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An Interesting Metaphor for Writing

I was just listening to a podcast (The Skeptics Guide to the Universe) on which author Scott Sigler was discussing his upcoming novel Nocturnal. It’s a science horror novel, which means that it’s a horror novel, but not based on anything supernatural; he meticulously made sure that everything in the novel is based on real science.

During his interview, they digressed onto how upset people were with the endings of Battlestar Galactica and Lost.

Supposedly, the creators of BSG and Lost both claimed originally that they had plotted out everything before they started shooting. The Lost creators in particular claimed that everything was important, and viewers analyzed every frame of video.

Then, after the series finale, the Lost creators admitted they were making it up as they went. There was no intended end-point from the beginning. Every plot was pulled out of the air, with very little to no thought given to continuity or arc.

Sigler compared the two styles of writing to an architect and a gardener.

An architect designs a building from the foundation to the roof, noting with precision where plumbing, wiring, fixtures, structural details, etc. are going to be located in the end product. And when the building is constructed, the building is a physical representation of the architect’s design right down to the finest detail. A beautiful example of this style of writer is Connie Willis. In several interviews I’ve heard with her, she has said she leaves nothing—or precious little—to chance. The plot is outlined before she writes a word. The characters are designed to fulfill the plot’s requirements.

A gardener, on the other hand, plants a bunch of seeds. He has some idea of the impact he intends, but these are plants, and who knows whether they’ll come up as intended—or at all—or how much they’ll grow or whether they’ll be the right color? And after everything sprouts, he can either replant or prune or fertilize, and what comes out of the other end is an organic (sorry, I couldn’t resist) product that may or may not be what he originally had in mind. It may look similar, or it may be something entirely different, even if it is just as æsthetically pleasing. This is where I am. It’s also called “discovery writing.”

I will add a third one to the mix to represent what I’d like to aim for. I don’t want to be an architect; the way I write, I would get bored with the story because in my mind, if I’ve drawn the blueprint that meticulously…then why write the story? And I will readily admit that the gardener approach isn’t working for me, either. I plant so many seeds that don’t produce, but in the meanwhile, they sprout and have to be weeded out. I waste a lot of words going down blind paths that don’t lead anywhere or scenes where the characters veer off into discussions that ultimately have to be pruned.

What I would like to aim for is the landscape designer. Someone who plans based on the best information they have, with an idea to what the project should look like in the end, but who also realizes that sometimes changes have to be made along the way. The ground might be harder in the spot where you wanted to have the pansies, so instead you put your bird bath there and move the pansies over here, but now the phlox has to go over there

And sometimes, the landscape designer ends up with something that they never intended, but is better than what they set out for at the beginning. But because they had a plan, it still has the backbones in place.

OK, maybe the analogy gets a bit forced there, toward the end. But at least it gives me a convenient way to keep it in my head.

And you know is the first writer that comes to mind when I think “Landscape Designer”? J. Michael Straczynski, creator and main writer for the wonderful TV series “Babylon 5.” He had a five-year arc for the show and each character. But when the star of the show decided to leave (amicably) after one season, he had a contingency plan. And when an actor in the second season decided her character wasn’t getting enough to do and wanted out in spite of the fact that her character was going to be a huge, critical role down the road, he had a contingency plan. And when another main character departed after the fourth season, he had a contingency plan. And each time, the show quietly dealt with the loss, working them into the plot and coming out the other end better. Or if not entirely better, at least not utterly destroyed (I’m sure I don’t have to argue that the fifth season would have been better with Ivanova instead of Lochley, but that Lochley didn’t ruin the show, either).

I’m going to stop, here, before I gush more about Babylon 5, which you should be watching right now instead of whatever trivial thing you’re doing.

Originally published at WriteWright. You can comment here or there.


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( 4 hisses — Hiss at me! )
Mar. 15th, 2012 09:51 am (UTC)
As much as I enjoyed most of Lost, to anyone who watched that whole show (especially with a writer's eye) its obvious a lot of what went on wasn't planned. The loose ends left unraveled at the end were maddening, and the same goes for several plotlines from the otherwise excellent BSG.

Of shows currently on the air, I admire Fringe and Supernatural for holding on to good, well planned season long plot arcs (although we won't know about each series as a whole until they end). One that's surprised me is the new show, Once Upon a Time: the writers there must have every wall in the writer's room filled with timelines and scorecards, and they've managed some pretty good twists that make me think they had a novel length plan to begin with.
Mar. 15th, 2012 06:58 pm (UTC)
That's a good metaphor! I'm more like a landscape designer, myself, I think. I've been a gardener, and it's, uh, not really working. So this time, I've got more of an outline (I made scene cards with one-line synopses in Scrivener, and I've added to it as I've gone on). I started with a dozen scene cards for the dozen plot points I knew I needed to hit, and now I'm up to about 35. I wrote something and realized it would imply something later, so I added a card. I wrote something and realized I needed to have an earlier scene which I referenced, so I added a card.

It's working relatively well, so far.
Mar. 15th, 2012 07:00 pm (UTC)
That's how I keep picturing it working. Perhaps one day I'll get to that point. :)
Mar. 15th, 2012 11:56 pm (UTC)
I said the Lost writers were making it up as they went along. I said they were lying. Thank you for saying I was right. Now I just need links to make it official.

( 4 hisses — Hiss at me! )

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