It’s Not About the Words

May 1, 2019 § 9 Comments


Pamela JaneBy Pamela Jane

Years ago I took a story seminar with renowned screenwriting teacher, Bob McKee.  The large New York auditorium was packed.  Not only screenwriters, but novelists, children’s book authors, and editors of all genres had come to hear McKee lecture about the art of writing and storytelling.  I could hardly wait for him to reveal the secret ingredient to telling a great story.

McKee walked out on stage and stood for a moment, his intense gaze scanning the audience.  Everyone was silent, waiting for him to begin.

“Writing,” he announced finally, his eyes penetrating under his bushy gray eyebrows, “is not about the words.”

Yes! I thought.  McKee had articulated something I had always sensed.  Words do not have the power in themselves to transform our experience, or make sense of the chaos and disorder of life.  Only story can do that.

During the two-day seminar, McKee went on to say that good storytelling is about characters, conflict, and emotional impact.

“No matter how beautiful your writing is,” he told us, “if the story is no good, it sucks.”

Recently I discovered the truth of McKee’s claim for myself when I sat down to write a children’s book – a Christmas sequel to a rhyming Halloween book published the year before.  Although the new manuscript wasn’t due for several months, I couldn’t wait to get started.

It was easy to slip into the holiday spirit on a gray November morning as I sat down with pen and paper by the glowing wood stove. This was going to be so much fun!  But after several hours of scribbling random rhymes, I started to panic. The story was not working.  The idea of a Christmas sequel (suggested by a fan of the Halloween book), was a huge mistake!  Why had I and, more importantly my editor, thought I could pull it off?

My husband maintains that panic is part of my writing process.

“You always panic,”  he says, “and then you figure out a way to make it work.”

If he’s right, I have to really truly panic.  I can’t announce, “Oh, great, I’m panicking – this is just part of my writing process!”  I have to honestly believe that what I’m attempting is impossible.

Which is exactly how I felt as I sat staring down at the jumble of disconnected rhymes.

This was not part of my writing process!  My editor had mistakenly placed trust in me, I thought with dismay.  There would be no Christmas sequel, no story for the artist to illustrate, no festive holiday book signings.

Having a book contract in hand is a great feeling  – unless you can’t deliver.  The words were tripping me up, tying me (and themselves) in knots, obstructing and protesting at every turn.  I could picture them marching along, holding up signs: “Sentences on Strike!” “Equal Pay for Adverbs,” “No Storyline, No Work.”

Wait!  That’s what was missing – storyline!  In my eagerness to begin writing, I’d forgotten all about the story.  My Halloween book had a natural storyline in the building excitement of all the monsters getting ready to go trick-or-treating.  But the Christmas story required an entirely different narrative.

At that point I crumpled up everything I’d written and threw the whole mess into the fire.  Then I started working out a plot.

Bob McKee was right.  A good story demands strong characters, conflict, and emotional impact.  (It also helps not to panic.)  But writing is also about the words – just not initially.  Once I tossed out the aimless rhymes and got the story going, the words stopped protesting and hopped on for the ride.

___

Pamela Jane is an essayist and children’s author. Find her @austencats.

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§ 9 Responses to It’s Not About the Words

  • mosesguvheya says:

    You sound like a real pro. Great write

  • “My husband maintains that panic is part of my writing process.” I know that; I feel that. In fact a best-selling friend said the same thing while we sat out a session at AWP. She was moaning about the [impossibility of] progress on her book, and then confessed her husband said she did that with the last one.

  • Florie McQuiston says:

    I guess that’s why you write.you have the instinct to tell a story while keeping your audience engaged.I love reading your books and essays.hooray for anxiety!

  • floatinggold says:

    Thank you for the validation. I always had a feeling, too. Good to hear that I’m not alone in such notion.

  • petespringerauthor says:

    Panic is a funny motivator in many areas of life. Some are frozen by it, and others are nudged toward meeting a challenge. Thanks for sharing this aspect of your writing process. As a former school teacher, one of the bags of tricks I’d reach for when my students weren’t paying attention was to tell a good story. It worked nearly every time.

  • Tricia says:

    I think I’m going to make “Good storytelling is about characters, conflict, and emotional impact” my touchstone, both as a writer and as an editor. It is a gem of distilled truth. Thank you for sharing McKee’s wisdom with us.

    And Pamela, I love your image of the words carrying signs!

  • Depressing, for me. I’ve long said about myself that “I’m a good writer, but I can’t tell a story.” I’m 76 now and I knew this about myself and storytelling since I was about 5 years old, maybe younger. :>(

  • Thank you. My problem is too much panic.

  • @komatsumegumi282 says:

    Thank you for sharing, but I think you’re a good writer and I know you can make more stories in the near future. Believe in yourself and your work, im sure it will turn out the best selling stories of all times, just keep on writting and inspiring. Time will come and your dreams will come true in God’s grace glory, it’s not too late. Take it one day at a time.

    -always be happy and smile

    On Wed, 1 May 2019, 7:22 p.m. BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog Guest Blogger posted: “By Pamela Jane Years ago I took a story seminar > with renowned screenwriting teacher, Bob McKee. The large New York > auditorium was packed. Not only screenwriters, but novelists, children’s > book authors, and editors of all genres had come to hear McKee l” >

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