REVISION

Imagine that there are three aspects or elements of everything we write: Experience (what we know, remember, perceive, what we can say), Art (the mysterious, essential, emotional source, the heart, what we want to say), and Craft (how we finally choose to say it)

If we imagine, and agree, that this is true, most of what we usually try to learn and teach falls into this third category. We don’t need craft until we’ve chosen something we’re capable of writing, have arrived at something compelling, and have managed to manifest a first draft.

Then comes the fascinating, frustrating, often overwhelming task of making what we’ve said into what we truly meant to say. If I look at my fantastic new writing in the cold light of the following morning, or take my piece into a workshop, or give it to a friend to read, it seems I have a hundred different problems to solve. And that it’s difficult to be sure of what the problems—never mind the solutions—actually are.

But after years of both revising and teaching revision to other people, I’m beginning to see that what seemed to be hundreds of individual problems can mostly be reduced to a few different general problems. And that those problems are both universal and surprising.

Put simply, all stories involve characters, in a world, acting in a sequence. And I noticed that by paying close attention to how I handle each of these practical elements—people, world, sequence—I could make sense of my revision woes. Instead of feeling like I had a hundred separate problems to solve, I just had three major KINDS of problems. Once I saw what they were, and how easy each one was to address, my writing improved dramatically.

CHARACTERS

First, I had to learn to be aware of my tendency to abdicate. One of the things often missing in our stories is US, by which I mean the “I” of the memoir, or the viewpoint character of the novel. Even if we’re presumably in every scene, say in a first-person novel or memoir, the tendency is to deflect the story, instead of being our people, we just want to tell about something, we want to stand somewhere at a safe distance and report on the action—we tell about a journey, a quest, a tragedy, a betrayal, we tell whatever story we have in mind, but we forget to inhabit our characters, to see what they see and feel what they feel and, most importantly, want what they want and feel how they fear, and suffer, and cope. The harder the emotional going gets, the more inclined I am to disconnect from my own characters (even if I’m writing about myself), and start telling the story from a safer distance.

WORLD

Second, I had to learn to be aware that although I want to write vividly, originally, and truly, I often fall into writing vaguely or predictably. I had to learn ways to reach beyond the abstract and familiar, to remember especially that we are all shaped by our contact with the actual world, and that, surprisingly, I can give a story life by grounding it solidly in the world of concrete, supposedly lifeless, things.

SEQUENCE

Third, I had to learn to be aware that my drafts often needed rearranging. In memory and imagination, everything exists at once, so my ideas flow out in a random order. But we act sequentially, and story in fact consists of sequential action. Meaning flows and builds in linear time. So I had to become more intentional about ordering the action in my story, and better at paying attention to what the actual order of events revealed about the story I was trying to tell.

Dark and Bright

Like the universe, all stories are composed of both matter and antimatter. All stories have dark and bright. Good and bad. Safe and dangerous. They’re about connection and disconnection. And, like the universe, most stories consist of slightly more matter than antimatter. In other words, the universe wants us to solve for the dark. This is why most stories we write are about people trying to make bad things better.

Well, maybe that’s not really why….or in any way true. But I like the metaphor. Anyway, I said earlier, one of our most common problems is the tendency as writers to disconnect from our characters, especially when their stories get emotionally difficult or dark. Sometimes we avoid telling the story we set up. One current trick of memoirists is to avoid causal chains altogether, and rather to offer disconnected series of impressions or memories. This can be thrilling and fresh. Sometimes I mistrust or get tired of my own tendency to make meaning. But it can also offer an easy out, a way to avoid making meaning, and, more importantly, a way for an author to avoid facing and inhabiting a difficult story, to avoid confronting meaning. A way to keep the story at a safe distance from the character. And breaking up the story is just one way we have of disconnecting. Reportage is another—that tendency to look at a character from far away, objectively. Mostly, when we’re writing early drafts, we don’t know our characters well, and aren’t making conscious choices about how we construct our stories or choose our viewpoints. It takes many drafts for me to make those essential connections successfully: between myself and my character, between my character and a reader.

So I want to talk here about what I see as the deepest source of this difficulty. And to do that I want to start by talking about dark, and bright, and intention.

