Friday, September 18, 2009

Take A Walk With Me

“An important way you keep your protagonist from wandering aimlessly about your narrative is to give him an intention in every scene—a job that he wants to carry out that will give purpose to the scene.”

Jordan Rosenfeld, Make A Scene

Character is key. How many times have you read or heard that? As I start to think about the prospect of NaNoWriMo, and the potential of writing a novel, I’ve been thinking a lot about the issue of Character, and how Jordan’s commentary reaches to the heart of an issue. To put my own spin on Jordan’s advice, to keep your scene from falling flat, you need to focus on the five W’s of writing: Who? What? Where? When? And especially, Why?

“The intention doesn’t come from nowhere—it stems directly from the significant situation of your plot and from your protagonist’s personal history.”

Jordan Rosenfeld, Make A Scene

This morning, I started my day around a quarter to five this morning. It’s not hard to do when a five-year-old climbs into bed with you and your spouse and then starts wiggling around. I'm not complaining, though. I needed to wake up eventually. Why not do it earlier, right?

After letting the dog out and starting a pot of coffee, I slipped into a sweat suit, tied on a pair of sneakers (some old-fashioned words should never die), and then stepped out through the garage. Like other writers, I have decided to give “walking” a try. So with nothing in the sky but the crickets and the constellation of Orion to keep me company, I set out with only one goal in mind: to listen to my characters.

On a note pad, I’ve already jotted down some notes about plot devices and potential conflicts—the “significant situation” as Jordan describes it—so now I need to work on my characters. Who are they? What do they want? How will they get it, whatever “it” may be? With one foot in front of the other, the cool air brushing against my face, it has been my hope that I might find the answers to these questions as I trek the morning route. I shouldn’t really call it a route, though. I’ve only been doing this for two days now, and both times I walked a different way.

Here’s what I’ve discovered. A funny thing happens while you’re walking along with an open mind. I could actually hear the characters talking. While I had some names, I didn’t have them all. Now I have a new name to add to my cast of characters. And here’s something else. While I didn’t know at first exactly why one of them was angry, I now have a page of explanatory notes, including snippets of the conversations I heard. I’m starting to know more about my MC. Where he came from. How he came to live where he now lives.

After two days of walking, I have gained a greater understanding of my characters and the story. There are more connections to discover—obviously there will be if I want to have three-dimensional characters and a believable plot—but I now feel more confident that I can actually plug the colored wires into the right slots. I’m learning the personal histories, which will lead to motivations, which will lead to additional intentions for each scene.

Of course, it doesn’t have to happen exactly this way. You can do it during the afternoon or the evening. It can happen while you’re driving your car or riding the transit. For all I know, you can even listen to your characters while sitting out on the back porch, coffee cup in hand, listening to the birds chirping merrily as the sun sneaks over the horizon. However, you do it though, there is one constant. You must have an open mind.


  1. Stephen, walking is my favorite way to think about my writing. Story problems seem to work themselves out in the rhythm of feet on pavement. I offer you my best tip: wear sweatpants with pockets so you can carry a pen and paper. Or a cell phone, if you have to be techy about it.

  2. I'll elaborate. Carry a voice recorder. That's even more immediate and you don't even have to stop. =)

    This gave me a lot to think about. I just quit smoking and after the initial panic waves subside, I plan to do the walking or riding a bike thing myself.

    Happy writing.

  3. Greta pointed me to your blog, Stephen. Thanks for referencing the book. Believe it or not I have to look at my own book to remember some of these strategies myself!!


  4. I get too distracted by other things while walking. My most productive thinking comes while I'm doing dishes. I hate doing them, so my mind turns inward and I solve all kinds of writing problems.


  5. Yep, walking is how I get kinks out of my characters and stories. This a.m. I snuck out of my parents' home about the same time you snuck out of yours. I allowed myself the luxury of 'working' on PURE, which has been woefully neglected. Came back and jotted down ideas for a full half-hour.

    Good for you... I sense you're working out the Nano stuff ;^) Peace, Linda

  6. Everyone: Thank you for stopping by and offering great suggestions. You all are the best.

    Jordan: Your book is, and has been, a wonderful blessing, just at the time I needed it the most. The advice is spot-on and easy to understand. Thank you for writing it.

  7. I always recommend walking or riding a bike to writers. For me, they almost never fail. I have some stories that I say my dog wrote, because they largely took form while I was walking him. Maybe I should credit him as coauthor?

    I usually don't take any recording device with me, but try to get it down on paper as soon as I come through the door. A digital voice recorder sounds promising though.