Here’s the second and final part of the responses I received from friends in the writing community when I sent out this quote from Philip Pullman’s book of essays, Daemon Voices: On Stories and Storytelling.
“I don’t know how other storytellers function, but in my case I never start with the theme of a story. My stories are about something, to be sure, but I never know what that is till I’m in the process of writing them. I have to start with pictures, images, scenes, moods—like bits of dreams, or fragments of half-forgotten films. “
— Philip Pullman
(CLICK HERE to see Part One.)
Thanks to all the friends who shared their wisdom and their process. It’s interesting to see the variety of responses, from one friend saying: “How could I start with the theme? If I was aware of what the hell was going on, how could I possess such a densely packed kernel of emotion and conflict and change? ” (see below)
… and another saying: “Starting a story without a theme seems impossible. Why would you write any particular sentence and not some other? Wouldn’t it all be arbitrary?” (see previous entry.)
Naturally, many take a position that falls somewhere between.
It’s been eye-opening, and I hope to try this again with other questions in the future. Thanks for reading.
So I do agree with that statement with respect to fiction. If I’m writing an essay, or an article, I might say: I want to write about X topic. And I do that a lot. But that’s only non-fiction. With fiction, it’s different. It evolves out of a scene for me. A scene I keep coming back to in my head. Now that particular scene might not make it into the final fiction at all, but it’s a place I go to discover the story. I ask myself questions: What’s happening here? What is the primary feeling? What is the back story?
I rarely start with a theme or philosophical conflict in mind. I use the first draft of a story to get all my ideas out of my head and onto the page. Only after the first draft is complete and I’m ready to rewrite do I get a notion for what the story is trying to say, and if it’s not saying anything, well, then I have work to do! I work on the philosophical conflict in the second draft and develop the characters to be better vehicles for that conflict. The philosophical conflict and characters in place, then I can work on other elements of craft in later drafts.
My understanding of philosophical conflict comes in part from the young screenwriter Tyler Mowery and his video course “Practical Screenwriting,” which includes a section on “Systematic Rewriting” that transformed my process. https://www.practicalscreenwriting.com
It always starts with a scene … At the apex of the Cuban missile crisis, the young daughter of a British bomber pilot is alone in a graveyard, burying the soft remains of a dead starling. I’m captivated. I become fixated. I become haunted. I watch the scene over and over in my mind. I start to understand the characters. Serious little Myra Sankey, her drab pinafore dress streaked with sodden leaves, happiest in her own company, unaware that she is being observed by a watchful little boy, half-hidden in the surrounding trees. I’m not usually aware of the underlying theme. At least not at first.
My stories do have theme. In fact, theme is central to my work. But theme is not a conscious process for me. It’s more subtle than that. It’s intrinsic. It’s entangled. As I watch the story unfold and I write my way through it, theme starts to emerge. My themes are often dark and gloomy: death-wishes; existential crises; loss. But my stories are usually bright, humorous, upbeat. This is a pretty good reflection of my mental state; a core of dark thoughts, surrounded by a shell of humor, optimism, and verve.
Usually, I find that the emerging theme is a concept that I just happen to be grappling with at any given moment … For every person, there exists a natural lifespan, a natural death, the creeping sickness – a cough, a gripe, a funny turn – that will eventually lead to her demise. But a premature death erases all of this. It erases the time she would have had. It erases the death that she should have had, maybe elderly, perhaps surrounded by her children and her grandchildren. What does it mean when one person dies prematurely? What does it mean when hundreds do? Thousands?
I watch my character, the child of a bomber pilot, on the cusp of a human tragedy. I write the life she should lead; her sorrows and triumphs. Her natural passing. Then I place her life in the balance. Perhaps that day in the graveyard she will hear the bombers scream overhead. She will watch her father race Eastwards, his squadron painting contrails in the sky. I want to tell the life-story of one girl, at the moment when she is at the most danger of not living it. And whilst I do, maybe I’ve wrestled another of the angels that inhabit the shadows of my mind.
How could I start with the theme? If I was aware of what the hell was going on, how could I possess such a densely packed kernel of emotion and conflict and change?
As artists, it’s our aim to make people aware of something. Awareness is a process not so easily said and done. It is an intersection of experience, analysis, and curiosity, that seems to unfold along with the process of writing and revising my work.
When a poem me nace (in Spanish “is born from me”), it presses so heavily on my awareness that it demands to be unpacked. That little kernel expands into a lawless amalgam of sentences and stanzas. As I articulate and then comb through them, I start to hear behind it a theme, a message that is clearly present but would never have been so audacious as to announce itself at the port of entry. In this way the work of writing is so healing, as it creates space for both unabashed truth-telling and the airy light of personal insight from a distance, whether it’s retrospect or speculation.
My compulsion to write a story generally follows a spark, a flash of sensibility, like a glimpse through a tear in the curtain of our world. I can see and hear, I can almost reach out and touch, a character in their specific reality, confronting a specific situation. This spark is often followed by a string of words – a sentence, a declaration, a statement – that may or may not end up in the story. Building a story out of that flash, then becomes the process of trying to tease some sense out of that initial stream of consciousness whim.
I would love to be one of those writers who can figure everything out ahead of time, and then just flesh out what I know to be. That is not how it works for me, although I keep trying! I usually do not know what I am writing until it appears on the page; it’s as if, except for moments of startling clarity and certainty, I am writing blindfolded, or from a trench, or from behind a fortress wall. There is a massive, gray impediment that is always hanging just in the line of sight of my mind’s eye, and each time I sit down to write I dart and hop and squint, trying in vain to pull it aside, to make out what is on the other side. Occasionally, if I am lucky, I get a clearer view of the larger story, or another rush of understanding, and I frantically try to jot down as much as I can.