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Two Ways of Writing Stories

If the truth about stories is that they are like icebergs, with 80% of what makes them work lying beneath the surface, then we can use that image to elaborate upon the two broad approaches to story-telling: the ‘writing from the imagination’ method and the outline method.

For both kinds of writer, first drafts are raw material. But for the writer who writes from his or her imagination and just lets things pour onto the page - we’ll call this type Writer A- that raw material stage is even more significant. Whereas other kinds of artists use materials that exist in the physical universe - paint, wood, stone, sound - Writer As only have what they themselves put onto paper. Writer A’s art springs entirely from nowhere.

If Writer A has some idea of what he or she is doing, then what they have purged forth onto those pages is not a completed product, just raw materials, like wood, or stone. Now they have the job of shaping that material, sensing what potential lies in it, feeling where it will lead. One writer friend says it’s like being a detective. Material gets cut, mixed up, re-arranged, re-aligned until it perhaps looks nothing at all like the initial draft. A work has been crafted from it. To be a truly effective work following the iceberg model of stories, much of what was originally written may have to be pushed off-stage or beneath the water, turned into supporting structures for the visible part of the story, the bit the reader will see. Writer A’s method has the advantage of allowing the whole being to flow into the work, the whole iceberg to form shining and open, before the act of shaping removes most of it from view and the tip is left created into a diamond.

Writer B, on the other hand, decides the shape and nature of what he or she is going to build first, then produces raw material ‘to order’. The iceberg is designed; the portion that will remain unseen is planned for. Writer B can still have the sensation of flowing things onto the page, but because the direction of flow is pre-mapped the experience of actually writing the work is probably a more conscious one. Where Writer B taps into potentially deeper material is before the action of writing even begins; for Writer B, the prior planning is part of the creative act.

Either way, what results is stories which attract us in ways that we normally can scarcely name.


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