Enjoy an exclusive guest post from Jacob Butlett, author of “The Eastern Lights,” featured in our upcoming anthology ON TIME.
Along with my family, I boarded the bus heading to Adventureland one early summer morning. As a Creative Writing junior in college at the time, I craved new information about how to write more instinctively and passionately. Dressed in swim trunks and a sleeveless white shirt, I sat down and started to read my new writing book, Story Trumps Structure by award-winning novelist Steven James. A guide on how to write better stories, the book captivated me from beginning to end—from the book’s anecdote of a child who inadvertently leaps into a ceiling fan to the book’s mesmerizing proclamation of the role of storytellers. I stopped reading multiple times to look outside my bus window, contemplating with intense glee every lesson James had to offer. I finished the book after my trip to Adventureland, and since then, I have thumbed through the book dozens of times. Ultimately, the book taught me how to write more instinctively and passionately by writing more organically.
I graduated from college several years ago, and looking back on my college career now, I cannot recall a single time any of my creative writing teachers taught me the usefulness of organic writing—that is, the process of creating a story without relying on outlines. I wrote “The Eastern Lights,” the story Transmundane Press published, by employing many, many outlines, in addition to several pages of notes covering the story’s characters and settings. I enjoyed writing the story inorganically because the process helped me organize the story, which I realized would be long and nuanced. But reading James’ book and writing subsequent stories without outlines have given me an even greater appreciation for organic writing. In fact, as someone who rarely uses outlines, but prefers to keep tentative story notes on lined pieces of paper, I learned three simple insights from organic writing that all storytellers should keep in mind. Anyone who wants a more comprehensive look at these insights should read James’ book.
First, a story is driven not by swaths of setting descriptions or an author’s fancy writing style, but rather by characters failing to fulfill their desires. Therefore, in every scene in every story leading to the climax, the protagonist must fail to achieve what the protagonist wants the most, no matter how subtly. Whenever I am stuck in a scene I am writing, I remember this, which almost always helps me generate ideas on how to move the story along. Second, one of the greatest ways to have characters “come alive” on the page is to have them argue with one another. Having nice characters behaving nicely bores me; having complex characters struggling to be happy in morally gray worlds excites me. As for dialogue, I no longer force the characters to say what I want them to say. Instead, I allow characters to speak how they would speak in the context of the story while I write them in scenes that demand subtle and overt confrontations. Third, in college, I tried to write stories based on outlines as faithfully as possible. Subsequently, most of the stories confused most of my readers because the stories felt forced, relying too much on setting descriptions and a fancy writing style instead of what matters (see the first insight above). Since anything written can be omitted during revisions, I now spend less time writing strict outlines and more time writing and rewriting stories with a greater emphasis on entertaining readers, not confusing them.
I love organic writing. Specifically, I admire the practical insights I have gleaned from reading Story Trumps Structure and from writing stories without outlines. Understanding the fundamentals of storytelling has inspired me to cherish my craft more each day. Moreover, the following has made me grow into a more instinctive, passionate writer: exploring my characters’ desires, crafting dramatic dialogue with a liberated mindset, and spending more time writing and rewriting stories with my audience in mind. I will continue to cherish these insights the next time I am at my writing desk, scrap pieces of paper and my copy of Story Trumps Structure nearby.
Jacob Butlett is an award-winning gay storyteller with an A.A. in General Studies and a B.A. in Creative Writing. In 2017 he won the Bauerly-Roseliep Scholarship for literary excellence, and in 2018 he received a Pushcart Prize nomination for poetry. Some of his work has been published in The MacGuffin, Panoply, Rat’s Ass Review, Cacti Fur, Gone Lawn, Rabid Oak, Ghost City Review, Lunch Ticket, Fterota Logia, Into the Void, and plain china. He was selected as a finalist in the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards residency competition of 2019.
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