On planning stories before telling them; also, on writing advice
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“Know the story before you fall in love with your first sentence. If you don’t know the story before you begin the story, what kind of a storyteller are you? Just an ordinary kind, just a mediocre kind—making it up as you go along, like a common liar.”
—John Irving, as quoted in a post on the blog AdviceToWriters
I was so struck by the abrupt, bullying tone of the above advice that I did some googling and found what I think is the source of the quote, an essay on novel writing called “Getting Started” (included in Writers on Writing, which is on Google Books). Below is a more complete version.
“Here is a useful rule for beginning: Know the story—as much of the story as you can possibly know, if not the whole story—before you commit yourself to the first paragraph. Know the story—the whole story, if possible—before you fall in love with your first sentence, not to mention your first chapter. If you don’t know the story before you begin the story, what kind of a storyteller are you? Just an ordinary kind, just a mediocre kind—making it up as you go along, like a common liar. Or else, to begin a novel without an ending fixed in your mind’s eye, you must be very clever, and so full of confidence in the voice that tells the story that the story itself hardly matters.”
Some notes on the first, abbreviated version. In the absence of context, it sounds like we’re talking about short story writing, where planning ahead is a very different matter. In the absence of qualifications, it sounds like Irving is scoffing at all improvisation, strangely ignorant of the power of voice and ingenuity. I think AdviceToWriters has made a common mistake here. They’ve stripped this piece of advice down to its essentials, making it as simple and forceful as it can be. But like most writing advice, it is essentially kind of stupid. Stripped of nuance, it becomes stupider.
I say stupid, but that’s not what I really mean. What I really mean is that Irving, like any other advice giver, is primarily talking to himself. When he hedges and qualifies and explains, it’s because he remembers that he’s speaking to a larger audience.
I find it funny and sad that Irving scoffs at “making it up as you go along,” because that’s the very phrase I would use to capture what I like most about writing, and about many other things. Making it up as you go along, and making it work somehow—what could be more exhilarating than that? (I wonder if Irving’s hero, Charles Dickens, felt the same way about his serials.)