In his most recent book, George Saunders quotes “movie producer and all-around mensch,” Stuart Cornfield, to make a point not only about movies but about writing – – “…every structural unit needs to do two things: (1) be entertaining in its own right and (2) advance the story in a non-trivial way.”
Doesn’t seem like much, does it? But for writers, the twosome may be more challenging than you think. To entertain should not be taken lightly. And you cannot do it randomly, either. At the same time it must advance your story, meaning “randomness” is the enemy!
Often this calls for variety in your story, but again, you face the danger of variety for the sake of variety. Chekhov, Saunders’ hero in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, is a natural at this. Says George: “Chekhov’s instinct seems to be toward variation, against stasis. One of his gifts is an ability to naturally impose variety on a situation that a lesser writer would leave static.”
(OK, static sorts. Take a step forward and admit it. Or watch as Chekhov takes a step backwards, leaving you exposed.)
This brings us to these famous dictums for writers:
- “Don’t make things happen for no reason.”
- “Having made something happen, make it matter.”
You see, again, the relentless campaign against the random? A particularly contrary writer might wail, “But, hold on! Life is random, so why can’t I write random?”
Because, Saunders seems to be saying, writing is a controlled random – an exquisite, oxymoronic dance of sorts.
Thus, he writes, “In workshop we sometimes say that what makes a piece of writing a story is that something happens within it that changes the character forever.”
Tall, meet order.
To quote Chekhov (and Saunders does so, early and often): “Art doesn’t have to solve problems, it only has to formulate them correctly.”
Happy formulating, then. It’s what make writing such an enjoying challenge!