I love off-the-wall thinking. Brainstorming fresh scenes, turns, and solutions to story problems is always a delight — when I’m assisting another writer. Similarly, I can quickly guide other people toward making good choices when they need to prioritize projects in the face of new projects.
Why is it easier for me to come up with options and give advice to others than it is to determine what I need for myself? A Harvard Business Review article, Why It’s Easier to Make Decisions for Someone Else provides some perspectives on this. In essence, it claims that the mindsets when we are guiding others and when we guide ourselves are very different. And, not surprisingly, those perspectives are tied to risk. I can suggest more adventurous choice for others because I won’t face any consequences. For myself, I’m likely to be more cautious. And I’m more likely to imagine trouble than opportunity.
In addition to seeking safer choices, we tend to drown in information when we’re making decisions for ourselves. As the article states, “Rather than exploring and collecting a plethora of options, the cautious mindset prefers to consider a few at a time on a deeper level, examining a cross-section of the larger whole.”
But success (in terms of satisfaction, achievement, and quality) depends on making bolder choices. I believe this is especially true in writing and other arts, where timid choices suffer by comparison in the competition for attention and engagement.
Can you give yourself the best advice? Can you make more daring decisions? I think it’s possible and I have several suggestions.
Choose a fail-early option. Have an idea for a novel? Write a flash fiction story. A nonfiction book? Write an article. In other media, think one-act plays and pilots and treatments. Put small experiments on your pathway to big decisions. And get started early, before you know enough to stop.
Eat dessert first. Philip Pullman writes that dialogue is intrinsically easier to write than description because the inspiration is already in the form of words. Characters talk, while a clear vision of a locale in a story must be translated into language. If this is true for you, do an easy part of a project before plunging in. Write some scenes just in dialogue. And don’t feel obliged to create a complete outline or to write in sequence before exploring a project. Write the scenes that easily come to mind and see if they engage you.
Get out of your comfort zone. Do some work on a project you have no business doing. Write from the point of view of someone who is different from you. I rarely watch horror, much less write it, But recently, I took are course on horror and wrote my own story. It was not pleasant, but it pushed me into new territory, and what I learned found its way into a new story that was more to my liking.
For your story rewrites:
Let the story sit. Stephen King recommends this. Being too close, attachment to cherished words and scenes, and having too much in your head, gets in the way of being daring. Distance can add a level of objectivity, so, even though you may not be able to give advice to yourself as boldly as you would to someone else, it’s not as frightening to imagine changes.
Go back to your logline. A good logline reveals the heart of your story. In the actual writing, it’s possible to drift away. It’s also possible to be so driven by one version (and its logic) that great opportunities are missed. So I try to come up with five scenes (describe in 2-5 sentences each) implied by the logline that never got written. I don’t insist these five fit the story in the draft. I do insist they tantalize me.
Tell your story in “big animal pictures.” Before you look back at your project, write a synopsis (no more than four pages) that tells the whole story in a compelling way. This probably will indicate strengths you can emphasize, while also freeing you from less vital parts of the story. In other words, you’ll know what to keep and what is expendable.
Explore models. You got your draft done. Now think about the comparable stories that are out there. Read at least one (three is better), and see how these take chances you haven’t taken. Come up with 5-10 scenes that might explore your story in ways the other authors would have.
Engage with your theme. This is probably the toughest. Articulating the theme is often difficult and may leave you with something that sounds less interesting than you’d like. (I’ve found the most success when I’ve identified and explored the story’s pivotal scene.) But it often suggests opportunities that have been missed — both in terms of pushing the story into scary spaces and in terms of cutting wonderful but unneeded scenes.
In addition, I’ve found it helps not to take things too seriously. I tap into my sense of humor and brainstorm ridiculous scenes and imagine spoofs of my story.
I haven’t mentioned draft-stage exercises (except by implication with the opportunities). Because there is less information during the early creative process, I believe it is easier to be more daring. And not much is at risk because the investment in ideas and drafted pages is low.
Overall, I suspect just knowing fear and too much focus on details can hold you back may be enough for some people to explore bolder moves. The article also makes suggestions (including imagining what advice someone else would give you), and these might be worth exploring in your own way.