Writing by the seat of your pants – hold on, this may be a bumpy ride! by Vincent Tuckwood
To write to an outline or by pure intuition?
Ah, the artist’s endless dilemma!
With structure and plan, we know where we’re going, so get to travel easier, safe in the knowledge that there is a destination; comfortable that we will arrive, even if the journey meanders.
Riding the intuitive lightning? It’s a mercurial roller-coaster of channeled creativity, while in the background, the whispering critic challenges us that we don’t know enough, aren’t clever enough, aren’t worthy enough to bring this crested wave to fruition. An extreme activity for sure, and it carries its fair share of highs and hangovers.
In the past twenty years of writing, I’ve written books at both ends of this spectrum. Do Sparrows Eat Butterflies? Still feels like it wrote itself. Family Rules was a longer write, but certainly felt like I was discovering the story as I went. While it’s non-linear structure works for the invention of the lead character, Kenny, I confess that the story was stuck for a long time as I decided what would happen in the final chapters – knowing it needed to be strong, yet with no idea what it would be. In the end it came, after lost months of not writing.
Karaoke Criminals was structurally mapped before I wrote a word – actually, its outline was written as an extended joke while on holiday in Spain. It didn’t end up a comedy, but the overall structure remains intact.
If you’d asked me the question a year ago, I would likely have given it 20% structure to 80% intuition.
Since then, though, I wrote Escalation – my first novel without the distraction of the day job, the first where I was writing fully in my story-telling self. At just the point where I might have expected intuitive writing to take over, I went the other way – and completely, totally and utterly enjoyed the experience!
By way of background, in early 2011, I adapted Family Rules into the screenplay Inventing Kenny with my screen-writing partners, James Patric Moran and Timothy Quinlan, and completed my first original screenplay, Team Building. Through these experiences, I’d been learning about movie structure, beats, archetypes and everything else that gets distilled into the ideal movie script.
So, when the idea for Escalation struck in early April 2011, I decided to map out the structure as if it were a movie: 4 acts, 16 sequences, 48 chapters, each chapter labeled with the major decision or development that needed to happen, along with whatever reminders I wanted to give myself of my original intent. With that outline in hand, I wrote about 1500 words a day, Monday to Friday and, 4 months later, the novel was complete. The experience was a dream, each chapter its own little voyage of discovery. Effortless writing. Not only that, but the rewrite was minimal; a welcome relief when it had previously been like running a second marathon.
And, the funny thing is, when I went back to look over my ‘intuitive’ novels, they conformed pretty closely to the classic story structure I’d applied in Escalation, even though I didn’t even have it in hand at the time I wrote them.
Is structured writing somehow a lower standard, less artful? I don’t think so.
As Mark Rothko showed with his famous series of off-black rectangles, art lies in nuance AND in bold statements.
Unless we are born with deformity, or suffer an accident, we human beings have basically the same skeleton – number of bones, how they’re organized, etc. – yet we couldn’t be more different when the flesh and skin are layered over the top. It’s what sits atop, and within, the structure that makes us come alive.
It’s the same with story – the structure that has been distilled into the typical movie formula is as present in ‘Romeo and Juliet' as it is in an episode of ‘Teletubbies’. Story arcs form the skeleton of human existence.
There will doubtless be those who challenge that great art can never be planful. In my experience, those who shout that the loudest are those who most often say “I would… if only…”
As in:“I would write a novel, if only I could find the time”, or…
“I would start a business, if only I could come up with a killer product”, or…
“I would paint a portrait, if only I hadn’t been told at school that I wasn’t a good enough painter.”
As you can probably tell, I disagree with the premise that art always comes at the expense of waiting for lightning bolt inspiration.
For all we view Beethoven as a genius, he still wrote symphonies, concerti, preludes, etudes, and other accepted structural forms. He still formed his music in the tradition of the other romantic composers. Do we view his art as lesser because it was in these structures and context? In fact there’s an argument that, when he lost his hearing, those same structures enabled him to produce some of his most enthralling and compelling music.
I believe that the struggling artist is an archetype that society perpetuates to discourage people from stepping out of conformity. To make art is abnormal, and even the most inclusive society is uncomfortable with difference.
In pushing us to conform, society perpetuates the myth that creativity necessitates pain, and that only a truly gifted prodigy has the fortitude to prevail. Society pushes this myth to discourage as many as possible from seeking to question their normality…
I’m a Brit and, pardon my language, but I say that’s bollocks!
Of course, inspiration strikes and, honestly, there’s no feeling like the awakening of an idea. But, once you’ve ridden that wave a few times, you learn that it passes quickly, more often than not leaving extensive editing in its wake. And, if we lurch from one idea-high to the next, the ideas can drift off into the ether, falling prey to the ever-waiting voice of insecurity and criticism all artists have whispering in their ear. Better, I think, to capture those moments of connection and insight early, to remind us of where we intended to go all along.
So, structure or intuition?
At the moment, I would say I’ve flipped my opinion to 80% structure to 20% intuition.
As I learned with Escalation, if you give yourself a map, it lets you enjoy the journey a whole lot more. And it doesn’t preclude stepping off the path every now and then to discover what’s rustling behind those bushes!
To read more about Vincent Tuckwood and his writings at his personal website.