by Tiffany Yates Martin
It sounds like a writer's dream: hours of time at home, no expectations to go anywhere or do anything outside your house. You can really dedicate the time to better your writing, right? But what if you don't feel like writing? Many writers have experienced a short-circuiting of their creative energy during this quarantine, with everyone stuck at home.
Maybe your creative space and time have been crowded out. Maybe worry, uncertainty, and even fear make it hard to concentrate on your craft. Perhaps the very sensitivity that makes artists artists might be working against your ability to create your art in such unsettled times.
But even if all you’re able to manage right now is curling up on the sofa with a book or the remote control, taking in other people’s stories can actually be a wonderful opportunity to learn to objectively assess your own and hone your skills.
So don’t worry if you just can’t find your creative spark at the moment. Trust me, it’s there—like a pilot light that never goes out—and you can feed it no matter where you are mentally at the moment.
The Beauty of Passive Intake
“I just want to curl up and couch surf.”
If you’re finding you simply can’t get off the sofa and all you’ve got in you right now is binge-watching and binge-reading, that’s fine. Stay right where you are and carry on—what I call “passive” intake of story is still an effective way to develop your storytelling skills. There’s no need to actively analyze; just relax and let it wash over you, allowing yourself to osmose it.
Did you like the story? Did it draw you in? Were you invested in the characters? Was there a sense of urgency or momentum that kept you watching/turning pages (or not)? Did the emotional moments affect you? Did the plot hold together and feel complete, the end satisfying? Don’t think; just feel the story.
The beauty of passive intake is that there are no right answers; you're observing you and your reactions, just noticing, as in meditation.
Did something make you cry? Why? Can you pinpoint it?
Were you on the edge of your seat at any point? How come...can you trace it back?
Don’t try too hard; just gently see if the reasons jump out at you. For instance, “I really cared about Vivian and she wanted to shop so badly” or “Dammit, I know Carole did it and got away with it.” Whatever raised a reaction in you, just tease out that thread a little bit.
This kind of passive reading/watching is the equivalent of the initial cold read editors do to orient ourselves to a story—and it’s the first step I suggest to authors in editing their own work with an objective eye. In the examples above, for instance, you’ve noticed very concretely how making the viewer care about the protagonist and then making her care passionately about something is how you create a visceral reaction. In the second, you’ve seen that tapping into a viewer’s sense of injustice can evince a visceral sense of outrage. You’re learning how to deeply and directly invest your readers.
So if this is all you have in you at the moment, it’s still valuable training in storytelling techniques when the time comes to write or revise. (But no rush! For now just sit back and start that next episode of Ozark….)
When Creativity Is Elusive
“I’ve got a little bit of juice in me, but my creative side is comatose.”
No worries. You can still serve your writing from under the covers while you stay up all night reading (why not? who can sleep?). If your brain is working but you’re not in creation mode, you’re in a great position to dig a little deeper and let yourself start to analyze a bit.
Start asking yourself the kind of questions editors ask as they begin to assess a story—in parentheses after some of the ones I suggest below are the storytelling elements you’re enhancing your understanding of:
- Is there a central story question? Can you sum up what it is? (Plot, character, stakes)
- Who were the protagonists, and were they the engine of the story—meaning did they directly drive the action? (Character, plot, stakes)
- Did you feel you knew them—that they were real people? In what way? (Character)
- Did you care about them? Why or why not? (Character, stakes, point of view, voice)
- Did the story keep propelling you forward? If not, where did your focus lag? (Stakes, character, plot, momentum and pace, suspense and tension)
- Were the story events believable? (Plot)
- Were there extraneous story events, or loose ends? (Plot, character)
- Did it all tie together cohesively? (Plot)
- Did the story take you on a clear journey? Were the characters changed somehow by the end of the story? Was that change a direct result of the story events? (Character, plot, story arc)
If this is all you do, you’re still helping your own writing and storytelling by learning to actively and objectively analyze what makes an effective, engaging story—or what hampers it. You’re an animal behaviorist patiently observing your subject and learning how they behave, what makes them tick, and that understanding becomes part of your own creative process, making you a more deliberate, knowledgeable writer.
When Motivation Is Elusive
“I’m still sharp as a tack, but couldn’t feel less like writing.”
This is when you can switch to a more active type of art intake—you’re not just watching your subjects; now you’re going to dissect them to really find out how they work.
For this deep-dive approach I recommend using a book, movie, or show you’ve already seen and re-watching or re-reading. When you’re no longer taking it in for the first time you can be more analytical. This is the equivalent of the editor’s main edit pass, when we immerse ourselves fully in the manuscript and really start digging down.
Now you’ll more deeply examine the answers to some of the questions I suggest asking. This isn’t an exhaustive or prescriptive list, just suggestions to get your mind jump-started on the kinds of things you might investigate. When you find yourself reacting to something in a story, that’s when to pith the subject—press pause or stop reading—and go back and start dissecting.
I’ve made some book or movie suggestions with each question, but literally any story can be analyzed this way.
- Do I really care about this character—or am I somewhat indifferent? In either case, why? (Examine specifically the ways the author/filmmaker made you invest in the central characters, or didn’t, for example Marriage Story, or Hitch, or The Hate U Give.)
