This article first appeared on the Writers Fun Zone.
We’ve all heard the expression, “He can’t see the forest for the trees.” That means that someone can’t see the big picture because he’s too focused on details. Writers, however, have the opposite problem.
Writers need details. They need to explain detail so readers can understand the big picture. Rich, textured stories are built on limited, knowable worlds. Robert McKee in Story makes the point that the larger the world, the more diluted the writer’s knowledge of it. That means you have fewer creative choices, which results in a more clichéd story. The smaller the world, the more complete your knowledge of it can be. That gives you more creative choices, resulting in a more original story—and ultimately, victory in the war on cliché.
For example, think of War and Peace. Although played out against a massive backdrop of Russia in turmoil, the story itself is about a handful of characters in interrelated family dynamics. Ditto Dr. Zhivago. Of course the Russians make a specialty of immense backdrops of countries in turmoil, but also think of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy. The backdrop is big; the story itself is careful and precise.
Research Takes You There
How can you acquire the in-depth knowledge—the details—you need for the story you want to create? Research. To build a complex story, you’ll probably need to dig into your memory, mine your imagination, and search the library.
First, memory. Think about what you know from personal experience that touches on your characters’ lives. You might not be the same person as any of your characters in terms of age, education, geography, profession, or other attributes. But if your character faces a professional risk, apply what you know about fear and uncertainty. Remember how you felt when you made big decisions. Bring back your memories of your childhood fear of the dark, or going on your first date. Explore your past, relive it, and write those emotions for your character. Experiences are unique, but emotions are universal.
Your characters almost certainly will go places you haven’t been, or live lives that you’ve never seen. What then? Time to call on those creative juices! Memory can recreate moments or emotions or even broad swathes of experience, but it can’t provide all the detail you’ll need for a good story. So you’ll have to make it up. Imagine the fragments, slivers, hours, even minutes of how your characters live. Do they walk to work, or drive? Take the bus, the train, or an airplane? Do they drive a Segway? What do they eat? When? In or out? Take all these unrelated bits of information and forge them into a whole. You may not need to include everything—probably you won’t—but once you fully understand your characters, you’ll know more about what to leave out.
The fact of the matter is, your talent—your skill and imagination, bolstered by memory—needs facts to thrive. Feed your talent with ideas and facts. Particularly if you’re facing writers’ block, if your imagination and memory have momentarily dried up, research can kickstart your creativity. But be careful: biographic, psychological physical, political, and historical research of setting and individuals is critical but ultimately worthless if it doesn’t lead you to creativity. A story is not information assembled, but a structured imagining that is better than real life. Don’t use research to procrastinate.
Make the Muse Work for It
As new ideas seed your story, plot and characters grow; as the story grows, you’ll discover new questions to answer—which requires more research. Creation and investigation go hand in hand, making demands on each other. In the end, you‘ll find the balance—and the way through the forest—to a complete and unique story.