentional.
The short answer is No.
The fiction writer is like an action correspondent in the days before the sleight-of-hand BS of so-called “advocacy journalism.”
I use “action correspondent” here instead of “war correspondent” because this particular correspondent has reported from a small fishing village in Mexico around 1900, a war zone in Europe in the early 20th century, another war zone in Indochina in the late-mid 20th century, and a generation ship soaring deep into the galaxy a thousand years from now.
But the keyword there is “reported.” I didn’t make up anything. I simply looked in on one set of characters or another and wrote down what was going on and what they were saying and doing. That’s it.
Consider, the “real-life” action correspondent might be reporting from a war zone in Iraq or Afghanistan or Ukraine or (unfortunately) from the scene of a shooting at a shopping mall or restaurant. Wherever s/he is, s/he doesn’t know the overall picture and s/he doesn’t know what will happen next.
S/he only knows and reports what s/he sees, hears, smells, tastes, and feels physically and emotionally in that small theater of action.
S/he also has absolutely no way of knowing what will happen next, and a good reporter doesn’t anticipate anything or make anything up. The good reporter simply reports what’s going on, what’s being said and done as the story unfolds.
Note especially that s/he doesn’t make up what happens; s/he only reports it. And s/he doesn’t make up what the people in the immediate vicinity—the characters in the unfolding story—say or do. Again, s/he only reports it.
That’s the action correspondent’s job. And as a writer, that’s your job too.
As the chracters live their story, which is just as “real” to them as yours is to you, consider yourself an action correspondent. Don’t make things up. Just report what happens as it happens. Report the story as it unfolds, as the characters live it.
Yes, I’ve had characters do and say things I didn’t expect. In one of my Crowley novels, I remember a group of Texas Rangers were charging a bad guy, and he’d turned his horse and was charging them, planning to go out in a blaze of glory or something (he survived, for awhile) but at the last second, just as he fired, he recognized one of the Rangers.
That Ranger, before he’d become a Ranger, had during a drunken stupor broken into the back of a bank to burgle it while the bank was still open. Naturally the two men were caught. I honestly don’t remember how they became separated, but one left, wandered awhile, changed his name and joined the Rangers (and he was a good one) and the other guy did some time and became a hard core outlaw.
Had you told me that Ranger used to be an amateur outlaw I never would have believed it. But the thing is, that’s who he actually was. Obviously, he knew it all along, but neither I nor any of the other characters knew it up to that point. (And he fessed-up before he died.)
But the real meat of your question was whether a character can “lead you on a fool’s errand, diverting or weakening the story … wasting your time and causing plot problems, rendering the tale waterered down or just plain stupid.”
I hope I answered that with the paragraphs above about the action correspondent. But if not, let me ask a few questions in return:
1. How can the character “divert or weaken” a story that isn’t contrived and pre-ordained?
In an authentic, original story, whatever happens happens. If the story is contrived, I can’t help you. In a contrived story from your conscious, critical mind, you, not the characters, control the story, including anything that is weak or watered-down.
2. Who’s to say that what seems “diverted or weakened” at one juncture won’t feed a future event in the story? In an authentic story, one that isn’t a contrivance of the conscious, critical mind, we can’t know because it hasn’t happened yet.
This has happened to me many time. I didn’t “like” where something seemed to be going. But I held my tongue, reminded myself to trust the characters, and just wrote the next sentence and the next and the next. And it worked every single time.
3. How can the character “cause plot problems” with a plot that hasn’t happened yet?
In a unique, original story, Character and Story come first. The plot consists of the markers the characters leave behind as they run through the story. In other words, plot is only a result of the story, the residue of the story. Plot is something for the critics and deconstructionists and other non-writers to discuss.
In a contrived, constructed, false fiction, plot comes first, often in the form of an outline of one kind or another (sign posts, mileposts, phaselines, etc.). The contrivance in whatever form provides writers who don’t trust their characters with “plot points.” The writer then manipulates the characters from one plot point to the next. And because every story builds on what came before, nothing about the story is authentic.
