Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Write like a hedgehog, think like a fox

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“The fox knows many things,” Archilochus writes, “but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” And ever since Isaiah Berlin wrote his great essay The Hedgehog and the Fox, readers and critics have been dividing up writers into one category or the other—foxes who range widely over the world without any central philosophy, and hedgehogs who focus on one big idea. Really, however, most writers tend to alternate between the two roles: they’re foxes when gathering material and hedgehogs when the time comes to sit down and write. Writers have a dauntingly wide range of interests and obsessions, but in their actual fiction, they often rely on a handful of the same tricks—which is exactly how it should be. One or two good tricks that a writer has thoroughly internalized can be more valuable than an entire shelf’s worth of undigested literary wisdom. And while I’ve previously shared my ten rules of writing, I thought it might be worth distilling them down to the three big, hedgehog-level tricks on which I rely whenever I’m writing something new, even after everything else has fallen away:

1. Structure your stories one objective at a time. As Kurt Vonnegut points out, if you can make your central character want something right away, even if it’s just a glass of water, it will keep the reader reading. The key insight of my writing life is that if you maintain a laserlike focus on the character’s objectives at each successive beat of the story, without worrying about what comes next, the result will have a shapeliness and authenticity that you never could have achieved by planning from the top down. A character who has convincing objectives from moment to moment will also be convincing when you step back to regard him as a whole—and it’s both easier and more effective to concentrate on each beat in succession. This argument is emphatically made in David Mamet’s On Directing Film, the best book on storytelling I know, which I recommend to everyone who cares about writing. The result may not always be inspired—Mamet’s own films can come off as flat and a little bloodless—but if you write a rough draft with this rule in mind, the damned thing will at least work. And that’s really all you can ask of it.

2. Think of the story in threes. George Lucas, who at his best was one of the great methodical, not natural, storytellers of all time, expresses a similar point in the famous Raiders of the Lost Ark story conference: “The way I work generally is I figure out a code, a general measuring stick parameter. I can either come up with thirty scenes or sixty scenes…I have a tendency to work rather mathematically about all this stuff. I found it easier and it does lay things out.” And he’s right: it’s a lot easier when you have a number. In my own case, instead of the thirty or sixty scenes that Lucas talks about, I start with a pattern of three rough acts, which I know I’m aiming for even before I know what the story is about. Not every story lends itself naturally to a three-act structure, but it’s nice to have it in mind, both because it’s an intuitively appealing story formula with a beginning, middle, and end, and because, as Lucas points out, it gives you some useful parameters. And you can drill down even deeper, on an almost fractal level: I find myself dividing sections, chapters, and even individual scenes into three subsidiary units. This kind of structure, as arbitrary as it may seem, is an essential step toward finding a story’s organic shape. Which brings me to my third point…

3. Cut wherever possible—and at least ten percent. Just because you’ve structured a story in threes, and as a series of discrete objectives, doesn’t mean you need to keep all of them in the final version. In fact, the whole point of structuring the story so mechanically is to give you something to change—a solid substructure that you can refine based on how the resulting story reads in real time. If you’ve done your work properly, your rough draft will be a functional object that you can then shape at your leisure, knowing that you can always fall back on the earlier version when necessary. In practice, this often means pruning away the structure you’ve laboriously imposed: in particular, you’ll often cut the first and third beats of a given unit, leaving only the crucial middle. And, of course, you’re seeking to condense wherever possible. If you follow Stephen King’s dictum that the second draft equals the first draft minus ten percent, I promise that magical things will happen. These are simple, stupid rules, based on a couple of basic numbers—one, three, ten—that even a hedgehog can understand. But it’s the only way to release your inner fox.

Written by nevalalee

September 18, 2012 at 9:57 am

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