First, imagine that the source or motivating power of any story is dark. Stories are all about intention. Someone wanting something. Someone trying to do something. And the something is always an effort to move from disconnection (the dark, what we see as danger or lack) toward connection (the bright, what we see as safety or love). No matter how cheerful a story might seem, no matter how small or secret the source of darkness, there’s always some motivating core of loss, fear, disconnection or the threat of disconnection. If a story doesn’t have a dark source, it isn’t a story. Why? Because without a sense of loss, or need, or lack, without sorrow or loneliness or ambition or fear, a character has no intention.

That’s not to say we can’t write good stories in which our characters have no clear intention, or no intentions they’re clearly aware of. Very interesting people often operate without a clear awareness of their intentions. But if you, the author, are not aware of the dark matter that is the source of your character’s actions, you’ll write something we don’t recognize as a story. It may have many of the attributes of a story: description, dialogue, characters doing things. But it will lack an organizing awareness that gives it power and meaning. It will be written, but not authored.

Plot vs. Character

Writers often talk about plot-based, vs. character-based stories. For a long time I couldn’t understand the distinction. Don’t all stories have people? Don’t all people do things? Don’t all stories have both plots and characters? But now I think I understand. The difference in emphasis is a difference in approach, and that fundamental difference, stated as simply as I can, lies in where the author places the dark matter of the story.

In a plot-based novel, the dark source of the story is outside the main character. In these stories, the character wants and tries to address the darkness in the world. The intention is to fix what’s wrong in the world. To right a wrong, to help someone, to live through a disaster, to win love, to solve a mystery, to make the world safer….so success always means achieving something material or visible or tangible.

In a character-based novel, the dark source of the story is located inside the character. In these stories, the character’s intention is to address some inner darkness. Outwardly, both kinds of stories may look exactly the same, but character-based stories look deeper into the individual. They’re about the search to make the inner world a better place, to change loneliness to love, unhappiness to happiness, sorrow to joy.

In other words, in a plot-based story, we write with the premise that something bad has happened in the external world, and that our character needs or intends to act on that world, to put things right. eg. A dog is lost, and when it strays into Bob’s yard, he invites it in. eg. An oil company wants a pipeline across wild land, and we join a group to stop it. eg. Jo’s family is about to lose their farm, so she returns to save it. eg. The story of my family seems incomplete, so I set out to fill in the blanks. eg. Briggs wife has left him, so he goes to get her back.

Whereas, in a character based story, something bad has happened in the emotional world of the character, and that unhappiness or disconnection is what drives the action.

eg. Bob is lonely, and when a dog strays into his yard, he invites it in. eg. I don’t feel like I’ve done enough to make the world a better place, so when I hear plans to run a pipeline across wild land, I decide to join the fight to stop it. eg. Jo meant to leave home for good, but she’s not happy in the city, so when she hears the farm is in danger, she returns. eg. The older I get, the more questions I have about who I am, and the more compelled I feel to solve some family mysteries. eg. Briggs is lonely without his wife, so he sets out to bring her back.

Notice that the same action takes place in both stories.

In the first examples, the “dark” is located in the lost dog, the oil company, the bank, the missing information, the unfaithful wife. In the second examples, the “dark” is located in the person: Bob’s loneliness, my unease, Jo’s failure, my questions, Briggs’ loneliness. The first kind of story focuses on what our characters do. They’re action stories. The second kind of story focuses on why they do it. They’re insight stories.

And in telling each story, we’ll choose different details. If I want to tell a story about a lost dog, I may need a scene depicting what life was like for the dog before the dog got lost. In the second story, I’d want to show what the threatened wilderness looks like. In the third, I’d want you to know what the farm was like in its heyday. In the fourth, I’d want you to know what my life was like before I became aware of the missing information. These are the scenes that will provide the contrast. They’re the “bright” that allows us to see the “dark” in the outer world of the story. Note that in plot-driven stories, the characters are presumably happy until the bad thing happens in the external world…Bob was fine until he saw the lost dog (and was sad for the dog), I was fine until I found out about the pipeline, Jo was fine until she got news about the farm, I was fine until I learned about the mystery. Character is bright, world is dark. Then the character goes into the dark (makes sacrifices, does battle with the bad). Only a practical, material success will leave the world a brighter place.

