Monday, 8 October 2007

Goal posts

“By losing your goal, you have lost your way.”
Kahlil Gibran

Imagine a football field (whatever code of football you prefer). All the players are there. They’re moving that ball around with great skill. It’s an exciting atmosphere. But the game just goes on and on and on. After a while the crowd thins. Those seats are hard and they’re hungry. Eventually the players lose momentum, too tired to be bothered. The problem? No goal posts. There is no point to the game because they have nothing to aim towards.

Writing a book with no particular end in mind is just like that. I’ve written two books (that sounds so grand, but until I publish them, they’re just so many words on my computer). With both I found that until I decided what would happen at the end, I couldn’t make the story work. It wasn’t that the endings were mind-blowing or anything like that. It was just that to develop the story, I needed to know where it had to end up.

So, once you’ve got the ending, does that mean that the rest of the story doesn’t need much thought – as long as it gets to that point? No. Again, just like that football game, it’s what happens within the game that makes the excitement. A game in which one team whitewashes the other isn’t half as exciting as the game where the teams are both skilled and the lead changes regularly. Even if your team loses by the smallest of margins, the game is memorable.

Ursula K LeGuin, the author who alone stirred my love of fantasy, once said, “It is good to have an end to journey towards, but it is the journey that matters in the end.” No matter how fascinating the ending might be, you have to keep the readers’ interest. That means setting goals within goals. Each chapter needs to aim for something, forwarding the plot towards that final destination. Each paragraph needs to move the story along. Each character needs to have a reason for existence.

It’s a complicated business, this writing game. But it’s fun.

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