Skip to main content

Contact with the enemy...

I've always been a big believer in the phrase, "No plan survives contact with the enemy." It's something I use as a gamemaster when roleplaying, and it's something I use when I'm plotting novels and stories. When I'm working with the characters and trying to decide what their course of action is, I have to take into account the fact that nothing should work as planned.

And why should it?

How often do you plan on something and have it work so smoothly that you don't need to react to variables in any way? It doesn't happen often, but when it does, it's pretty boring, right? There's no strain, there's no stress to accomplish, no drama at all...

When we're writing, we're putting characters through the most interesting and challenging things possible so our readers may experience this drama vicariously. Why would we skip all of the dramatic effect of everything going wrong?

You tell me:

What's the more interesting of these two scenarios?
  1. I desire to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I collect the ingredients, place a slice of bread on a plate, spread peanut butter on one side and jelly on the other, smoosh the two pieces together, and then eat with satisfaction.
  2. I desire to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I collect the ingredients, but find that the bread is moldy. So maybe I look for a backup... ooh... there are tortillas, maybe I could live with a peanut butter and jelly burrito. So I slap the tortilla on the plate, then fetch the peanut butter and slather it on the bread substitute. Now for the jelly... but the jar is empty. I scour the fridge and find that there is not a single suitable substitute for the jelly, but then an idea hits me. I snap my fingers and point to the junk drawer... I pull it open, rifle through the screws and bits of string, then reach the promised land: packets of mild sauce and ketchup. Sifting through those I find one that's much more boxlike... Eureka. Jelly. Sure, it's dusty. And grape, I hate grape, but given the option of a peanut butter tortilla and a peanut butter and jelly tortilla, I'm going to go with the whole package every time. I roll up everything into a burrito like shape and take a bite... It's not half bad... Kinda...
The plan is much more interesting by how the complications are overcome, rather than by the plan itself.

It's something I always tried to fit into my philosophy for the physical act of writing, but I never really liked it. "No plan survives contact with the enemy..." I wanted to use it to tell myself that just because something doesn't turn out the way I imagine it doesn't necessarily mean it's bad. But there was always a foul taste in my mouth. It made me feel like my initial instincts were somehow suspect and that my writing voice was an enemy. 

In some ways it's true, but it never really clicked for me.

That is it never clicked with me until I did an interview with Bill Willingham about the end of his series Fables last week. He told me something that really got my mind racing with implications. (You can read the full interview here.) He said: 
Someone much wiser than me said, "You ruin a story by actually starting on it because when it's just in your imagination, it's perfect. Your skills are never going to live up to what you hope for a story in your mind, so by beginning it, you wreck it. And that's been pretty much the story of my career, except for the time I look back now and again and say, "That kind of worked out the way I thought it would." 
And when he said that, it felt perfect to me. It's in the same vein as the "contact with the enemy" but it's so much more succinct. You have to sit down and expect that it's not going to be the same thing. You have to embrace that. And every once in a while you'll surprise yourself. 

It's a little like drawing, too, though, right? At least for me, I can imagine things in far more vivid detail than I can draw them. But every time I sit down and make a concerted effort to practice, I can get closer to what I had in my imagination. Writing is no different. I know in my head how the story is going to work, and to the best of my ability I work to replicate that in a physical, literary form. 

Hopefully the act of me passing those two bits of information that caused me to think onto you, maybe it'll make us both better writers. Right? 

I had three big pieces come out this week. The first is a my review/interview with Bill Willingham and Mark Buckingham about the end of Fables for The Huffington Post. The full interview is available on Big Shiny Robot! 

Also for Big Shiny Robot!, I wrote a piece about the Slave/Huttslayer Leia controversy and I think that's worth checking out. You can read it here. 

And finally, for Salt Lake City Weekly I wrote a piece about why I think Daredevil might be the best thing Marvel has done on the large or small screen because of the way it tells a story. You can read that here.

As an update on my writing, I've turned in three stories for publication that you'll see coming out over the next few months. I added another few thousand words on my fantasy novel, and I did a lot of other writing to get other projects together. I've also been tinkering with a manuscript that I'm sending in to an agent, and the other one going to the publisher soon.

Long story short: I'm incredibly busy at the moment, and it's almost all writing work, and that makes me very happy.

That's it for this week.  As far as my work outside of all this: I'm keeping busy for Big Shiny Robot! and Full of Sith. 

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Anatomy of an Opening: The End of the Affair

Instead of breaking down a scene from a movie, this time we'll break down the opening of a book. (Previously, I've done scenes from City Lights, Citizen Kane, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  I've also broken down the opening to Starship Troopers.

Graham Greene's The End of the Affair is absolutely one of my favorite books. The writing is lyrical and story heart-wrenching and beautiful. Greene's style of writing is such that he always has me gripped, whether it's the beginning of the book or the end. And he shows you so much about the character in his opening lines.

So, here are the first two paragraphs from the book:
A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which, to look ahead. I say 'one chooses' with the inaccurate pride of a professional writer who - when he has been seriously noted at all - has been praised for his technical ability, but d…

50+ Rules and Tips About Writing I've Collected Over the Years

I have twenty or thirty notebooks and journals filled up with snippets about writing, my plans for stories, bits of dialogue, interesting ideas, plotlines, scraps of short stories, and a dozen other things. I carry one with me at all times and it takes me a couple of months to fill one up.

One of the things I've kept in one of my notebooks was a collection of writing tips and rules that I've collected over the years in my travels. From teachers, from books, from wherever. Most of my career has been spent screenwriting, so a lot of these are most applicable to that, but I wanted to present them so they might be of use to you as well.

I've never stopped collecting these over the years and I never will.

To start the list are Kurt Vonnegut's eight rules of writing. They are the first in my notebook and, I think, the most useful. I'll add a star to those I think are applicable most to screenwriting. Some of these aren't applicable to everyone in every situation, but…

World Building Without Bogging Down Your Novel

I was asked to talk today about how you build a world without bogging down your novel. And it's something you see all too much of, not just in the work of those working toward becoming professionals, but in professionally published manuscripts as well.

Part of the problem is that writers become so in love with their world that they hit you with as much of it as they can right from the beginning. There are dumps and dumps of exposition that are supposed to paint a vibrant world, but too many colors of paint hit the canvas and instead of a beautiful sunset and a happy little tree, you're looking at a big smudge of brown where too many colors mixed.

That's not to say you can't get away with some florid description. Sometimes, my favorite passages in books are descriptions of the world that leave my breath taken.

But you don't need all of it in your book.

The question you need to ask yourself is this: does it add to the story?

If you're creating a fantasy or a sci…