On the other hand, if I want to tell a story about Lost Bob, I’d offer scenes of Bob’s life before the dog came, clues that he might be lonely. Or scenes from my life of disconnection, unhappiness, watching wilderness disappear everywhere. Or scenes from Jo’s life in the city, not working out so well. Or scenes from my life in which I’m bothered by the mysteries of my past. These scenes will tell about the inner “dark.” Note that in these stories the characters are explicitly unhappy until the bad thing happens (which, in a character-driven story, may appear as a good thing, or at least mixed). Bob was unhappy until he saw the poor dog. I was unhappy until I joined the activists. Jo was unhappy until she went home. I was unhappy until I began looking for answers. The character is dark, the engagement is bright. And if the battle makes us happier, the outcome is irrelevant.

So there we are. Neither story is more or less true than the other. We live in both worlds, the objective one, and the subjective one. But as writers, we tell these stories differently.

What I notice is that the plot-based story is primarily material and intellectual. These stories, most successfully, are about people learning things and doing things. They are, in some way, reports. In moral and emotional terms, they usually seem fairly straightforward and unambiguous. You’re more likely in such stories to find heroes and victims and villains, gladiators and lions. The complexity is external. Things might not be what they seem on the surface, or obstacles might compound, or mysteries might deepen. Genre fiction is typically plot-based. The characters change their world

Whereas the character-based story is primarily emotional and spiritual. These focus more on people feeling things and seeking things. They’re less about action than about motivation, and they can be emotionally complex.. You’re more likely in such stories to find anti-heroes, people in conflict with themselves, people tangled in the complexities of their own thoughts and feelings. Literary fiction is typically character based. The world changes the character.

And of course, as I said, the reality is that both are true, and every story will do and imply both things. The character acts on the world, and the world acts on the character, and both change. So, again, we’re not talking about a choice, but about emphasis.

The Challenge As I said, depending on whether we think of the dark in terms of what happens TO us or in terms of what happens IN us, we’ll choose to tell our stories quite differently. People tend to be more literal (plot-based) thinkers, or more emotional (character-based) thinkers.

But since most of us aren’t really aware of the implications of these very different approaches, and since most of us grew up reading plot-based stories, and watching plot-based movies, and because we write intuitively and imitatively, we very often accidentally use a plot-based approach to write stories that might work better as character-based stories. And since plot-based stories allow us to stay outside or at a further remove from our characters, it’s just easier to tell them. We don’t have to feel what our characters are feeling. Even if we ARE those characters.

There’s a right approach for every story, and it’s not always the same approach. How surprised were we, for example, when James Bond recently began to experience emotional conflict that had a source in early childhood abandonment? Cool, yeah, but what a way to stall the plot, after years and years of unreflective action! On the other hand, if Hollywood writers had been put in charge of Hamlet, he’d have attacked Claudius right away, and lost, and been thrown in the dungeon, and made his escape, and raised a rebel army, and been Brave Heart instead of Hamlet, and we’d have missed some good soliloquies.

As early-draft writers, we have another problem. We don’t really know our characters that well. Even if we ARE those characters, we may not have developed the depth of insight that will allow us to understand and decide what kind of story we’re telling. To demonstrate, here’s a typically confused paragraph from one of my own early drafts, in which Briggs goes looking for his missing wife.

He’d ridden out to Cottonwood creek, the last time he saw Mary. March or April of the year, she’d spent the winter on the reservation. He’d camped upstream and was fishing when he smelled his own fire. Came up with trout and there she was, he’d seen her in December before that, they’d stood in coats out of an evening wind and said a little. They’d had a few times like that. This time he’d brought Chinese shoes for Nan, a yellow penknife for Truman, rice and stick candy, three new wool blankets. They cooked the trout and ate them off tin plates and played some cards and when it was dark they lay down together and he’d held her close with her head beneath his chin, an evening warm and still. After a while he’d said, There’s a woman who wants me to marry her.

When I read that now, I think, wow. The person really missing in that paragraph is Briggs. I may have been trying to summon the emotional restraint of 1880’s but the effect is that of looking at my character through the wrong end of a telescope. If the story is plot-based, and my intention is to tell a story about a guy going to get his wife back, then the “dark” is located in her, so there needs to be some conflict, her saying Heck no, I’m not coming home, and him being indignant or putting up some resistance of his own. But Briggs seems to be a kind of gentle fellow, lonely, and also conflicted, since apparently someone else wants to marry him. He’s really more Hamlet than James Bond, and if that’s the case, shouldn’t we really be allowed to feel what he’s feeling? Where are the details about coming home each time to an empty house, or getting drunk at the bar? Something. Anything, to show he’s alive, and let me connect with how he’s feeling.

