Back in the 70s one of my colleagues said, after we had reviewed a student film, that the filmmaker had "filmed a happening;" in other words, whatever took place in front of the camera remained between the opening and closing credits. Some people can get away with it. Most can’t. The same applies to writing.
Like most writers, I both outline and write from the heart. Usually I start with an end in mind: the story I ultimately want to tell. Then as quickly as I can, I rough-out an outline. That comes from my commercial film background, tempered with my early apprenticeship in architecture: you can envision a building or an ending, but you can't build either without a solid structural framework. The secret to writing and to building? Blueprint, but be prepared for change-orders.
I have written stories that began with a simple statement or line of dialog. Not on the page, but in my mind. It happens often when I’m walking with my dogs early in the morning, letting my thoughts gather around a simple image or action, and a story begins to tell itself. I might even try out some dialog on my companions (who seldom criticize what I say). If it is good enough to remain in my mind once I am back home and at the keyboard, I will write down what I have sketched in my mind, and then put it away for a time. When I look at it next, if it still generates more thoughts, I will turn the idea into a simple outline: a beginning, a middle and an end. The next step will be to write what I term the "Alfie." If you’re old enough you will remember the film Alfie, and it’s musical signature, "What’s it all about, Alfie?" Well, we all have ways we identify things in our lives, don’t we?
The Alfie is definitely and absolutely what the story is about, who the main characters are, their relationships, their looks, that sort of thing. And there are detailed descriptions of the people: who they are, how they look, what they wear. Locations, too, are delineated, as are time and place. And none of it is cast in stainless steel. But I can’t begin to tell a story if I don’t know what it’s about, who the players are, where things happen, when they happen, and so on. And of course all are subject to change.
Once I have the basic outline, cast of characters, the time frame and time-line, the geography and the personal characteristics of the players, I can truly begin writing. I see the characters, the setting and specifics of time and place. As the story grows there are inevitable side-trips – excursions – if you will that may or may not end up in the finished story. As with building a house, there are things that at some point seem like good ideas, even necessary embellishments. As the costs push against the budget, however, many of those things get cut. So it is with a story.
The purpose of telling a story is to take the reader or listener or viewer from a known beginning to a believable end. Side trips, unless they truly help tell the story, are subject to cutting. It is best to do your trimming before you hand the key over to the new owner, or the manuscript over to and editor or publisher. The more finished the construction, the sooner one can move on to the next location.
For me, if not for very writer, telling a story is what I do. How I do it is based on experience, observation, instruction and (under it all), creativity.
And it doesn’t just "happen."