Saturday, May 21, 2011

Taking Your Story to the End of the World

Amidst all the madness about the world supposedly ending today, I came across this amazing video, which shows artist Zack Smithey painting while Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time is performed in the background. What struck me most was how he paints such a beautiful piece of art, but along the way he adds so much paint that it runs and covers other parts, and in the end, he allows the entire thing to be obliterated. I found myself getting very anxious watching this, wanting him to preserve the lines that were already there, worrying when he sprayed paint across the parts that were already "done," not wanting him to ruin it and to safeguard it forever.

You can see where I'm going with this.

I realized as I watched this video that I'm way too protective of my characters and my story lines. I lead them through danger, but I get a nagging sense that I'm still holding their hands. I'm pretty good at cutting out whole parts and revising dialog and such, but once I've written a story line, it's very hard for me to go back and take another path instead. And I simply cannot imagine throwing the whole thing out and starting over.

And yet, the only way you can get the richness of a great story, or the tension that makes us root for your characters, is to put them in real discomfort and peril, not to keep them safe, and to go back to the parts that are already "done" and layer on those details that really bring your story to life. You must be both the creator and the destroyer. You need to be willing to take your story and your characters to the end of the world...and if necessary, obliterate everything.

In short, you must become detached from your work, even as you create it with painstaking love and care. You must detach yourself from what you want from your characters, where you want the story to go, how you want your story to be received by readers, and how successful you hope it will become. Only then, when you write as fearlessly as this painter created and destroyed his work, can you be free to write the best story you can possibly write.

It's a tall order, but at the very least, we should have it in the back of our minds as our goal. As an exercise, I'm going to spend some time today pretending that today really is the end of the world, and then I'll see what I write. I suspect it's going to make a difference in how my characters behave and where I take them. If you try this exercise, please comment and let me know how it worked out for you. (If you're still here, of course.)


  1. Great video! I hated the way he covered them up at the end, but I guess that was taking painting and turning it into performance art. As for writing, I wonder if it would be less scary to take your characters to the end of the world in a short story than in a novel. Then if the experiment fails, you haven't lost much - it's not as big of an investment as changing your whole novel.

  2. What a wonderful post - your insight is inspiring and deep and I am grateful for the help it will give my manuscript.
    I loved watching the video - envisioning what you said while I enjoyed listening to the music.
    You have a great talent for bringing out intense awareness in us, and I find myself breathing in deep satisfaction at the epiphanies you bring to our attention.
    So happy to meet you - can't wait to come back!

  3. Oh, I forgot to say - you even made me laugh at the end! You've got it all! :D

  4. Thanks, Brenda! So glad we've connected. Everyone, please check out Brenda's blog, The Startled Spyglass--it's very cool!