What was really happening was that I wasn’t afraid to suggest scenes, but I was afraid to actually write them. I was afraid to write dialogue where people argue, or he pleads, or really tries to bribe her, or has to see his own children and feel the heartbreak of going home alone, after having been a happy family man for years. I thought I could get away with vaguely implying all of that, but I couldn’t. It wasn’t restrained and sophisticated writing, it was just timid writing. But I had to write that draft so I could begin to imagine what I really had to do. We all have to fail our way to success. And then there’s memoir. Unless we put on leotards and capes before heading off to work, we’re probably reluctant to make ourselves the action-heroes of our own narratives. So, memoirs make a kind of implicit promise that (unless we’re unreflectively saving the starving children in Haiti) we’ll be writing not simply about what we’ve done, but about what we think and feel, about why we’ve done what we have done. But that’s also uncomfortable. We may not feel we have the insight we need, or the confidence to explore ourselves too intimately in print. We may be afraid that our feelings, if stated explicitly, will offend, or bore, or seem narcissistic, or that our great insights will seem either wrong or obvious.

Add to this the apparent fact (I speak for myself) that by mid-life we may be undergoing a major shift, from an essentially plot-based view of the world (as young people, we mostly ran around, doing this, getting that, being good not bad) to an essentially character-based view of the world (as mature people we stare into our coffee cups, questioning this, abandoning that, redefining good), and it’s easy to see that the very reason we want to write about our lives is because we have neglected, for so long, our mysterious interiors. In fact, the deep essence of a mid-life crisis may be that we’ve reached the end of our plot-based lives, and are ready to ask some deeper questions about who we are and how we ended up here. But we’re not yet used to asking such questions, let alone trying to answer them. Publicly.

The difficult result is that memoirists can be caught in a netherworld. As readers, we expect personal writing to be about the person who’s writing. But as writers, we’d really much rather write about anyone, and anything else. We try to just get away with writing about what we’ve done. Then we lose our nerve and start worrying. Who cares what we’ve done? Who cares what we feel?

The good news is that, while our plot-based heritage inclines us to see the world in rather black and white terms, and to be fairly judgmental, character-based writing encourages, almost demands compassion. The act of writing character-based stories asks us to understand and to forgive not only ourselves, but everyone we write about. What we perform, ultimately, are not acts of revenge or triumph (as in plot-based stories) but acts of genuine connection. And when we become deeply connected with ourselves, and find the grace to write about our lives fully and with insight, we also offer readers a way to connect with themselves. Because while our plots may all be different, our characters all end up learning very much the same lessons.

WORLD: OBJECTS AND STORY

Yes, and our plots ARE different. And our lives have been vivid and particular, and that is why we are distinct and interesting to one another. And our lives have been vivid and similar, which is why we resonate with, and are reassuring to one another.

The wonderful truth is that we have each lived, since birth, and for every moment of existence, in an actual, material, tangible world, a world of objects. And even in sleep, our world is in a sense tangible, actual. We don’t dream in ideas, we dream in lizards and sticks and ominous clouds and haunted pianos and freeway interchanges. I go through my days paying attention mostly to ideas and feelings, I ponder facts and make conclusions and feel concern about the future, but when I look my life, my real life, the world I move through almost without looking, it is full of forks and plates, gear shifts and potholes (not even metaphorical ones, but real actual practical ones), trees of all kinds and a supermarket with items on the shelves, boxes of cereal and rows of zucchinis, and when I look at what I remember (and if I think I’m made of ideas and feelings, I’m made even more of memories, because without those I’d have no ideas or feelings to speak of) what I remember are things, I remember cats and a potato field and a motel television you had to put quarters in, and I remember the wet leaves on the sidewalk in Connecticut, and for every thing there is a complex series of feelings and associations (the wet leaves on the sidewalk at the time of the election, I was in second grade, walking home, and wondering why my parents told me not to tell my friends that they were voting for Humphrey)… My sense of being the child of political liberals in a conservative neighborhood seems to be stored in wet maple leaves. And all my stories about myself are stored, likewise, in objects, or sounds, or smells. In the senses. And the associations are rarely obvious.

This seems true for all of us. And for my whole life, and for the whole lives of our characters, if we’re writing novels, we live in and move and take our form and ideas and essences from these material objects. And our memories and metaphors are stored in, and suggested by, material objects.

