The Process of Writing Fiction Is Actually Just Describing Tiny Moments and Then Some More Tiny Moments
Posted by Derek Berry
After a first draft, written in a fever of creative spirit, I begin to finally ask myself what the story is actually about. From writing, I learn what I actually intend to write about. Because of this, the final draft of a story appears very little like the first draft. Now and then, a singular phrase or description will remain, a simple description or inspired aphorism. I record everything that happens in a matter-of-a-fact way, first with the entire story and then scene by scene.
If Character A steps through the door, Character B must first open the door. Will Character B gesture or embrace Character A? What does this say about their relationship? Will Character B walk inside, or will Character A lead them further into the house? Will Character A offer a drink, a snack? What kind of niceties would be exchanged and how would they interact, given their personalities? Where would Character B sit? On the sofa, chair, on the floor maybe? Would Character B sit at all? Would they look at Character A as they talked or at the floor? Would they study the new environment? If I’m writing from Character A’s POV, should I describe the room? Or should I…
On goes the process. I ask myself every inane question possible, sketch out each movement and gesture in a massive narrative architecture. On one hand, I wish for the story to flow smoothly, to make sense. Most of the “work” of writing involves writing small moments. Someone blows their nose. Someone places their thumb in a book to keep their place. Someone unlocks a bike from a street post. Someone cracks their knuckles. Each movement translates an emotion, the vocabulary of theatrical gestures offering context to lines of dialogue. Each movement is calculated and makes anatomical sense, at least to the best of my abilities. I recall a particular critique from a fiction writing professor about a story I wrote, which involved a window. Several times in the story, an elderly and yet stalwart woman climbs in and out of a window, and throughout the story, the window changes heights. At times, she struggles to enter the window and later on she leaps out the window and lands below without any trouble. Because I had not paid enough attention to little moments, I created a tiny seam in the narrative, a warp in the vision. The tenuous dream film reel projected on the reader’s skull tweaks out, and the audience is temporarily thrown into darkness. And when that happens, the film or story is partly ruined. One remembers that one is consuming a story rather than living inside the story.
That’s half the story, the technical step-by-step process it takes to compose a scene. During the first draft comes a different sort of work, the creative part of the writing. The writer must also create new worlds, even if the places technically exist in real life (I don’t actually write fantasy). Because the reader must live within the dream. And often dreams have moments of absolute presence, of epiphany. And in the creative frenzy of the first draft, often these moments arrive.
Between the gestures and the conversation, the step-here and step-there, the said and the sighed, come moments of un-reality. Only within the context of a complete dream, a stable narrative architecture, may these moments appear as something other than trite, but rather something perfectly human.
I spend a lot of time searching for a particular moment– an ethereal moment that transcends the literal and the literary, something that lifts the reader into the air. Like when you’re on a rollercoaster at the top of the hill, and you’re not sure you’re then until you plummet. Like that. I want to capture moments of brilliant presence, when the character has become human and the words on a dead tree have become vision. The moment’s hanging there, waiting to crumble, but right now this moment is perfect, a floating light above a lake. Maybe something no one’s ever seen before.
But it’s recognizable. We become comfortable in the world the writer builds, a living hallucination that derives from looking at marks of ink on paper. And here, in these human moments, we live.