Steven James’ Keys to Organic Writing
At ThrillerFest VIII I attended Steven James’ CraftFest session on organic writing, (i.e., writing without an outline). Following his presentation, James provided the audience with a handout summarizing his advice. For those interested in writing, below are highlights from the handout.
Keys to Organic Writing
Let narrative forces rather than formulas drive your story forward. Imagine a giant ball of clay being held by a group of people. As one person presses against the clay it changes shape.
The clay is your story; the people surrounding it represent the narrative forces pressing in on it. For example:
- Believability: The characters in your story need to act in contextually believable ways. All the time.
- Causality: Everything that happens in a story will be caused by the thing that precedes it.
- Inevitability & Surprise: The end of every scene must not just be logical, but, in retrospect, the only possible conclusion to that scene. Scenes will end in a way that’s unexpected and yet satisfying to readers.
- Escalation: The tension must continue to escalate, scene by scene, until it reaches a climax after which nothing is ever the same again.
- Scenes & Setbacks: If nothing is altered, you do not have a scene. If your characters solve something without a setback, you do not have a story – you have a setup for a story, an event, but that’s all.
- Continuity: Think of pace as the speed at which things are happening, think of narrative energy as the momentum that’s carrying them along.
- Story & Genre Conventions: Readers enter a story with expectations based on their understanding of story and of the genre they’re reading. You need to know the principles of storytelling and be familiar enough with genre conventions to meet or exceed your readers’ expectations without resorting to using cliches.
When you know the right questions to ask, your story will unfold in unique, unpredictable and fulfilling ways.
- Does this scene ratchet up the tension of the one before it?
- How can I make things worse?
- What would this character naturally do in this situation?
- Is he properly motivated to take this action?
- Is this event caused by what precedes it?
- How can what I want to happen bow to what needs to happen based on the context?
Inevitability & Surprise:
- Does this scene end in a way that’s both unexpected and yet inevitable?
- How can I assure that readers don’t see the twist coming?
Scenes & Setbacks:
- Have I inadvertently included scenes just for character development?
- Is there an interlude or moment of reorientation between each scene?
- Do my revelations happen at the right moments within the story?
- Have I used foreshadowing to eliminate coincidences, especially at the climax?
Story & Genre Expectations:
- What requisite scenes are inherent to this genre and to this story?
- How can I render them in a way that’s not cliched?