It’s Not About the Words
May 1, 2019 § 9 Comments
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 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.