“Stories fueled by intentions never reach their boiling point”: Writing advice from Bret Anthony Johnston

Do you write with a strict outline or a loose concept?

While there’s no right or wrong answer there are pros and cons to each strategy. A strict outline can keep your thoughts on track and provide you with motivation even when writer’s block may hit. And a general concept might be too broad and leave you without a narrative arc. However, being strict with your outline can give you tunnel vision and you might be missing out on a new, more truthful path for a character, which is something a loose idea lets you play around with.

Writers are told a variety of tips and strategies, but the best advice I’ve come across in a long time is from Harvard’s Creative Writing Director Bret Anthony Johnston. His philosophy stems from letting your intentions go and letting the world you’ve created deliver its own outcome based on the natural path of characters and plot:

“[This] lesson is a good one for fiction writers: stories fueled by intentions never reach their boiling point.

[...] Intention in fiction is always related to control, to rigidity, and more often than not, a little solipsism. The writer seems to have chosen an event because it illustrates a point or mounts an argument. When a fiction writer has a message to deliver, a residue of smugness is often in the prose, a distressing sense of the story’s being rushed, of the author’s going through the motions, hurrying the characters toward whatever wisdom awaits on the last page.”

Writing has the beautiful ability for writers to have complete control over a world, characters, events and incidents. However, when you write knowing the outcome of your characters their predetermined fates might be limiting their natural course. When you let go of your original intentions and be flexible in the direction of your story your WIP can move in ways you might never have known.

After a few drafts or round of revisions and you aren’t sure what’s holding the story back try letting a character’s truth manifest unaffectedly instead of what you as a writer perceive to be their truth. Let your character go down a dark path in the forest. Your writing could bring things up from your subconscious that you might have been avoiding with a neat and tidy outline. Writing your characters from a strict character trait checklist can be a fast track to inauthentic characters. Let them breathe, really bring them to life, let the characters deliver the message.

Q: Do you prefer to use an outline or not?

Further Reading from Bret Anthony Johnston:

Why fiction’s narrative and emotional integrity will always transcend the literal truth from The Atlantic

(Image via The Atlantic)

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2 thoughts on ““Stories fueled by intentions never reach their boiling point”: Writing advice from Bret Anthony Johnston

  1. Writing has the beautiful ability for writers to have complete control over a world, characters, events and incidents. However, when you write knowing the outcome of your characters their predetermined fates might be limiting their natural course. When you let go of your original intentions and be flexible in the direction of your story your WIP can move in ways you might never have known.

    I sent this paragraph to my husband, because he doesn’t understand that, although I’ve finished a rough draft, I’m still making some pretty major changes to my WIP. It’s because when I struggled to tie up all my loose ends, I found that the reason some of those strands weren’t ending up in nice tidy bows was that they were not well enough thought out. Then when I started doing research, I discovered new depths to several of my characters. And that’s who they were all along. I just didn’t know it.

    Like this

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