Yet we typically speak and write in abstractions. To prove a point, I’ll open three novels at random, from my shelf of only good novels, and see what I get on a given line:

“but Dorothy doubted the Draft board, if it came to it…”

“Well in some ways, yes. But at heart I am still in the presence…” “

He was exhausted. He had to respond. He spoke with care…”

There we are, three books, three pages, three lines at random, and only one concrete noun (heart) but used here as a metaphor for feeling. So…nothing real. And of course there is nothing wrong with writing in abstractions, I’m doing it now, we do it all the time. But perhaps that IS what’s wrong with it.

Because our stories are about us, and we’re human, we have skin, we have hands, we touch and eat and drink and see, and our feet hurt. Writers live in their brains, but readers want the dream, they want to see, to be in our stories in a vivid, visceral sense. They want a world brought to life. And the writers who can do this seem to have magical powers. Cormac McCarthy’s vividness comes largely from writing that consists of a high percentage of nouns and verbs. And that writing was suggested, or echoed in a generation before, by writers like Ernest Hemingway and Patrick White. And the memoir/novels now of Karl Ove Kausgaard and Elena Ferante are virtual landscapes of nouns, Knausgaard’s in particular are vivid, and, in their very immediacy they challenge the whole notion of meaning. Yet people say I feel like I’m there. I don’t know why, but I can’t stop reading. Why can’t we stop reading? Because every page has simple powerful words like orange, garbage can, blue bow, bread crumbs, dining table, wallpaper, eggs. As sophisticated as we think we are, humans are just animals, and we live in a real world and are suckers for a vivid dream.

But what happens to me is a writer is that I think in story, we writers have stories about other people we want to tell, or stories about ourselves, and we think we know what goes in them, and what goes in them is all familiar to us, we are in a groove of abstract thinking that we rarely leap out of, and that groove has everything to do with meaning. We are meaning-makers, we writers. We know our stories and we want badly to tell them, so that someone else can delight in these truths we’ve discovered about the world, this meaning.

But DO we know what’s true? And does the meaning matter? Because meaning has no color, no sound, no leaves, no quills, no stickiness at all, and when we close a meaningful book we may not be able to remember what exactly we have read. Yet the words yellow knife and tin plates, even though they mean nothing, created the only vivid images I still have from my own Disaster Paragraph.

He’d ridden out to Cottonwood creek, the last time he saw Mary. March or April of the year, she’d spent the winter on the reservation. He’d camped upstream and was fishing when he smelled his own fire. Came up with trout and there she was, he’d seen her in December before that, they’d stood in coats out of an evening wind and said a little. They’d had a few times like that. This time he’d brought Chinese shoes for Nan, a yellow penknife for Truman, rice and stick candy, three new wool blankets. They cooked the trout and ate them off tin plates and played some cards and when it was dark they lay down together and he’d held her close with her head beneath his chin, an evening warm and still. After a while he’d said, There’s a woman who wants me to marry her.

In fact, if anything redeems this paragraph at all, it’s the nouns: trout, coats, wind, Chinese shoes, yellow penknife, wool blankets. Sadly, the setting’s not great, the nouns can’t really do their work, just plopped in there in the mud of all. But without those nouns, there would be nothing to hang onto. And in fact, if I’d attended more closely to the material world of the paragraph, I’d have expanded it into more scenes and included other things: a real grove of cottonwoods and a real creek (not just relying on the name Cottonwood Creek) with damp earth and flickering leaves and little patches of old snow, and the feel of the icy wind cutting through the coats, there would be a horse and a pack horse to unsaddle, ropes and canvas, and some method of cooking fish over a fire, a stick, which needs to be cut, and whittled, a fish which needs to be slit and gutted, and Briggs’ thumbnail run along the spine to clean it, and the slime on his hands that needed to be washed off and then he’d straighten up with his hands still dripping and cold from the creek, and he’d see a woman wrapped in a green plaid blanket.

But I didn’t write that, not at first. Because what happens is that as I’ve aged, I’ve stopped looking. Most of us stop seeing the world freshly, and when we look at a door, we only see our idea of a door, and our metaphor of a door, and our blended memories of a thousand doors, but we no longer see that particular door any more, because this particular door has no meaning, and we’re in some kind of rush to get to the meaning of things, so we pass over the things themselves. As children, we didn’t worry about meaning, so we saw things real and whole. Once, a door was wonderful, frightening, tactile, the knob out of reach, the people behind it mysterious, the door was a whole and our relationship with it was immediate and intimate. Now the things in our heads are more real than the things we touch, and this is one reason we have lost our ability to write interestingly. Or so I think.

