I wanted to start this post with chaos theory, or maybe stuff about Chatman’s work on kernels and satellites, but after three beta readers gave me the virtual equivalent of a long, hard look I figured the best thing was to call this post what it is.
Three dimensional thinking for organic character-driven stories.
Structured pantsing works, but doesn’t go far enough.
Sort of like if I’d said, “I’m going to create this really fabulous character and shove him in a department store, with two floors and an escalator, so full of balloons, getting to the exit means he’s going to have to step on, shove out of his way, push, pull and pop hundreds of balloons.” The floating equivalent of a McDonald’s ball-pit--loose enough for your character to breathe, but tight enough to make “down” the only thing he knows for sure.
Organic writing is a little messy , not because it doesn’t have internal logic, but because it has chaotic elements. In other words, character-driven stories grow, using a non-linear system that’s easier to “see” in multiple dimensions--up, down, underfoot and rolling up the escalator in little ripples.
Whatever your character does--no matter how small--can make those balloons, like story events, move in significantly different ways. In a two character story like a romance, pushing the heroine in at another entrance creates more waves, ripples and eddies, all of which--in some way--will touch those of the hero.
Mathilda and her little brother live in New York with their dysfunctional family. Her father stores drugs for dirty cop, Norman Stansfield. When Stansfield takes revenge on her father for stealing drugs and kills the entire family, only Mathilda, who was out shopping, survives by finding shelter in her neighbor’s apartment. Matilda finds out Leon’s a hitman and asks him to teach her so she can avenge her brother.
….given Leon’s background as a hitman, tiny variations in his first meeting with Matilda have the potential to send balloons shooting off in wildly different directions. He’s on one side of a door, she’s on the other, and once the villains kill her family, they’ll find her.
--if he doesn’t let her in.
Because Leon is a fully fleshed character, he can only react to Matilda’s desperate whisper in ways which are true to his internal logic. He can shoot her and go back to bed, ignore her> and go back to bed, come out shooting and try to kill the bad guys…
...or he can open the door .
Each action is a thought away from each other and starts out the same—with Matilda
on the other side.
When Leon finally turns the knob, every action he didn’t take is still there, as things that “could” have happened, but didn’t, although “the path taken” creates ripples of its own. Just like in a real person, just the fact that Leon considered the other three options says something about him and enriches the emotional layering, because only “this” person, in this place at thistime can drive this particular story.
As a writer, I can focus on the plot as a whole and hit every plot point from A thru F in alphabetical order. An emotionally repressed hitman needs to open the door so he can connect with a little girl and kill a dirty cop.
Goal, motivation and conflict.
Part of the reason organic writers might run into a wall is because in a character-driven story overall GMC is easier to see “after” the rough draft. Initial goals don’t start out as the story goal, and motivation shifts and changes. If there’s conflict, it might be one of many conflicts or something that grows into “the” conflict.
Your characters choose, as a result of the actions they take…their own destiny--like life--free from caricature, archetypes, predictable drama and simple solutions.
Organic writing is a belief system--chaotic, unpredictable and personal. You are the only one who can define it. Believe.
Jodi Henley is a long-time member of the popular on-line writer’s forum “Romance Divas” here her craft of writing articles have been archived as downloads in The Place for Answers, Romance Diva’s on-line library. Highly sought after for her plain-English approach to problem solving, Jodi spends her time dissecting the craft of writing. Her obsessive Myer-Briggs INTJ personality drives her to explain her findings, and she considers herself lucky to have a receptive audience. A long-time blogger, her blog, “ Will Work for Noodles, is a popular writer’s reference for people in fields from play-writing to Christian magazines and newspaper journalism. She'll be teaching her workshop on Running in the Dark: Organic Structure for Character-driven Stories in June for FFnP.