Stories Need to be Dug Up, Not Built Up

Category: Writing

When I first started to write long-form fiction, I recognised that something was missing. I knew the people I wanted to write about, the place and time, but when I got them all together, not much happened. My characters milled about, chatting, drinking coffee, making ineffectual and badly described hand gestures. It wasn’t a novel; it was more like a waiting room. It was a bit like life.

I wasn’t sure how to move them on, or even get them out of the room. I knew something had to happen – action, dynamics – but I couldn’t get the engine started. At that time I was working as a documentary producer, and perhaps my observational tendencies were getting in the way of actually shaping something. So I somehow managed to persuade my employers to send me to Robert McKee’s famous ‘Story’ seminar (pictured).

Aimed mainly at screenwriters, the three-day long course featured an irascible McKee pacing a stage and talking at the audience, with occasional recourse to an overhead projector, pulling apart the animal called ‘story’ and analysing it’s constituent parts. There were diagrams and arrows. Layouts of three act structures, five act structures. Acts were broken down into scenes, scenes into beats. He made definite statements that seemed to have all the solidity of laws  - how the emotional value of each scene must switch from positive to negative or negative to positive. Or how you must put your protagonist through increasing amounts of shit, rescue them in an inventive way, then throw them in again, this time deeper.

I went away stiff from all the sitting but fired up in my head. In my triumphant notebook I had the formula to create a plot, but more than that I had a metaphor. I would be my story’s architect.

A fitting metaphor is a lovely thing- I was seduced by the idea that a novel could be made like a building – an inspired rough sketch followed by detailed drawings and elevations, every bit imagined before the concrete hit the ground. Armed with McKee’s instructions I would design a beautiful and intricate structure that my characters would move through to arrive at a destination already decided upon. The resulting draft worked better than my first efforts, but in places it lacked a pulse. During certain twists in the plot, the characters started to feel like cardboard shadow puppets, twist-resistant, their limbs and opinions forced into position by my wires. The structure turned out to be a cage.

Along the way, alternate plot ideas and details occurred, delivered like gifts from these made-up people, but I forced myself to reject most of them as being diversions from the ‘plan’. Telling it now, it seems so obvious that a story or novel, if it is to breathe, needs to develop in a more instinctive way, but at first I found it hard to trust in that infinite hinterland of the subconscious, that everything I needed was there already, or that I could find my way about.

I think the reason my early characters hung about doing nothing was that I didn’t trust them or myself, and I didn’t spend enough time with them, asking questions. I realise I’m straying here into that territory known as ‘wafty’, but bear with me if you can. There may be no logical basis for it (and what has logic got to do with the likes of us?) but I have come to the conclusion that the stories I want to tell already exist and what I am trying to do when I write is to simply to find them, to get as close as possible to what they want to be. In metaphorical terms, I have changed career, not a builder but some kind of archaeologist/miner now. Indiana Scargill.

What I’m looking for is the gleam of something that feels true and interesting, and I try to follow as close as I can to it, following it like a seam through soft rock. Whenever my words start to feel stilted or forced, I retrace my steps back to where the going was good, and dig around there for a while until I pick up the trail. The stuff I need lies in darkness, not on carefully worked graph paper.

It’s not that Robert McKee’s approach is useless, not at all, it’s just that analysis works best in hindsight – a way to poke and question your material after you have delivered it up in its first lumpen form, when you feel the need to get out of the trench and adopt a more distanced view. Re-write, ditch the dead wood, make it honed – be accurate and be vivid.

But respect the life of it. The anatomist may know how all the constituent parts work, can point to the valves, veins and ventricles, but the subject is usually dead by that stage.


Nicola White

Nicola White received a New Writers Award in 2009.