Much like the Pirate’s Code, the rules that so many writer’s and English teachers talk about are merely guidelines. Several writer’s have put kind of a mock spin on it. Some say to always avoid alliterations and the like. There really is no hard and fast guide to writing. If you want to write, write. A.J. Tata, retired brigadier general and author of numerous thrillers, said that when he had an opportunity to speak with the late Tom Clancy when he visited Tata’s unit at the time, he said to Clancy he always wanted to write. Clancy told him if he want’s to write, write.
When I first started writing, I didn’t really know how to write or get started. But didn’t I just say twice that if you wanted to write you should just write? Yes. For some, they need a baseline, a foundation to write. It really is simple, perhaps elementary, but what was taught in elementary school may not be remembered by some. So, here’s a reminder: Setting, Plot, and Characterization. Much of this goes back to what I discussed in our last post, [Re]search.
It’s not simply enough to have a really great story. You have to have a really great setting. The setting of the story can be where ever the person lives, to what time period they live in. In my opinion, the setting drives the story. Characters and plots have a lot to do with it, but a plot will look different from setting to setting. A romance novel won’t look the same set in Victorian England than if it was in the Napoleonic Wars.
Take Tolstoy’s War & Peace, for instance, that story wouldn’t be the same if it were set in any other time of Russian history. This is why people take great works of literature and recreate it to fit a certain era. The Vietnam War film Apocalypse Now was inspired by Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Conrad wrote about the evils occurring in the Africa interior by a man named Kurtz, and so was sent to bring him out. The last two words spoken by Kurtz is perhaps the most chilling I’ve ever read. “The horror! The horror!” Conrad described it as “a cry that was no more than a breath.”
The same idea looks different in the story and film, because of the setting. Moreover, you could take Conrad’s work and transplant it to the American frontier, perhaps after the American Civil War, but it would still be different…because of the setting.
So, it is important to understand what story you want to tell. Usually, you’ll have an idea of what setting you want, but keep in mind how setting effects certain things.
Depending on your personality, the plot could be the death of you. Whenever I sit down to write, I often will try to hammer out my plot and have a very good idea as to where I want to go with it, if not a crystal clear idea. I don’t like plotholes, so I spend as much time as I can to flesh it out and look at it from all possible outcomes or scenarios.
I’ve been talking with my wife over a series we’ve been working on it has been extremly helpful for me, only because she thinks up things I didn’t. What if A happens, then B? Possible… Or what if…
See what I’m getting at?
Remember: you might be writing a fictional story, but readers want to believe that it could happen. People hear a story and wonder “But is it true? Could it be?” Oftentimes the answer is simply, “Does it matter?” Plots are driven by human emotions; not always logical, but always human. A person commits murder out of jealousy. I’ve never been so jealous that I’ve literally been willing to kill, but it has happened and it’s something I can imagine if the plot and setting are done right.
The Hunt for the Red October comes to my mind. The Tom Clancy novel, not the film. Although, can we really get over Sean Connery playing a Russian submarine commander? I read that book in about a week. It was marvelous and inspired me to read some more Tom Clancy (I have several but hardly cracked them). The plot was simple, but the way Clancy thought it out was incredible. If A would happen, what would B be? If a Soviet nuclear submarine with state-of-the-art technology would be commanded by a Soviet commander wanting to defect to the United States, what else would happen?
This is when fleshing out your plot and talking it over with people helps. Preferably, people who know more about what you’re writing than you and no Yes Men. Plots are rarely straight-forward, I believe, with the exception of the Gary Cooper western, High Noon. Very simple plot. Bad guy comes to town on the day the sheriff is to retire to get vengeance on said sheriff, sheriff and bad guy with his gang fight it out.
Simple. Yet, they made a film about it, when it really should’ve been a short. They added things in there to give depth to not only the plot, but the setting and characters.
Now we come to the third aspect. For me, bringing in Setting and Plot drive the Character. In such a setting, what would happen to this particular person if this happened, thus creating the plot.
What would happen if a little Hobbit were to get his hands on the One Ring? What would this particular Hobbit do? In turn, what would happen if a retired spy’s daughter was kidnapped while on vacation in France? What would happen if it happened again? The whole Taken Trilogy hinges on the actions of one character, Bryan Mills. This guy with a particular set of skills that make him a nightmare to bad people has his daughter kidnapped. As a Character, he would have a past and the past comes into play, as it should, in the Plot.
I would encourage any writer, if possible, to meet as many people as possible. I’ve held a lot of jobs in my short life-span that has enabled me to wrap my head around different characters. A Character is not just the present person, but it’s their ideas, philosophy, hopes, dreams, aspirations, and their past. Where have they been in the world and how has that effected them?
The only reason Bryan Mills was a nightmare to the human traffickers was because he had obtained these skills working in the Central Intelligence Agency, most likely working for the Special Operations Group within the Special Activities Division. His past enabled him to contact the right people to get voice recognition to figure out who the guy on the phone was and how to find him.
These three parts (Setting, Plot, and Character) are the foundation to any writing endeavor. Once you get an idea of each of these, you hit the books (or the web) to do your research. Research that foreign city/organization/culture/people/vehicles/weapons…the list can go on. The rabbit trails of research are aplenty.
They also tie into each other. By thinking of the setting, you then come up with a plot that fits the area, and then comes the characters to see how the plot is played out. The concept of the Taken Trilogy’s have been applied elsewhere (The Marine?) Let’s not discuss the show Taken. That’s for another time.
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