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Monday, May 2, 2011

What You CAN Write vs What You NEED to Write

I teach high school English, and I recently assigned my young'uns to write an original short story.  Some were really quite good, but I had to wade through an awful lot of dialogue like, "Hey, shawdy, 'sup?"  "Not much.  You doin' anything?" "Nah, what're you up to?" "Not much."
You get the idea, I won't tortue you with any more.  Also a lot of scenes with kids sitting in classrooms listening to - or more realistically - ignoring teachers.  Then, when the story got interesting, a lot of times the scenes were glossed over.
Now don't feel so superior, you grown-up writers out there.  My students fell prey to a weakness that we all share: the tendency to write the scenes we CAN render, rather that the scenes we NEED to.  My students wrote pages of aimless phone conversation, devoted loving detail to the process of getting dressed in the morning, and maundered endlessly about the tedium of the schoolday because that's what they knew.  Adult writers waste equal amounts of valuable reader time detailing shopping trips, aimless phone conversations, and the endless tedium of work.
This puts to the lie that old dictum, write what you know.
Hell, don't write what you know, write what the reader wants to know.
I'm not interested in your boring life, my life is boring enough as it is.  I want to see things happening.
Go back and read Wild Bill; he is ruthless at eliminating unneccessary padding, and his plots move with shocking speed.  Othello goes from being a newlywed in the first scene to murdering his wife in the last; do you think Shakespeare ever meditated having a scene where Desdemona prepares her yummy coq-au-vin?  Romeo's in love with Roseline and ninety minutes later he's killed himself over Juliet.  Lear's fat and happy when we first see him, rushing headlong into disaster without a detour to talk about how tedious kinghood is.  Shakespeare never wastes a moment with a scene he could easily write but gets straight to the grist, and he doesn't worry overly about disorienting the audience.  We've barely met Gloucester, when he says something to the effect, "That kid over there?  He's my bastard."  And we know trouble's afoot.
There's the ticket.  Don't write what you know.  Write what you don't know.  Chances are, that's what your story's about.

1 comment:

  1. Write what you know is possibly the most abused advice ever. Nice to hear someone take it on! I figure if I want to write about it, I'll go introduce myself to it and get to know it. Trust me, you're right--no one wants to hear about my life!