Thursday, December 12, 2013

No More Words

Let’s get rid of the idea that you’re writing words. You’re not. Words are not your concern. Here’s a list of questions you have no business asking:
How many words have I written?
How many words is this story?
How many words should be in a chapter?
How many words should I write today?
How many words make a novel?

Words is something publishers and award judges worry about. Word count is an issue for magazines and people who do page layouts. University professors give you word limits, not you. There are times word count will matter but I'm willing to bet that right now it doesn't matter for you any more than it matters for me. You’re a writer and until you’ve finished your story then you’ve got no reason to be obsessing over words. At the best, it’s a distracting and at the worst it is ego masturbation. Public ego masturbation. Public ego masturbation with a banana and oats smoothy. That’s gross. Stop it.

Here’s another idea to get rid of. The writing process goes Words > Sentences > Paragraphs > Chapters > Story. No. That’s stupid. Where did you even get that notion? Sure, it’s technically true but it doesn’t help us at all. Get rid of it.

Here’s what we want. You don’t write a story by writing words. The basic, fundamental, smallest unit of a story is a statement. “The cat is grey.”, “Ricky dances like nobody is watching.”, “The would-be author masturbates his ego, in public, with a banana and oats smoothy.”, “Everyone thinks that is gross.”, “Joey’s stomach rumbles.” These are all statements and these are the elements of a story.

You string enough of these together and you start to get a beat. A beat is a connected set of sentences that form a moment in your story focused on one thing. It is a moment in time in which things happen, blows are exhanged, decisions are made, tears are cried. “Joeys stomach rumbled.” This is a statement. “Joey’s stomach rumbled. Joey doubled over, clenching his gut. The pain reminded him how long it had been since he’d eaten. The regret hurt as much as the pain. He regretted what he’d done. He regretted wasting that banana and oats smoothy. Now all he wanted was some ice cream to dull the pains.” This is a beat. Specifically, it is an emotional beat. All those statements connect together to create a moment, a moving image in our mind, an understanding. It communicates short, connected ideas. If those ideas were less about how Joey feels and more about Joey fighting a large dog, then it would be an action beat. But it is not a story yet.

Don’t confuse a beat with a scene. A scene is a larger unit made up of several beats. A scene looks a lot more like a story. Hell, some very short stories are made up of only one scene. You’d be hard pressed to find a scene that is made up of only one beat, though. Continuing on:
“Joey walked down the street towards the ice cream parlour. He could taste the bacon and taro ice cream already. He knew, deep in his gut, that ice cream would make everything better. A large dog stepped out of the alley in front of Joey. The animal dragged a dead komodo dragon by its mutilated tail. Joey and the animal locked eyes. Joey felt his hopes for bacon and taro flavoured solace crumble. The dog dropped its komodo carcass and growled at Joey. The animal charged Joey. Joey puffed out his chest and rose up on his toes. The beat snapped and barked. Joey dropped. He curled into a ball and prayed it would be over quickly. The enormous canine leapt at Joey. Joey prepared for the end, readied himself to enter the great beyond with only his mounting regrets for company. It was all over and he would forever be known as that guy who did terrible things with banana and oat smoothies. He couldn’t bear to think what his eulogy would be. The dog over-estimated the distance. It soared right over Joey. The animal collided head first with a passing circus wagon. A bearded lady caught it in mid-air and stuffed it into her suitcase. The wagon passed on and Joey, hearing only silence, got up.”
And scene. Count the beats. How many action beats? How many emotional beats? How long is each one? How are they divided? You can work it out for yourself but I will give you a few of my 

Pro Tips.
Pro Tip 1: There’s no regular or set length for a beat or a scene. They are as long as they need to be.
Pro Tip 2: A lot of this scene is action but the action halts in the middle for an emotional beat and then the action resumes. This is normal. Beats cut into each other like that all the time.
Pro Tip 3: There’s more than action and emotion beats. That should be obvious. I’ve referred to them because it helps to see one beat in contrast to another but the practice of catagorising beats is probably a waste of time. When looking at beats, don’t get hung up on what kind of beat it is, just know that it is a beat.

What comes next, you’ll be glad to know, is story. A story is just a series of connected scenes forming a beginning, middle and end.
“Joey masturbates his ego in public with a banana and oat smoothy. Everyone leaves Joey. Joey is sad and hungry.”Two beat scene. The beginning. “Joey walks down to the ice cream parlour. A dog cuts him off. The dog attacks him. Joey throws himself on the ground. Joey prepares to die a lonely and hungry freak. Joey regrets everything. A bearded lady in a passing circus wagon grabs the dog. She puts it in her suit case. Joey gets up. Joey is alone again. He’s unsure what it all means.” Action. Action. Emotion. Action. Emotion. Five beat scene. The middle. “Joey enters the ice cream parlour. It’s cold and bright. Joey orders an ice cream cone with bacon and taro ice cream. The server hands him his ice cream and Joey pays. Joey feels better.” Four beats. Scene. The end.

Look at that, it’s a story. It’s got three scenes, eleven beats, a beginning, a middle and an end. How long is it? Who cares? Not me. It is long enough to tell the story it is. That’s the important part. Forget your words. Write statements. Make those statements into beats. Make those beats into scenes. Make those scenes into a story. Words are cool but stories are awesome.

And stop masturbating your ego in public with banana and oat smoothies. Sicko.

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