In the same way we become afraid to go too close to our characters, we become afraid (maybe because the intrinsic meaninglessness of objects is vaguely frightening to writers, with their subtle and embarrassed need to impress) or we simply forget how to get close to the world. But the wonderful thing about things is that they are intrinsically benign. They don’t mean anything, but that’s a good thing, because by my age a lot of meanings have soured. I’m always seeming to look for evidence to support my glum theories and my bad attitude about myself. And although objects suggest disturbing memories, but no object in itself is more than it is, simply, a chair or a sand dune or a bicycle. Objects are innocent. And they remind us that for the most part we are also innocent. When I eat, and wipe my nose, and watch a movie about Mount Everest, and pick up a shell, and get out my credit card at the gas pump, I’m entirely innocent, and if I remember to see myself in contact with the real world of objects, I feel in some way blessed.

And it’s impossible to write well if we dislike ourselves too much. And speaking of self-loathing, (or even mild suspicion), for those of us writing memoirs and think we know what we know about ourselves (and others), and are disappointed in ourselves (and others), nouns and their associations can be brilliant doors into unremembered worlds. Because, while we make meaning from what we remember, what we remember tends to be limited. Very few things remain visible on the shelf. But if you begin to speak in nouns, if you say to yourself: duffel bag, or crib, or tissue paper, or receding hairline, and begin a treasure-hunt through your memory for that object, you’ll find parts of your life long stored and not looked at, and in doing so, you’ll find also fresh meanings, new ways to see yourself (and others). Don DeLilo might have quipped that memoirists start with memory and make meaning, whereas novelists do the opposite, but I think that memorists are the most inclined of all to begin with meaning, and trot out the familiar memories to support it. And I’m more and more looking for ways to stop knowing what I think I know, about myself, about anyone. To this end, I made myself a list of about four thousand nouns (and growing), and before I write a new chapter, I scan over that list with some general time and place in mind, my Sophomore year in high school, for instance, and sure enough, a look at that list will conjure memories of that time I didn’t know I had. Are they important? Should they be included? Some yes, some no. But the experiment proves again the magical and expansive properties of nouns.

library peaches arrows
watercolors bosom cradle
nightmares fruit flies
needle ice forest
fire straw hat
syrup canned corn garage

SEQUENCE: TIME AND STORY

When we write, especially first draft material, especially around a certain idea or object through time, the initial writing tends to flow directly from memory, or, if we’re writing fiction, from imagination. In that dreaming realm, there really is no time. Everything exists at once, together. And when we open the door, it all comes out in a jumble. The jumble seems perfectly natural and coherent to us, because we’ve experienced all of it. But we actually live our lives in chronological order, in linear time.

If I leave it this way, my readers have to do the work of re-ordering the events as they go. And they can. We tell each other stories out of order all the time, in normal conversation, and we’re capable of following jumps and backtracks. Only, each time we make a leap in time, the listener has to break out of the dream of the story, and use the rational mind to reorient and relocate this scene in the context of the others, to build up the whole picture. Every instance takes a cognitive toll. In fact, very importantly, even putting information out of order in a sentence (sentence after sentence) can take a huge toll

Of course, no rule says a story has to be told in order. It can be an interesting exercise to re-order a jumble of events, if we sense the jumble is deliberate and offers a worthwhile challenge. Mysteries work on this premise. And we’re taught in school to open with a punch, a crisis, to grab the reader’s attention, to give them a reason to keep reading to find out what’s happening. Or to “bookend” a piece by starting with the happy ending, and then wrap around and begin at the beginning. We’re all familiar with those storytelling strategies, and might even resort to them automatically.

But unless there’s a real reason to offer events out of order, I think it’s important keep the events of a story straight. Why? Because a series of events or ideas told out of order is really not so much a story as a collection of related memories or observations. As readers, we enjoy reminiscences or random thoughts, but unless this randomness is intentional and carefully handled, we tend to start nodding off. Human beings act with intention, in linear time. So It’s the causal chain of want/try/fail/learn/change, no matter how simple, that captures our attention, keeps us in suspense, and pulls us through. Any series of events told IN order becomes much more apparently a story.

