A great animator-cartoonist once asked: “Can you remember, or care to remember, the plot of any great comedy? Chaplin? Woody Allen? The Marx Brothers? It’s all about character. Personality is everything.”
Mark Twain wrote: “The writer merely has some people in his mind, and an incident or two, also a locality. He knows the selected locality, and he trusts he can plunge those people into incidents with interesting results.”
For me, and I suspect for all writers who’ve come into their own (although not necessarily into money or critical acclaim), this is exactly how it is. Someone, a character, a personality, enters my head and starts talking. Sometimes a place comes first, or a time in history. What does NOT come first is story, a plot, a structure. I’m suddenly filled with a personality seemingly not my own who wants to act out her or his own story. And I follow, often blindly, but I follow, always in the dark.
I’ve read writers who tell you that you can’t know your tale unless you know your ending. They mean a goal. Writing means reaching that goal. I’ve read writers who tell you before you write a word you must write a detailed outline of all that will happen. When I was young and had not come into my own, this kind of thing seemed true. And I despaired. I never know my ending. As for an outline, well, one always dislikes a thing one cannot do. I cannot write an outline because for me story is not a mechanism, a Lego structure, a feat of engineering. A story is organic and it flows from the personality of my main character. He or she knows what she wants. I write as I’m told by some inner voice whispering as I go, trying to keep up. I make wrong turns when I don’t listen, when I impose “me” on my character. Hypatia of Alexandria fought back. I knew I’d lost the story when I felt her struggle with me. But when I stopped messing with Hypatia’s one true voice, the story once more wrote itself.
I have no idea if the advice I heard when I was young works for anyone. All I know is that it doesn’t work for me and it’s lovely to know it didn’t work for Twain or for the man who created some of the world’s most iconic cartoon characters.
If it doesn’t work for you, stop doing it. Sit in front your computer, your typewriter, your pad of real paper, and just listen. Someone will begin speaking to you. Write down what they say. And word by word, day by day, they will tell you a tale no one else has ever told before.