Ah, you say, how can that be? Am I crazy? Mathematicians, engineers, and computer geniuses totally use one side of their brains and poets/artists/literary giants totally use the other! It’s like zombies coexisting peacefully with the living! Like football players getting along with the marching band! Like the Flyers and the Rangers sharing the ice without bloodshed! No, no, a thousand times no!
Keep your pants on. I just read an article saying that the whole ‘left-brain/right-brain’ thing has no scientific basis. In fact, both sides of the brain communicate equally whether you design airplanes or flights of fancy. That, however, is not my point.
Back in my college days, I had to write a paper on Chaucer’s The Book of the Duchess. That same semester I was taking calculus (it wasn’t pretty–my advisor put me in there), and as I sat in the library totally overwhelmed by the work in each, I had an epiphany. In order to prove that the ‘duchess’ was Blanche of Lancaster I had to use the same method I used to do a calculus proof. In a mathematical proof you cannot skip any steps. When the professor assesses your work, he or she checks every single line to make sure you did not make any logical leaps that you couldn’t justify. Don’t worry–even if calculus isn’t your thing, balancing a checkbook requires the same skill set. If you skip any entries, whether debit or credit, the checkbook and the bank statement won’t agree. Even if you have left out as small a thing as a service charge or interest payment, when you get to the end you can’t prove which balance is the correct balance.
Back to Blanche and Chaucer–if I was going to win my case, I needed irrefutable proof. Every logical step had to make sense without question, or else my premise could be totally dismissed. Did I do it? I got a ‘B’ so I guess I did it well enough. More important than the grade, however, was that revelation that has tempered my writing for the rest of my life. Because of this, I have volumes of research and backstory for my novels. Could the ancient People of the Green Hills (from my second novel) have actually had stained-glass windows? How do you make glass? Would they have had the necessary ingredients? In Nick, Megan has to go from Tennessee to New York to LA to DC. How long does that take? Is it realistic for her to drive in the amount of time in the story or does she need to fly? If she is going to fly, how does she get from the airport to where she needs to be? Leave out the rental car, and she miraculously appears at the beach. I have spiritual/supernatural elements in the story, but I don’t want to push it too much.
Now, with the whole People of the Green Hills series, as I work on the second book, revisit the first and plan the third and fourth, I have to ask myself questions of logic to go along with the questions of feeling. A new friend at the last GRW meeting helped me with this. For my antagonist to be bad enough for people to really hate him, I needed to present the argument against him as an undeniable series of facts. He has killed two people. That’s pretty bad. But what was his motivation? Is it enough for the reader to buy him as a scumbag? I didn’t think so when I went to the meeting, but thanks to another Beth, I realized I needed to make some changes.
1. A character has to have pretty strong motivation for fratricide, but if the story changes so that they are half-brothers with different mothers, it becomes less far-fetched.
2. If the current wife, and mother of said fratricidal maniac, hates the older boy because he undermines her son’s position with the husband, the case strengthens.
3. If the father loves the older son more because his first wife was the love of his life and the second is a marriage of convenience, the outcome seems completely reasonable.
4. Add in extra details,like fighting over a girl or an inheritance.
5. Present a plausible opportunity and method, like a car crash.
6. Give your protagonists story elements that threaten the bad guy’s plan,like finding witnesses to his crimes.
Voila’ you have mathematically proven that your guy is a certifiable dirt bag and deserves every terrible thing that happens to him.
Of course, this method of organization is applicable in every kind of writing. I think of it all the time as I work to teach my 3rd graders to write a persuasive essay or an informational piece. It is especially important in narrative, however, because if you skip any steps, the reader won’t follow you to the end.
So there you have it–‘Beth Warstadt’s Secret to Successful Writing’. If I become a successful writer, you are welcome to it.