I see this a lot – a writer excitedly gets started on a story – and then they stress out about something. It’s usually one element – maybe a style; maybe a character; maybe a scene. They get so focused on this element they have a difficult time moving forward. What may have started as a source of excitement becomes a source of undue stress. Is there a way past this? Of course there is.
What Gets You Started Is Important
Back in the days when I was in college, I landed in a psychology class. During that class we spoke about the varied theories behind how our minds work. We read about Carl Jung, and his theories, and the one that really stood out for me was the collective unconscious. For the uninitiated, the theory was we (humans) share a set of common memories and drives that have been passed down through the ages. (I personally found this fascinating)
So what’s this got to do with writing? Chances are if there’s something resonating for you, it will resonate for others as well. If there’s an element you think may work, give it a shot and see where it goes.
Don’t Fixate – or – One Element Does Not Make A Story
I see this a lot – the writer doesn’t just can’t get beyond it. For lack of a better metaphor, they become Ahab chasing the white whale. They put so much effort into making this one element work they neglect the rest of the story.
A good story balances most of the elements. Aristotle did say in Poetics that if a drama is weak in one element, other elements can be boosted to compensate…but most of the time this is only going to get you so far. Most of the time.
Sometimes, and I’m going to be totally honest here, if you make the ride compelling enough the audience won’t care. Think about that for a few minutes. How much you need to work on everything is going to depend on what kind of story you’re working on.
Back when I almost signed up for the writing class from hell (I mentioned it in A Good Instructor), I remember talking to a friend who was in the class. He had a page full of questions the instructor made everyone answer before they could start writing. I had a weird feeling during that conversation that this class probably wasn’t going to be what I was looking for…
Early on, OK, I’ll agree that yes, there are times when this approach comes in handy. If you’re working in speculative fiction, it’s probably a good idea to flesh a lot of things out before you start writing. Thinking through the logic of a world is going to save you headaches with plot holes and inconsistencies. There’s no guarantee anything will be perfect – few things are – but by thinking through the rules you can cut down on them, and save yourself some rewrites.
Strive to mostly balance your story elements.
But Sometimes It’s OK To Break The Rules (Long As You Understand Them First)
All that being said, if you’re working on something short, sometimes the one element will be enough.
Think about most animated shorts. They work because there’s usually one element, which I call a gag, that carries the work. The writers know this and they embrace it. By embracing the limitation – we have X minutes, so we can’t fully develop everything, so we’ll go with these great visuals/jokes/whatever. This approach is usually better in a shorter work, where you don’t have the time or space to flesh everything out. If you want a deeper dive, check out Sometimes All You Need Is A Gag
What really matters is you find the right balance for the story you’re trying to tell.