Monday, October 24, 2011

Bad writing habits: complications ≠ complexity

Like most writers I know, there are some bad habits and default settings that do me no good. I know what my strengths are, and tend to accentuate these when developing a new project. For example, I'm not bad at plotting and love cutting between story strands. Which is all well and good - but not when it impacts on characterisation.

So what is my worst writing habit? What do I lapse back into doing if I'm not careful? Complications over complexity. Instead of having the courage to dig deeper into my characters' emotional turmoils and dilemmas, I'll throw in some extra plot points. Another strand of narrative to keep everyone too busy to feel anything.

But this breakneck tendency robs my characters of the chance to be themselves. If everyone's too busy with crisis management, they don't have time to confront how they're feeling. Stories become a headlong rush to the next plot point. There's no room to breathe, to reflect, to react. Result? Empathy fail. We just don't care.

I'm rewriting one of my calling card scripts at the moment and - sure enough - the first draft's guilty of choosing complications over complexity. I discovered this by taking it for a walk on Saturday, talking through the different character strands. That helped me identify who's story the episode was [not an unimportant discovery!].

Talking the script through from the characters' perspectives made something else apparent: I had an entire plot strand that could be jettisoned to no detriment. It was a cunning wheeze of a story that slipped from one character to another before resulting in a big, set piece finish. But it didn't belong in this script.

So I've deleted it. That only cut five pages but seems to have lifted a weight from the whole thing. It's left much more room to concentrate on the central characters - what they're going through, what they're feeling and how their reactions help drive the plot forward [rather than them jumping through hoops in service of the plot].

I also discovered another problem: scenes with a generic POV. You want each scene to be written from one character's point of view - ideally, the character with most at stake at that moment. [Stakes needn't be life or death, just important for them.] Writing from their POV, seeing them battle to do something, helps create empathy.

The good news is I have done that in some scenes, just not all of them. Plus writing every scene from a character's POV is not always easy in a first draft. Often you're still figuring out who the characters are, how they talk, react, interact. A first draft helps you discover those facets that only become apparent during the writing.

So my job for the next few days is pulling apart my first draft, winnowing out the extraneous plot complications. I'll be looking to replace them with character moments, little glimpses into how they're feeling. And I'll be digging into their heads and hearts to re-envisage from their POV. Should be exciting. Onwards!

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