- Am I hooked—do I have to turn the page or watch the next episode? Why? (Analyze anything you ever binged, in any genre: Big Little Lies, The L-Word, The Americans. Thumb through first and last lines of chapters/sections, or episode ends, or scene transitions, and pinpoint exactly what made you keep going: for instance, unresolved tension, an unanswered question, a mystery, a cliffhanger?)
- Am I surprised…or can I figure out the plot? How did the author/writer keep me guessing, exactly—and if they didn’t, what telegraphed the plot? (Dissect a story where you were or weren’t surprised and parse out what gave it away or set it up, or alternatively, how the storyteller misdirected you or created uncertainty: Ozark, The Good Place, Fight Club, etc.)
- Is every scene essential in moving the story forward? If so, how—what does each one accomplish? (Analyze scene by scene stories with great momentum, and those where your attention lagged: The Princess Bride; Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri; Little Fires Everywhere.)
- Am I on the edge of my seat, heart pounding? What specific elements created that in me? (Dissect how a storyteller created suspense and tension, paying extra attention to places where you’re especially hooked: Get Out, The Kite Runner, Finding Nemo.)
- Is the story multitasking—working on various levels and accomplishing more than one thing with each scene? Specifically what, and how? (Pick a scene you loved, for any reason, and parse out what it accomplishes as far as storytelling, like character development, moving the story forward, emotional layers, motivations, etc.—and how: Crazy, Stupid, Love, Walk on the Moon, An American Marriage.)
- Does the end satisfy me? If so, how? If not, why not? (With so many shows ending right now, it’s a great chance to analyze this storytelling element and what does or doesn’t create satisfying story resolution: Will and Grace, Schitt’s Creek, Modern Family.)
This is a fraction of the kind of questions you can ask, the areas of story you can dissect. Once you’ve noticed your own reactions during the passive-intake first watch or read, reverse-engineer the story as you re-watch or re-read those sections and parse out exactly what created those reactions in you:
- Did you get bogged down in backstory? Why?
- Did the characters seem flat to you? How come?
- Did you lose interest anywhere? Where and why, exactly?
You can also consciously dissect how authors, actors, or directors convey emotion, state of mind, reaction, interaction and dynamics—the “non-verbals” and subtexts of story that create depth and nuance.
Replay a scene with your eyes closed, for instance; then watch it again with the sound off. Notice how an author describes physicality, reaction, expression, emotion—or what those traits look like in an actor when those feelings are evoked.
You can dissect how skilled writers effectively use show and tell by listing out everything you know about the characters and plot in the scene based on what you read or saw—and see if you can pinpoint exactly what let you know it.
Or see if you can define how the author/filmmaker created their unique voice. Is it the language—the words or phrasing the author uses? Is it some identifiable orientation toward the world or the subject that feels distinctive to you? Is it the author’s or screenwriter’s personality or aesthetic or worldview that shines through? A Phoebe Waller-Bridge show is very different from a Shonda Rimes one, for instance—can you verbalize why, exactly?
If an author’s style or a certain passage delights you (or disgusts you), stop and break it down to figure out specifically why.
It’s equally valuable to do this with stories you didn’t like as much as those you did. Notice or analyze why they didn’t work for you.
These observation and analysis techniques work with anything story-based, which is almost everything: books, TV shows, and movies, but I’ve also learned loads about storytelling from magazine profiles, from investigative journalism and provocative think-pieces, from Bernie Taupin lyrics, even from especially effective commercials. As this kind of analytical thinking about story becomes habit, you can glean a wealth of knowledge about effective storytelling every single day of your life, whether your muse is dancing nearby or not.
Be kind to yourself, artists. Take the pressure off yourself to write or create during these unprecedented times, and let yourself just be still and take in for now. You’re still serving your craft, and I promise the creative spark is still burning—and the flame will flare up again.
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Tiffany Yates Martin has spent nearly thirty years as an editor in the publishing industry, working with major publishers and bestselling authors as well as newer writers, and is the author of Intuitive Editing: A Creative and Practical Guide to Revising Your Writing. She's led workshops and seminars for conferences and writers' groups across the country and is a frequent contributor to writers' sites and publications. Visit her at www.foxprinteditorial.com, and connect on Facebook and Twitter.
"I trust Tiffany Yates Martin with the editing process even more than I trust myself. Read this book and steal her secrets!"—Kelly Harms, Washington Post–bestselling author of The Overdue Life of Amy Byler
"Tiffany Yates Martin is an exceptional editor, so of course her advice and counsel in Intuitive Editing is exceptional as well. Whether you're a seasoned author looking to fine-tune your craft, pacing, or tension or just starting out and looking for guidance on building overall structure and engaging characters, this book is a must-read that will take you from idea to finished manuscript."—New York Times–bestselling author Allison Winn Scotch
"This book is a must have tool every author needs in their toolkit. When you are ready to go deeper, to dig into the revision process, using Tiffany's Intuitive Editing strategies will help you take your writing to the next level."—New York Times– and USA Today–bestselling author Steena Holmes
"Authors, if you can't be lucky enough to have Tiffany as your editor, then Intuitive Editing is the next-best thing. Her advice is sound, thoughtful, no-nonsense and given with the compassion that every author and their book deserves."—Elisabeth Weed, literary agent, the Book Group