Reversing out, and the story-behind-the-story

I’ve mentioned before that when I finish a project I like to look back and ask what was left out — see Observation Journal: The Opposite of Unicorns. It’s easy for that to sound negative, but it really isn’t.

Sometimes it’s a spur to see how much more I can streamline a project in the future. At other times it’s about lifting away all the other layers of the project to see what’s behind them — if it holds together (Silhouettes or outline view), or if the impression it leaves suggests some new will-o-the-wisp to pursue.

Fireflies and lanterns? Or something else… This is a sneak peek of a project about which I hope to announce more very soon.

I was thinking of this recently, talking to some students taking a creative writing course in a non-creative degree. They were writing short stories suggested by real-life events, and working on their outlines. But the gravitational pull of the source events and the technical context was (understandably) strong.

We ended up stopping and lifting the top off the story: subtracting the technical details and originating elements from the outline and seeing what was left behind. Often relationships or themes or patterns were already emerging, or shifting in glittering potential.

Once they found that story-behind-the-story, they could strengthen that, bringing it up to at least a robust sub-plot. Then they could lightly layer the technical detail back in, but more subtly, and without relying on it to do the heavy lifting. As a discussion and a thought-experiment it was fascinating.

Writing/art exercise:

  • Think of an idea you are working on — something at the sketch/early outline level, ideally. Although you could think about a finished project this way, it’s useful with developing stories where a particularly vigorous element has taken the bit between its teeth, or where an unignorable source element has too great a weight.
  • Identify the main story: An image of Cinderella running down the stairs, the shoe fallen, the prince pursuing? A boy dealing with the consequences of trading away his livelihood?
  • Whatever it is, lift that element out (physically or theoretically) and look at what is left behind — what themes can be strengthened or details of the scene enhanced? What is happening behind the story? What subtler subplots are happening in the shadows. And what happens when you put the main story back in? What happens if you don’t.

5 thoughts on “Reversing out, and the story-behind-the-story

  1. Do you have this written on The Word Wenches? I was trying to save this and I couldn’t. My oldest son has been after me to write a story about a particular event that happened when I was a child with my father. It was something that meant a great deal to my father and I and it was the last thing my dad said to me before he died. Craig would like me to write it so it can be something for the grandchildren to have. I have tried several times but I am not a writer but that writing exercise looks like it could be helpful

  2. Pingback: October post round-up | Kathleen Jennings

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