Today I am thrilled to bring you the incredibly talented Gerard Jones (see bio below), who is currently teaching a workshop at the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto called Finding The Story. This post made me wish I were working on a novel, so I could sign up for his class. I just may have to start one before his next session.
You know the line: “Those who can’t do, teach.” Never the favorite homily of those of us who write for a living and teach on the side. But I’ve developed my own version, and this one I’ll stand by: “Those who can’t do learn how to do…and then they’ve got something to teach.”
Some aspects of writing have always come easily for me: dialogue, pace, a generally smooth style. I entered this business with a kind of natural glibness, which in the early going I thought could carry me all the way. It took me years to realize—and even more years to admit to myself—that what didn’t come naturally for me was telling a story.
Oh, I was clever enough with structure and the mechanics of plot. I could outline with the best of them. But somehow my narratives, in both fiction and nonfiction, rarely had the forward drive they needed or came together with the symphonic inevitability I wanted. When it did happen, I never quite understood why; I could only step back and marvel at how a story had miraculously emerged from the sludge and found its own way to a satisfying ending. More often I had to dig my way to a reasonably satisfying ending through countless wrong turns and massive rewrites.
The books I read about story didn’t help much. I was getting screenwriting jobs for a while, so I became especially familiar with the geometric approach of how-to-write-a-movie books, all those three-act structures and juxtaposed A-plots and B-plots. The more I tried to use those, the more my stories came to feel like those wooden frames they use to build sidewalks, inert boxes waiting to be filled with concrete. (A lot of what they say isn’t even accurate; any savvy screenwriter can tell you that Hollywood runs on a four-act template, and why people insist on calling it three acts with a turning point in the middle of the extra-long second act I have no idea.)
The more I looked at the usual ways of breaking down a story, the less sense most of them made. What’s this “beginning, middle, and end” business? Isn’t the end implicit in the beginning and the beginning still continuing to the end? How do you separate the “middle” from either? Once separated, how do you keep it from becoming just a receptacle for narrative miscellany? And what’s all this about the “character arc”? Why does a character have an “arc”? Does it go up in the middle and then back down? In a story of midlife fullness and senile decay it might, but that’s hardly every story. I don’t see my life as an arc. A line, a road, a river, or a tree, fine. But not a parabola.
So I started looking hard at how other writers made their stories work, “reading like a writer” and feeling for the sandbags and steel girders under the fascinating details and pretty prose. I started summarizing the most compelling and satisfying stories, and I found that with the best of them I could keep boiling them down, making them simpler and simpler, and they never lost their essence.
“A bunch of sheltered aristocrats are lost in assorted self-preoccupations and existential riddles until their nation is nearly destroyed by an invader, tossing them back on the basics of life, death, and love, enabling them to see the hand of God in human events.” A lot more happens along the way in War and Peace, but I never did catch Tolstoy losing touch with that core story.
That’s when I really understood (and it’s not like I’d never heard this, but I finally started to get it in a concrete, applicable way), that a story is not a plot, and it’s not a structure, and it’s not a series of concrete events. At its heart, every coherent story is a single event. A single transformation or revelation. It isn’t made up like a brick building of its component parts; its parts are manifestations and demonstrations of its essence. I discovered I could get pretty metaphysical about it, especially late at night after working too hard. But I also discovered I could find the heart of my own story through a series of exercises.
The most important step always turned out to be understanding just what my story is. Who’s it about, what’s it about, what one big thing is happening, what I’m saying about people or the world. That turned out to be a lot harder than it sounds. The details of writing can be awfully distracting, not only for the reader but for the writer; I learned that I could write thousands of words of dramatic events about interesting people without ever fully understanding what I was trying to say—and without understanding that, I could never know just which events mattered or just how to tell them.
My work got better. It felt stronger, it got easier, and the world started telling me I was onto something. When your editor—a publishing veteran so tough she’s known in the business as “the Dragon Lady”—tells you that your final chapter brought tears to her eyes, and when you get Michael Chabon and Art Spiegelman calling your book “relentless” and “a constant delight,” you know you found your story. Which meant a lot more to me than the praise I was accustomed to for my breezy dialogue and catchy voice; because for that I had to go at my own weak spots and make myself better. Like the difference between being six feet tall and being able to run eight miles.
That also gave me something to teach: exercises, tools, and tricks I could give to other writers wrestling with the same issues. Working with them has been teaching me far more than I ever learned on my own, because you can also turn that annoying comment on doing and teaching a different way: “Those who teach learn how to do.” But that, trust me, is another story.
Gerard Jones is the author of The Undressing of America (coming from FSG in 2012), Men of Tomorrow (Basic Books), Killing Monsters (Basic Books), Honey I’m Home (St. Martin’s), The Comic Book Heroes (Crown) and The Beaver Papers (Crown). He has written screenplays on assignment for Warner Bros, 20th Century Fox, HBO and Silver Pictures (sadly, none on the screens yet). He’s written dozens of comic books and graphic novels for DC, Marvel, Dark Horse, NBM and other publishers, and his articles and fiction have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, The Guardian, National Lampoon and many other publications. He teaches his “Finding the Story” class at the San Francisco Writers Grotto.