The Key to Successful Storytelling Lies in Intuition
Whether you’re new at writing fiction or you’ve been at this a long time, there is a truth that may surprise you.
You have an intuition for story, something that’s been ingrained in you your whole life. And it serves you well—or it can—if you learn to listen to it and trust it.
When you first start writing fiction, you may doubt everything you write. You may second-guess whether your dialogue sounds natural or you characters are behaving believably.
Often beginning writers are so concerned with getting the words down and conveying the plot that they don’t stop to consider what their intuition is telling them.
Stop and read a paragraph you wrote out loud. Without judgment, consider how it sounds to you. Does it sound “right” or “off”?
With training, experience, and skill, writers can quickly recognize when something is “off” and needs work. And the more a writer pays attention to those nudges from within, the better. Those nudges tell us not to be content with so-so writing but challenge us to greater mastery.
Elizabeth George, in her writing craft book Write Away, writes about listening to our bodies, paying attention to how a scene feels to us. I relate to this intuitive method strongly. Here are some things she says:
“You must develop your instincts for storytelling. I advise my students to trust their bodies when they’re writing because their bodies will never lie to them about the story, the pacing, the characters, or anything else. Their minds, on the other hand, will lie to them all the time, telling them something is good when that sinking feeling in their guts . . . tells them irrefutably that that something is bad. Or vice versa. . . . Your body . . . is the most effective tool you have.”
Learn to Trust Your Intuition
When you write a scene, you should be able to sense if something is wrong or missing, not quite hitting the mark. And if you nailed the scene just right, you should be able to feel that as well. Maybe this is a little touchy-feely for some of you (men especially). But I think there is great wisdom here that is rarely talked about.
I have learned over the decades of writing novels to tune in to and trust that bodily response to my writing. However, to be able to do this well, you need to be very honest with yourself. You have to be willing to listen to that subjective voice that says “this isn’t working” and, in a sense, be objective enough to act on that realization.
As the saying goes, we have to be ready to kill our darlings. If those darlings are just messing up our story, we will sense that. (BTW, some say that expression originated with Stephen King or William Faulkner, but the original quote was actually coined by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. In his 1916 publication On the Art of Writing, he said: “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—wholeheartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscripts to press. Murder your darlings.”)
Your intuition may not be finely tuned at this point. If you are a novice writer, you may not have the training and experience (or expertise) to be able to honestly evaluate if what you just spent two hours writing is really any good or working well. You may need professional insights to help you learn how to spot weaknesses in your writing, or plot holes in your scenes.
Hopefully, with years of practice and experience you will know enough to rely mostly on your own intuitive sense about your writing. But it does take a bit of humility and honesty to evaluate your writing.
Getting a Fresh Take on Your Writing
Once you get into the habit of listening to your body’s reactions, which you can almost feel in your gut, you will realize that intuition will rarely be wrong.
When I write what I feel is a great scene, one that accomplishes exactly what I’d hope and is written well (even if a bit rough at the first draft stage), I know it without a doubt. It’s a kind of “yes!” moment. And the more I reread it, the more that feeling is confirmed.
The converse is also true. If a scene just isn’t working, or something feels off about the dialog or narrative, I know it. And the more I try to justify keeping the troubling passage, the stronger that feeling of “wrong!” grows.
Sometimes you will need to get away from your material for a while to get a fresh perspective. That’s when, to me, intuition speaks the loudest.
After picking up those chapters you wrote a couple of weeks ago and rereading them, those little (or big) irritations (that you tried to rationalize should stay) will pop their heads up. But if the pages you wrote feel just right, they probably are.
That doesn’t mean you won’t need some editing, or won’t have to add or take away some lines to tighten things up or tweak the pacing. Revision and editing fine-tune the material you have already vetted with your intuition.
Take the Time to Listen Quietly
All the above is why I tell my clients to let my critique sink in for a few days before diving in and rewriting (or reacting in horror). My observations of their stories is subjective, and although I may give a load of suggestions on how to make their book a better, stronger read, I remind them they need to trust their feelings and intuition. The more they mull over the comments given, the more certain concepts and suggestions make sense and feel right. And some of those suggestions may feel wrong.
I tell clients, “It’s your book, your story. Go with what feels right to you.”
If you’re not much of a “feely” person, you may want to take a little time to “get in touch with your emotions.” I don’t mean to sound corny here, but as Elizabeth George says, your body really is the most effective (and underrated) tool you have.
If you really have no clue what I’m taking about, read something you recently wrote. Then sit quietly and observe how you feel about what you wrote. Turn off the critic and try to be an observer to how your body feels about what you wrote. Overlook the little things that can be tweaked through revision. Pay attention to the overall effect, style, pace, and plot development of the scene. This may take some time and practice, but it is well worth it.
I hope this is one piece of writing advice you will embrace and agree with. If not, that’s okay. Find whatever works for you. But whatever that is, I hope you will trust your feelings about it.
Your thoughts? Does this resonate with you? Have you experienced your intuition telling you something is wrong in your scene?