The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Writing "Machine" Part 3: Express your deepest values and beliefs

The “Writing Machine”  Part Three:   Write stories that reflect the values, beliefs, and concerns of your own life, in indirect form.

We are investigating the basic structure of “The Machine”, a writing concept I’ve taught, implicitly and explicitly, to thousands of students over the years, without ever formalizing it.  It is designed to produce, not a particular piece of work, but a body of work that gradually cuts closer and closer to your ultimate potential.  To that end, please absorb what is said here, mull over it, adapt what is useful, and discard the rest.

The third principle is to WRITE STORIES REFLECT THE VALUES, BELIEFS, AND CONCERNS of your life, in indirect form.

Most of the time, you’ll start a story with one of just a few motivations:
1) A character you wish to explore.
2) A story situation you wish to explore.
3) A fact or idea you find fascinating, and wish to explore in story form.

A fine suggestion is to “write hot, and edit cool”.   In other words, when you have your idea, you write your first draft at mach speed, enjoying the heck out of it, riding the flow of emotions.   The REWRITE, on the other hand, should be done with deliberation.   

When you’ve finished your first draft, it is time to read what you’ve written. What is the meaning of your story?  That meaning is generally expressed in your final scenes or images.  Once you extract that meaning, you begin your rewrite process, expressing or attempting to “disprove” your basic theorem  in each scene (for instance: love is stronger than hate, versus hate is stronger than love.)

As you move from project to project, you should also be deepening and refining your sense of what is important in your own life.   Refining your sense of self, and the world you see.   This could involve your sense of the divine, of the ethical structure of the universe, or the core rules of nature.  You might dig into your personal concerns about abuse, success, love, or whatever else that has affected you deeply.

This is especially good when it comes to issues that have deviled you in the past, stopped you from progressing or reaching your goals.  What emotional or perceptual issues have hurt you?  Continue to hurt you?

What are the lessons you wish you’d earned earlier in life?  If you could create a “time capsule” and send it back in time to your younger self, 10, 20, or 30 years ago…what would you say?  What might have made your days easier? Helped you survive emotional turmoil?  Steer you clear of a bad relationship?  Give you more understanding and compassion for yourself and others? Lifted you from depression?   Helped you survive the death of a parent or loved one?
What have you learned about life, the world, yourself over the years?   REFINE THAT AND MAKE IT THE BASIS OF A STORY.

Now, note…you should never, ever state your basic premise directly, for a variety of reasons.  But allow the images, actions, and language reflect and expand upon your theme, your basic idea.  
Decide that the dominant emotion you wish to project to your audience will be something uplifting, inspiring…or that you will use horror to cleanse, release emotion, warn or illuminate.   Shine a light on an unexplored corner of human experience.  Or just send a message to those a little younger and less experienced than you.

Now, your primary motivation MUST be entertainment, but the actions and reactions of your characters, as well as the way the universe responds to their efforts, reveals the meaning of your story, as well as your view of humanity.

Learn to control these things.  When your stories begin to reflect the REAL issues of your life, you are resting your craft upon emotional truth, and opening the doorway to art.  Harness those emotions and skills properly, and everything you write makes you a better person (by deepening knowledge and working out issues), and everything you do to improve your life makes you a better writer (by increasing knowledge of character and reality.)

And that…is a very sweet outcome indeed.

Write with passion!


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