When writing there’s always a sense of “let’s see where this takes me”. At the same time, however, there are also lighthouses that we tack towards across the dark and choppy waters of unwritten fiction. In many cases, these are signal moments, revelations, scenes, scraps of dialogue or even just a certain mis en scene.
In many cases, we find these moments unbearably cool (insert own positive adjective as appropriate) and find ourselves consciously or unconsciously building up to these signal moments, indeed hinging a lot of our personal excitement and creative fulfillment in scaling these peaks of narrative,removing the facemask at the summit and looking down magnanimously on the unbearable coolness of our own cleverness.
Sometimes, however, we find ourselves either too far away to sail directly to these moments of cool or (worse) we find treacherous rocks at the base of the lighthouse.
The problems of beautiful absence and the problem of ugly presence present their own challenges.
If a particular scene just does not fit in the narrative as you’ve constructed it, you certainly can warp the existing superstructure to lead readers to it. This is both a lot of work as well as something that risks ruining a lot of your good plotting work to date. You may also find issues leading away from that scene, which seemed so much more self-contained and free of plot-complicating elements in your head.
The second problem is perhaps worse, where despite being the logical point to which you’ve been carefully plotting up to, and despite its obvious immense coolness, it just doesn’t work.
The reason this came up is one of my enduring fan obsessions, Doctor Who. As an old and venerable program going back over 50 years, it has had a massive variety of script editors, writers and show runners, each of which have had their own preferences, themes and creative hobby horses. The incumbent, Steven Moffatt is a somewhat divisive figure. Like me, he was a Doctor Who fan from a very young age. Like me, he also wrote relatively well-regarded fan fiction. Unlike me, however, he is now the creative controller of one of SF/F’s most influential and enduring intellectual properties.
Moffatt is also very fond of the cool scene or concept. For example:
- A Creepy Animated Child In A Gas Mask Calling Out Endlessly “Are You My Mummy?”
- A Giant Animated Evil Statute of Liberty Looming Over Our Heroes
- Let’s Kill Hitler (actual episode title)
- Everything That Remains England Flying On The Back of A Giant Space Whale
- The Spirit of Father Christmas Being The Only Thing That Can Save Our Heroes
- A Giant TARDIS which doubles as a tomb for the Doctor
- Our Heroes Shrunk To Miniscule Size and placed inside a Dalek
- A Dinosaur Running Along The Thames of Victorian London
Now some of these concepts work brilliantly. In others however, for various reasons, the results are vaguely embarrassing. They were an INCREDIBLY COOL SCENE that HAD INCREDIBLE RESONANCE FOR MOFFATT as a LONG TERM DOCTOR WHO FAN. Worse, there are some episodes which were basically an excuse to include a particular time period or character interaction, where we were more or less forced to participate in Moffatt’s fangasm, with all the crude and unconvincing foreplay that implies
Now I’m perhaps being a bit harsh, which perhaps betrays my own history as a fan who is emotionally invested in the series.
Which is my point. If you don’t have a degree of perspective on your own work, if you can’t take a step back and ask yourself whether the lighthouse – which you’ve been dreaming of ever since you pushed off from shore – is worth landing at, you run the risk of asking everyone else to participate in your personal exultation at your own cleverness.
I encountered this in my first draft. Ever since I laid down the basic building blocks, I had a very film-like image of the primary character’s love interest being stabbed in the middle of a crowd in a snowy square, the protagonist losing track of her for a second, the crowd clearing to show her bleeding her last on the ground, with the hero running over to cradle her in his arms as she died.
This scene worked for me so viscerally that I built a fair amount of my story towards it.
But once it was written it… I… well I realised it was a lot smaller and less impressive close up than it was when I’d imagined it.
Primarily, it’s a stereotypical example of Women In Refrigerators, which is where a love interest (most commonly a woman) is brutally killed in order to provide the protagonist for a motivation to go fight the bad guys. It treats a character as a disposable plot coupon, or as a piece of character development for the villain (one prominent example is the climax of the film Se7en).
This is wrong on its own terms, but what was worse is that during the writing… I’d really begun to LIKE the character to the point she was no longer “The Love Interest” but her own motivated character. To waste the potential of that character was just… silly.
A fellow author suggested I have her seriously wounded to provide basically the same model, but with a lot less permanence. I considered this for a while, but realised it still had a lot of the same drawbacks, including having something pretty horrible happen to an interesting character for a pretty marginal advancement in the plot. That was the other part of it, that the scene actually DIDN’T DO MUCH. It was dramatically unnecessary, resolved nothing and set precious little up. It was, in architectural terms, a Folly.
The other option was to kill the scene. Kill it stone dead. Erase it from my outline and find another way to get the characters from point 98 to point 100. Now this creates practical problems, obviously, as well as dramatic problems in that I’ve removed an emotional tentpole from the arc of the novel, leaving me scrambling for things like pace, maintaining reader involvement as well as giving me a new pinnacle to keep my eye on whilst trudging my way through work, children and the tiny morsels of time I can spend on my second draft.
But it was absolutely necessary. Unlike Steven Moffatt I think the story itself is actually more important than the whiz-bang moment of visual and emotional flair and have the confidence that I can actually write a better book without that one moment of pyrotechnics.
To eschew those big flashy moments for no reason other than that they ARE big flashy moments would be stupid, however. In the context of a story, that moment can be what everyone remembers, that passage is what lives in the mind long after the book has been put down or the TV switched off. That one soaring ambitious piece of writing craft that still thrills you to remember.
And yes. That was Moffatt, as much as what came before was.
Despite the bombastic title of this post , I’m going to gently lead my Darling out of the room rather than giving it a swift and brutal knife. This excellent article from Stephen Wright demolishes the idea that you should only write “Edwardian Masculine Simplicity” as he puts it. Instead:
It is the making of his or her own mind the writer engages in, which is why the process of writing can be so painful, building out of debris and found objects something contingent, and why every work of fiction verges on collapse. The work of imaginative prose you may be offered to read is the ruins of someone’s imagination, a heap of flotsam, of bones, of weird animal sounds snatched up and glued together any which way, stuck together as though they could make sense, like a song played backwards in which you think you can hear a secret message encased in a random collation of syllables.