The part I like most about writing fiction is the freedom it gives me to tell a story. I can create my own worlds and the people who inhabit it. I can make up whole societies with their own traditions and histories. I can make cities and landscapes where the imagination roams freely time and time again.
Before I started taking writing seriously, I let my imagination loose with creative writing on role playing forums. These games were great because the story went on forever and the possibilities for interaction with other writers and their characters were endless. Each scenario was an opportunity to stretch those brain muscles, keeping my creative mind sharp under the constant barrage of on the spot improvisation.
I owe a lot to those years of playing. They taught me quite a bit about character development and creating a plot.
But this freedom came with a cost, one I didn’t see until I sat down to write an actual book. Many of the habits I had developed weren’t conducive to writing a novel. Not that they were necessarily bad habits. They were just habits that didn’t work when telling a story in book form.
Sometimes there is such a thing as too much freedom. Like a racehorse that has been out in the pasture too long, when it came time to return to the track, there were no boundaries, no control.
The Guitar Hero Syndrome
I remember seeing an interview with Slash, the guitarist of Guns’n Roses and Velvet Revolver, where he said during the off season he’d play a lot of the popular video game “Guitar Hero”.
What he found was playing too much Guitar Hero would ruin his real playing when he returned to rehearsals for the next tour.
This is what creative writing on games is like for me when I go back into writing a novel. I go from a place where I have a total lack of structure, to one where structure is key. Believe it or not, lack of any structure is just as bad for creativity as having too much structure.
Using Your Illusion
As artists, writers, musicians or creative entrepreneurs, we are under the illusion that we need total freedom to create. Many of us think having rules will squelch our ability to perform. Whether it’s a book, a painting or a song, we’ve all been raised with the image of the rebellious individual, the free spirit, locked away from the world in their studio wildly creating like an artistic madman. After all, artists live on the fringe of society! There are no rules! We are the rebels! The anarchists! Rules? We don’ need no stinkin’ rules…
But really, how much freedom do we think we have?
When painting, you have very basic rules about color and composition, form and function. In song writing, you have to understand how all the notes, melodies and rhythms work together. If we want our creative project to appear “right” to our audience — or rather, “make sense” — we still follow these rules and conventions. Even Salvador Dali with his drippy clocks and Hieronymus Bosch with his crazy landscapes still followed some rules. Underneath all the insanity there was some reality, even if it was warped.
The same goes for writing a novel and telling a story. At the very base you have to have a beginning, a middle and and end. You have rules of grammar and story structure to follow.
You can bend or break these rules to a certain extent. But break them too much or bend them beyond recognition and you will lose your audience in a haze of confusion and head scratching.
The Ties That Liberate
To put it simply: You cannot think outside the box if there is no box.
I’ve often noticed the design projects I have the most difficulty with are the ones where I’m told “Do whatever you want, just make it pretty.” You would think a designer would LOVE to hear that. And to some extent, we do. But we still need some input, someplace to start and a vision, no matter how vague, of the finished product.
The same applies when I’m working on a novel. Without an outline, without some kind of road map marking the key points of the plot to keep me on track, I’m lost.
Yes. It’s very much like running across a Polar bear on a tropical island.
As a writer, no matter how good you think you are at winging it (“pantsing”), that lack of structure will show when you’ve gotten your first draft written.
The story will appear random and confusing. The pacing will be off. You’ll end up with a net full of red herrings you never intended. In short, the story may make sense to you because you already see how it’s supposed to work in your head. But your readers won’t be able to follow any of it.
Before you set pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, take the time to map out your story. This isn’t to say script it out line for line. That’s too much structure and the whole story will come off stiff and robotic.
Create your outline of key scenes to use as a guide to keep you on track. The real creative freedom comes from filling in those pages from Point A to Point B. Like Slash, you’re playing a lead that dances around the foundation of the main melody. You can venture as far out from that main structure as you like, but the real skill comes into play when you pull that lead back in and get it under control, setting it back on track in such a way that it makes such magnificent sense it leaves your audience breathless.