Looking at a Story with Fresh Eyes

Posted by Glen Moyes on Friday, 29 October, 2010 at 10:53 pm

Ultimately we will be getting actual fresh eyes to look at our story (i.e. the expanded test audience), but during the writing process we need to look at our story differently and more critically in ways that we haven’t before. What I mean by this is as a writer you naturally need to be critical of your ideas, your story, and the characters in it as you are developing it. That critical eye is dictated by your understanding or theory of story, and what you think the main conflict of your story currently is (because that may change as you work on it, and it certainly has with Hackberry Hollow…twice). That naturally critical eyes is what I’ll call the baseline self-critique level. But what causes you to step up and/or expand your level of self-critique to look at the story differently and improve on your story’s shortcomings?

From my experience a heightened level of awareness of your story and character’s motives happens in two ways. The first way is to come back to your story after not working on it for a month or two. After a month you are now less attached to ideas that were “awesome” or “hilarious” at the time. The story has had time to settle and some of the ugly stuff starts to rise to the surface in your mind, as you passively think about your story while doing other daily activities. Sometimes there will be a problem in the story and we tried to over explain it to make it work, forcing that bad idea into submission, only to realize later that it doesn’t work because the over explanation doesn’t make sense (In general if something is too hard to explain then the idea is not working, but this shouldn’t be confused with problems that take a long time to solve. Simplicity, or an idea that makes sense can take some time to come up with, maybe even a year or two.)

In short, you can look at a story differently and more critically simply by not working on it for a while. Of course you need to take a break every once in a while, and sometimes things get in the way that creates a month or two gap in the story writing process, so the fresh look once you get back to the story later is an added benifit, but it’s also a very inefficient way to look at your story with fresh eyes. Also that phenomenon has only mildly served us twice during the whole process of writing Hackberry Hollow. There’s a better way to get a fresh perspective.

The most effective way I’ve found to look at a story differently is to read books and resources about story writing. You’ll read a constructive movie critique or an article about story theory, and then think to yourself, “Does our story have that?” Then you go back and look at your story for that one specific element to see if it’s there. Does our story have a false moment? What would happen if I “interrogated” the characters in our story? Would their motives make sense if they tried to explain it? Those are examples things that I read on a blog or in a book, and then went back to our story to see if something like that needed to be fixed.

Writers are not perfect and stories are bad for a long time before they get good. And I’m not making that up; that is something Andrew Stanton of Pixar said, or maybe it was Ed Catmull, anyway it was said during a Pixar talk about their writing process. [citation needed] Even they said all of their stories sucked at first, and continued to suck for a while. You need to constantly look at the story from different angles, look for specific things that may be wrong, and you can’t do that alone. Books and blogs (like the Story Fanatic blog) are great, but co-writing has probably been the best thing that could have happened to this project. A co-writer is an instant filter for bad ideas, makes brainstorming go a lot quicker (not to mention it’s another person with their own sets of experience and knowledge, and Adam is a freaking encyclopedia), and it’s also good to be accountable to another person to get stuff done.

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