*Check out my piece in the Burlesque Press Variety Show!*
On Friday night I watched Frances Ha, starring Greta Gerwig, who also co-wrote the film. Greta plays Frances, a flighty twenty-seven-year old who is living in Brooklyn with her best friend, Sophie, and apprenticing at a modern dance studio where she hopes to become a member of the company. But then Sophie gets engaged to her banker boyfriend, and instead of being given a part in the company, Frances is offered a desk job, which she declines. Everyone seems to be putting their childish dreams behind them and moving into the more bland and responsible adult world…except for Frances.
Even though I sometimes wanted to slap Frances and tell her to comb her hair, I enjoyed the movie a lot, and it struck a chord with me in a way. Succeeding as a modern dancer in New York is a nearly-impossible dream, and throughout the film you get the feeling people are thinking Frances should probably give it up and find a more realistic plan for her life.
I’ve also chosen a career (writing) that is extremely difficult to succeed at, and sometimes I wonder if I should stop my childish thinking that I’m destined for greatness and settle for a more bland and realistic place in the adult world.
I recently wrote a novel and then realized it has no plot, or, at least, not enough of one, which seems like something I should have realized beforehand, but I didn’t. I’ve decided to gut the book down to the bare bones and start over with a new, revamped plot. To help me do this, I read Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller by John Truby.
In some ways, the book has been really helpful in forcing me to think in detail about important aspects of the plot: What are my characters weaknesses and needs? What is my hero’s one motivating desire, and what plan does she make to achieve it? Who is her opponent that blocks her at every turn? What realization does she come to, and what important choice must she make? It’s sort of maddening to sort all of this out, but it’s also given me ideas for how to strengthen the plot.
So often I read interviews with novelists who make it sound as if stories flow out of them mysteriously or happen almost by accident. Writers will say they don’t really outline, or that they create the characters and watch what happens, as if they don’t have to plan their novels at all.
In graduate school, I was always told to “get the story on the page” then go back and rework things later. But I’m starting to realize, for me at least, it’s a lot harder to fix deep-rooted problems in a novel that’s already been written than it would be to head some of those problems off from the start. And besides, how can I get the story on the page when I haven’t spent enough time thinking about what the story actually is? Trubly says most writers don’t spend enough time on the brainstorming and planning stage, and perhaps he’s right.
Not that I agree with everything in Truby’s book. His steps are too formulaic and overwhelmingly detailed, and even he admits that not every great story has all the elements he claims are necessary. The most valuable thing I’ve taken from the book is not the twenty-two steps themselves, but how important the planning stage really is.
This should have been obvious to me. I am a planner by nature. But for some reason, I always thought if a person were truly talented or destined to become a great novelist, she wouldn’t need to plan her writing too much. She could just sit down and write and everything would come out the way it was supposed to.
But that is a childish way of thinking.
When I was younger, I thought everything that was “meant” to happen would happen. But as I got older, I realized I had to make a plan and take action to get what the things I wanted. It’s a lot easier to have the life you want if you spend some time making a plan than if you just see what happens.
When I was twenty-four, I sat down and asked myself: what is my one motivating desire? The answer was to write novels and get them published. I’ve been on a meandering path to achieve this goal ever since. I’m not sure who my opponent is (probably myself and/or society, although John Truby warns against both of those options for stories), but I do feel I’m getting closer to a self-realization and perhaps to an important choice.
At the end of Frances Ha, Frances makes a choice to enter the adult world, but on her own terms. She doesn’t give up her passion for dancing, but she accepts the reality of her situation and starts to make a plan for the future.
I like to think I’ve done the same. I know I might never achieve my childish dream of being a rich or famous or award-winning novelist. But I will write novels (heck, I already have), and I will get them published. It’s my one motivating desire, and it will be the driving force of my story until I get to the end.