NVDT #76 – Who’s Running This Show, Anyway?


Prompt- Who’s the boss, you or the story?

The story. I always say the story tells itself. Stories come from the same place as music and all other art. All I need to do is get out of the way and listen.

This is not an original concept. Michelangelo said that his job was to get the statue out of the block of marble. Beethoven, Mozart  — they heard it on the way to the staff paper. Paul McCartney openly admits that he doesn’t work at writing songs because he learned long ago that when he tried, nothing happened. I believe that. Here’s an observation to put that in perspective. Pop songs are an art form because good ones are better novels than most of us write. How many people have over 200 solid stories in a songbook? That are no more than 3.5 minutes long? Yes, little gems hacked from the giant blocks of often pointless words many of us deem necessary.

Here’s the rub.

Most of us aren’t Michelangelo or Beethoven, but even they had to work at it. The issue, as described by many artists, comes at the — everybody listen up — transcription stage, which is generally rough because we’re in the loop. Some of us forget that once the story is out doesn’t mean it’s done. Even if the story is the boss, we need to reserve the right to say to the piece, like Mike probably did, “Hey, Pieta. Nice to see you out of that block of marble. Let’s shine you up.”

The story talks to us. Shows itself to us. Our job is to let the story do its job. We need to stay as invisible as possible and put our “author” to bed and our skills to work in order to do them justice.

Here’s a bit from Elmore Leonard where a character of his explains how the story is the boss, There’s a great video where EL explains the cleaning up.

“What he does, he makes us do all the work, the people in the books. Puts us in scenes and says go ahead and do something. No, first he thinks up names. Takes forever to think up names like Bob and Jack. Jackie for a woman, a female lead. Or Frank. Years ago anyone named Frank in one of his books was a bad guy. So then he used Frank as the name of a good guy one time and this Frank wouldn’t talk, refused to come out and become the kind of person Elmore wanted. So he changed his name to Jack after thinking of names for another few weeks, and it felt so good he couldn’t shut the guy up, I mean this Jack, not Elmore. So he names us and he says okay start talking. So that’s what we do. Sometimes if a character has trouble expressing himself he’s demoted. He’s given less to do in the book, or he might get shot. What can also happen if a minor or even a no-name character shows he can talk, he can shove his way into the story and get a more important part. So Elmore names us, gets us talking to each other, bumping heads or getting along okay and then I don’t know what happens to him, I think he takes off, leaves it up to us. There was a piece written about him one time in The Village Voice called ‘The Author Vanishes’ and it’s true.”

Elmore Leonard

Published by

Phil Huston


16 thoughts on “NVDT #76 – Who’s Running This Show, Anyway?”

  1. I would suggest that, along with the cosmic radio tuner, there is also a director. There’s some agent there that decides what parts of the story get included, it’s not just a flood put to paper. And it’s this director who controls how the plot unfolds, it’s not random — not entirely. Imagine all the mystery or detective stories that must be designed to unfold like surprise gifts to the reader. That’s not just signal beamed down from on high. That’s design, intentional and goal bound.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Depends on what you’re “writing.” Leonard and Hemingway both use characters as they both claimed an inability to write in the classic narrative style.
      Detective fiction/classic capers/procedurals the round up the suspects things all have a formula and the “writer” crafts to that template. Like Plotto. Or any number of how-to fiction guides that present the same material (3 act w/beats) on a small or grand scale. When all you really need, if so inclined, is the chart. Like once you understand Fletcher-Munson you get everything from the smiley face EQ to hearing aids, or Meyers-Briggs for audience identification and Aristotle for the rhetorical tools to address them. But that is all formula. The fun is in getting the story. If it fits in a template for ease of marketing, great. If not, what a great jam. I just listen to them talk, write it down, go back and fix it. EL would leave a line off the end of a chapter for weeks until, he claims, the character finally thought of a great line and filled it in. Placeholders just mean the story is getting out, like Michelangelo with the hammer and chisel until it’s time to go back and decide on shoes or feet or a line with a hook.
      Formula is simply finding (hopefully) interesting characters and shoving them in a time line. It’s SOP for a lot of “authors.” and the ones who are good at it, bravo.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. There are no rules, regardless of how many rules there are. But then I was always a fan of ‘Reggae in D mon, let’s go to the islands.’ So we have a form and a key and the rest is as it will be!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I can’t imagine writing to a formula. That’s one reason I’m ending my mystery series. I don’t want the characters to get stale.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The point with series is predictable, comfortable characters. Nancy Drew, Spenser, Plum, McGee. Readers of a certain ilk care only for the chat between the car bombs. Whether it’s Horny Bounty Hunter Barbie or Knight Errant Ken or Wholesome Helper Goddess. What they do, wear, drive, sleep with. The books are crammed full of that and tv show plots. Series are about the character, books and plot are vehicles for the faithful to hang with aforementioned Barbie and Ken. The equivalent of playing Barbies with a script for people who can read but are devoid of imagination. Ouch! Did I say that? Like the forty somethings in Hogwarts U jerseys. Gotta believe in something, right?


  3. And then, there are the side projects, when a character says, “look, I know I’m going to die horribly in the next few pages, but here’s what I got up to years ago.” They then give you a brilliant idea for a spin-off, that takes on a life of its own.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Exactly. One that also writes in circles in the same place like a dog deciding to take a nap. And interrupts one conversation with a line from another and carries on leaving one to go WTF? Yes. That vessel.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I don’t write the first draft — I mostly dictate the characters’ conversations. Sometimes I’ll have a setting to sketch around them and some notes about the actions they’ll engage in. Sometimes not. The second draft fills those details in and that’s where I gradually get more control over the story. And in the third draft, I get to polish and fix the things that sometimes just don’t make sense. Jazz saying she’s hungry when she just ate a big meal in the scene before — just one example. Clearly, she’s not oriented to time, so I have to rearrange the scenes — and they don’t always tell their story in chronological order. Why would they want to be that cooperative?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s why I use Scrivener. Scene drag and drop. For times just as you mention. And I rarely set it. I listen, let them talk. Someone tried to tell me “tell me where we are” and I tried that for a short while, found it’s just a pain in the ass. Get the story out, decorate the set later.


      1. Yeah, I almost never set more than a quick note, if that. I do that on rewrite. Although sometimes a setpiece will show up in my head and I’ll write it out not knowing where it will go. One of my early scenes in The Willow Branch has Padraig riding into Celdrya and that set was written with no connection to his actions. I just knew I’d be using it soon.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.