In other words, if you want your story to be more interesting, put it in order. I mean REALLY in order.

When we really put all the details of a story in order, lots of good things happen. First, it encourages us to leave the sloppy dream-world of “I remember,” or some boggy past conditional “He had” or whatever we’ve naturally fallen into that isn’t clearly anywhere in time. Second, we get a better picture of where story or scene should really start, and why. It could be that the earliest events in the order are critical, and make a good opening. Or it could be that we included events that are too early, and don’t need to be anywhere. Second, we can start to see what ought to be left out. If I have to interrupt my story of a mariner to tell us when and where he bought his telescope, but putting the story in order means I have to write a scene back on land when he’s in the telescope shop, I might think twice about whether anyone needs to know its provenance at all. Third, we get a clear sense of cause and effect, and can start to see gaps in the story, scenes that we imply but didn’t write. If it’s clear that the telescope shop is more important than we thought after all, we’ll be grateful we realized we needed a scene. Often the gaps we leave are much more important and dangerous, and we’ve managed to avoid or “paper over” them by telling the story out of order. So re-ordering a story is an important discipline, and can force us to face scenes we’d rather have cleverly skirted. Finally, reordering a story chronologically allows the action to flow uninterrupted, and for that reason it’s inherently a compelling choice. So here’s that Disaster Paragraph again, to look at in a fresh way.

He’d ridden out to Cottonwood creek, the last time he saw Mary. March or April of the year, she’d spent the winter on the reservation. He’d camped upstream and was fishing when he smelled his own fire. Came up with trout and there she was, he’d seen her in December before that, they’d stood in coats out of an evening wind and said a little. They’d had a few times like that. This time he’d brought Chinese shoes for Nan, a yellow penknife for Truman, rice and stick candy, three new wool blankets. They cooked the trout and ate them off tin plates and played some cards and when it was dark they lay down together and he’d held her close with her head beneath his chin, an evening warm and still. After a while he’d said, There’s a woman who wants me to marry her.

In the old days, when I got mud like this, my efforts at revision were pretty random and intuitive. By trial and error, I might get to the heart of it, and see what needed to be done. Now, when I get mud like this, I begin to revise simply by putting each event in order, just to see what I might need to do. Here’s the re-ordered paragraph: Mary is on the reservation that winter (that information should be placed earlier) In December he visits her (this is it’s own scene, if it belongs at all) In December they stand together in the evening wind and talk a little He visits a few more times like that (more scenes? Or not?) Someone else falls in love with him and wants to marry In spring (March OR April? Doesn’t he even know what month it is?), he buys things for the children and for Mary, shoes and blankets, etc. (Should I start here?, A scene in a store, choosing things?) He rides to Cottonwood creek, looking for her (or here? On a horse, headed onto the reservation?) He makes camp He goes fishing He catches trout He smells his campfire He returns to find her by the fire They cook trout and eat and play cards They lie down together at night He tells her about the other woman

Now, when the story is written immediately, in the present, I can see how many events were out of order. (In fact, the list is better writing, by a long shot, than the paragraph, because I can at least understand it.) It implies no fewer than five scenes before the main one even opens. Do I need all these scenes? Any of them? Some but not others? Should I add more detail, expand them, make them more vivid? Should I just start THIS scene with the ride to the creek? What inspires him to ride in search of her? Was it the marriage proposal from someone else? (That scene’s important, it drives this one, so I’d better have written it well.) Then, does he look for her but not find her? If he wants to find her, isn’t his disappointment important? But then she’s there. How did she know to find him? Am I just having her conveniently appear so I can avoid a more difficult scene? And where are the kids? Does he ask about them? And he has these gifts, doesn’t he give them to her? And if he loves her, why can’t we see her? Is he that far removed from his own life, or is it just lazy writing? Oh, dear, oh dear. Now I can see it should have a ton of suspense. A man’s whole future is on the line here, but the muddled chronology (above all) means we’re yawning through it.

I had some serious revising to do.

No matter what, re-ordering a story takes time and energy and a surprising amount of courage. We’ll have to face the possibility that the story isn’t very interesting, when put in order. Or that it’s too interesting, and we’d been avoiding the hard stuff. But re-ordering our chronologies will immediately serve to energize our more abstract, muddled, boggy writing and will almost magically turn it into something brighter, more vivid, more energetic, and more meaningful.