Shadows and Depths: Finding the Story For Your Writing

Leonardo da Vinci supposedly told his art students to stare at the cracks in the walls until they saw whole worlds pouring out of them. That advice resonates with me, because I honestly think that every story and book I’ve written has begun in the physical world around me—in the landscape. It’s a matter of “staring” at it until it begins to yield up ideas.

I’m blessed with some like-minded writer friends; we communicate often and pass our manuscripts back and forth for advice and support. Writers’ circles are wonderful, with the caveat that I think they really only work if the members are all at approximately the same level of achievement and working in more or less the same genre. Few situations are less productive than a test reader criticizing your fantasy story because s/he doesn’t like fantasy.

Anyway, in our circle, our consensus is that there are at least four types of writers. All four types are represented in our group. We’ve observed that different writers find different doorways into the project at hand. That is to say, we each seem to have a particular element of story that ignites our imagination, that leads us to a discovery of all the other elements.

I’m a writer of place. It’s a setting that whispers to me, whether it’s a place I’ve been or a real place combined with one I’ve mostly imagined. When the setting is alive for me, I begin to ask myself who occupies that place, what is going on for that character.

There are also writers who start with a character. J. K. Rowling famously told of how she looked out through a train window and saw a young boy standing on the station platform, a boy with a lightning-bolt scar on his forehead. For her, it all began with that one character, Harry. As she got to know him, seven books emerged in all their glory.

Writing on a notepad

Then there are the plotters. Another friend of mine typically outlines the entire plot of a book before she really knows the characters at all, and she’ll say things that baffle me (the writer of place)—like, “I don’t think this will be set in Russia after all. I think it will take place in Romania.” My jaw hits the floor. How can the setting be such a late-stage decision? Yet in the end, she turns out a fully developed, beautiful book, with all its elements in place and working together. I have never been able to do that: if I attempt to hammer out a plot in cold blood, it always feels unnatural. I have to discover the story as I write it, because I think that’s the most like how we live our real lives. What comes next is shaped and changed by what we do now. There’s no way for a mortal to see the whole before it happens. That’s not to say that I go into the writing without any sort of map at all. I do have a very rough idea of where I’m going. But it’s not an outline, by any means. It’s more like my assumptions about a building that I’ve seen only from the outside. If I go in, I can find my way through the building, but until I go down each hall and open each door, I have almost no idea of what I’ll find in the rooms, or tucked away in the attic, or forgotten in the basement.

Finally, according to our theory, there are writers of idea. Some concept will come fluttering down to land on their shoulders as they pass through life. One writer friend was walking in a forest and saw a rope hanging from a tree. “What is that rope doing there?” he asked himself. “Who put it there, and why?” That rope led him to an entire horror novel. Another time, he asked himself, “What if an object showed up in your mailbox one day, and you had no idea of what it was, even if you studied it, and you had no clue as to who sent it?” That led him to a collection of interrelated and deeply unsettling stories.

Maybe there are other types of writers. You tell me if I’m missing a type, or several types. I suspect that many of us might use more than one doorway, perhaps glancing in at the story through the open portal of an idea before finally stepping in through the door of character . . . or setting . . . or plot. It doesn’t matter which door we use, as long as we find our way into the rich, wonderful, terrifying, mesmerizing story. Getting it successfully onto the page means really paying attention once we step through that door. And that means paying attention to all the elements, even those that are not our natural habitat. We writers have to look around, explore the setting, listen to the characters, let them act and think as they want to, not as we believe they should. People do things for a reason. A villain, for example, isn’t simply bad for the sake of doing bad things. The most interesting (and believable) villains are those convinced that they’re the heroes, that they’re doing right. But check the motivations even of the minor characters—listen to them. If the plot or the characters surprise us, we’re probably doing it right.

As for me, I keep walking into stories through the doorway of place. I write fantasy, but there’s nothing as numinous as the actual world we live in, the earth and the trees, the fireflies in the dusk, the early light illuminating the mist. If you experience the wonder of these things, there is no fantastic setting that you can’t describe, that you can’t make as real for readers as the ceramic cup on their countertops, the bent wire hanger in their closets.

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I grew up on a very small farm in central Illinois, a world of black tilled soil, of crumbling bricks and a vine-covered barn, a hayloft full of sweet-scented bales that could be stacked into tunnels and fortresses. On those ten acres there were papery cast-off snakeskins, drifts of leaves and snow, somnolent horses, inscrutable cats, faithful dogs. There were fields of timothy and alfalfa waiting for young boys to mash down secret, winding trails through their depths. There were the hidden green worlds of treetops and corn fields—the first invisible from the ground, and the second materializing only in the summer, a mirage that one could inhabit. The woods were full of monsters that shambled forth to peep in at our bedroom windows on moonless nights. On the Fourth of July, the western sky blazed with fireworks, their light and detonations stretching over the land like benedictions. My books and stories all begin there. The reader may not see the source, but I do.

They begin in another place, too: Mammoth Cave, Kentucky. My parents took me there when I was five or six, and I was enraptured, walking in that grandeur beneath the earth, that vastness hidden under the hills, old as time. I’ve managed to get back to Mammoth Cave about once every ten years. I had the joy of introducing my wife to it last summer, and I really like her observation that what makes it so significant is that Mammoth Cave is a journey. It’s not simply a place to go down into, look around, and then come up; no—you go in at one point, and you hike for four hours. You emerge into the sunlight at a different place. You have glimpsed colossal chambers delved by no human hand or machine. You have witnessed the face of nature unmasked. You have heard a silence and seen a darkness more profound than any upon the Earth’s surface. You are changed by the journey. There’s some of Mammoth Cave in all my stories, too, even those set inside houses or in small towns or on boats.

Finally, I’m going to pass along the most important thing I’ve learned as a writer. It’s the Secret all writers should know, the truth that brings a story to life and wins the hearts of readers. (Even though I know this Secret, I’m not claiming that I always manage to use it well.) It took me more than four decades of writing to grasp, though I might have grasped it a lot sooner, because it’s so simple.

For most of my life, I practiced and preached sensory details. “Write for the senses,” I told my students. “Put yourself into the setting, and let us experience what it looks and smells and sounds and tastes and feels like.” And that’s good—that’s necessary. But it doesn’t go far enough. It isn’t the Secret.

writing on a laptop

The Secret is this: Stories are never about the story. Stories are about characters experiencing a story. Every writer, even the least experienced, probably knows this truth on some level, but very few truly make use of the knowledge. Things don’t just happen to people in stories; people don’t just do things. Rather, everything has significance to the character; the objects and occurrences around people make us feel certain ways. A rusty lamp reminds me of an old friend; Monday morning makes me grouchy; a job interview makes me nervous-yet-determined, perhaps excited. I’m not saying the story should be a catalogue of how the character feels about everything. No—that would be as deadly to the writing as a swamp of description. But if the characters are feeling all through the story—just like the way we “real” people are always feeling our ways through life—then readers will feel, too—and care.

Whatever your doorway into the story is, use it. Then pay attention. Ask questions until what’s on the page is fully developed and real. Never settle for the superficial. Don’t use stock scenes; don’t follow the easy way out. Da Vinci’s advice on art is worth taking. Stare at the cracks in the walls until you see whole worlds pouring out of them—because those worlds are there, waiting for you, the writer, to unlock them.

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