Here’s the thing about trusting the characters. You’re writing what they’re living, right? So you can’t write it until it happens.
If you’re writing what your characters are living, the story is unfolding as you’re writing it. Their story is happening as you run through it with them. So naturally, surprises happen. (See the bit about action correspondents.)
At no point do you have to stop, look around or ahead and try to foresee what will happen next.
Actually, what will happen next is none of your business until it happens. And even then it isn’t happening directly to you. Your only task is to report what is happening and what is being said as it happens.
The character doesn’t know what’s going to happen next in his/her life anymore than you or I do in our life.
And the character in an authentic story isn’t moving from plot point to plot point through an outline anymore than you or I are. Like you and I, the character is simply living his/her life (the story).
But everything begins with trust, and there are no grey areas. You either trust your creative subconscious and your characters or you don’t.
If you trust the characters, they can’t lead you astray because they don’t know what’s coming in their story anymore than you know what’s coming in their story (or in your own).
If this is the case, as Bradbury says (paraphrased), Plot is merely the footprints the characters leave behind as they race through the story.
If you don’t trust the characters, then you have to depend on one kind or another of a conscious, critical-mind construct, and most often that’s a contrived outline.
Even if you try to write your own life, unexpected things happen, things you could never have foreseen until they happened. So you can’t write them until they happen. Can you fill out a diary a month or six months or a year in advance? Of course not.
Same thing with writing the characters’ story. So no, the characters can’t mislead me or themselves or anyone else because their life (story) is happening as I’m recording it.
Hope this explains it better, Gary, and I hope it helps some of you.
Talk with you again soon.
See “Running and Writing – The Finish Line” at https://killzoneblog.com/2022/12/running-and-writing-the-finish-line.html. I saw a little writing in there somewhere. Just in case this helps any of you. Please, please believe in yourself and defend your work. Please never let a ‘developmental’ editor anywhere near it.
See “Editor Interview – Val Mathews” at https://killzoneblog.com/2022/12/editor-interview-val-mathews.html. For those of you who are interested.
The Journal…………………………………… 1480 words
Writing of Santa Fe (novel, tentative title)
Day 1…… 3877 words. Total words to date…… 3877
Day 2…… 3460 words. Total words to date…… 7337
Day 3…… 2011 words. Total words to date…… 9348
Day 4…… 1050 words. Total words to date…… 10398
Day 5…… 3673 words. Total words to date…… 14071
Day 6…… 2501 words. Total words to date…… 16572
Day 7…… 4046 words. Total words to date…… 20618
Day 8…… 2273 words. Total words to date…… 22891
Day 9…… 2614 words. Total words to date…… 25505
Day 10… 3778 words. Total words to date…… 29283
Total fiction words for December……… 12711
Total fiction words for the year………… 227685
Total nonfiction words for December… 5140
Total nonfiction words for the year…… 203220
Total words for the year (fiction and this blog)…… 430905
Calendar Year 2022 Novels to Date…………………… 3
Calendar Year 2022 Novellas to Date……………… 0
Calendar Year 2022 Short Stories to Date… 0
Novels (since Oct 19, 2014)…………………………………… 69
Novellas (since Nov 1, 2015)………………………………… 8
Short stories (since Apr 15, 2014)………………… 217
Short story collections……………………………………………… 31
Disclaimer: In this blog I have shared my experiences, good and bad, as a prolific professional fiction writer. Because It Makes Sense, I trust my characters to tell the story that they, not I, are living. This greatly increases my productivity and provides the fastest possible ascension along the learning curve of Craft because I get a great deal more practice at actually writing.
2 thoughts on “The Fiction Writer Is an Action Correspondent”
Wow, this was really helpful. It’s something you’ve always said, but in a different way. Thanks, Harvey, I got a lot out of this. Great reminder. Gonna read it again a few more times to let it sink in even more.
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