Dennis O’Neil: How Long Can You Go Without Faking It?
Story ideas are pretty malleable. I once presided over/rode herd on/sweated out an 1,100+ page continuity that began as a plot for two 15-pagers. Hemingway is credited with writing a story in only six words. (Go on. Google it. I’ll wait.) I did something a while back, just a bit over 500 words, that, I think, qualifies as a story, though some might disagree, (and because we cherish the First Amendment, if for no other reason, we welcome their dissent.)
Slick magazines, back when my mother was reading them, featured stories complete on one page.
Superman’s origin, which, you might recall, involved an exploding planet – we’re not talking small, here – was originally told on one page and the first Batman story ran a mere six pages, but it was very close to a Shadow novel that must have been in the neighborhood of 45,000 words.
[[[The Great Gatsby]]], often cited as a great novel, is 47,094 words. [[[War and Peace]]], ditto on the great novel label, goes 587,287.
So, is there a point to all this? Let’s try to find one.
Story ideas, and literary forms, might be malleable, but that doesn’t excuse scriveners from the labor of plotting and structuring. You can’t just plunk yourself down at the keyboard, decide you’ll do an 1,100-pager and begin to perpetrate the opening of this Sahara of a continuity. No, check that: you can begin the aforementioned perpetration, but a prudent person might advise against it. The danger is that, toward the end, you might find a lot of loose ends that defy knotting, or you might have given your characters problems that they can’t solve and still stay true to whatever else you’ve established. Or you might just run out of plot. Then, you begin to improvise. You fake it. You pad. Are you, by now, boring the reader? Admit the possibility, anyway.
It happens. A person far wiser in the ways of Big Media recently confirmed what I’d read somewhere. Sometimes, writers and producers of television entertainment begin a protracted and complicated storyline with no clear idea of how they’ll get from A to B. They make it up as they go along. Sometimes they get away with it. Sometimes.
I know that some Nineteenth Century literary luminaries – Charles Dickens and Fyodor Dostoyevsky to name two – serialized their novels before publishing them in hard covers. I wonder: did they make it up as they went along? Did they do outlines? Plot summaries?
What we did, my comic book colleagues and I, was make pretty detailed outlines, in consultation with our freelancers. We all knew what story we wanted to tell and had a reasonably firm idea of how it should end. There was a few small disagreements: some of my merry men wanted the outline to be detailed; I wanted to leave wiggle room and preserve the option of someone having a better idea along the way. But we generally knew where we were going and how to get there.
One more thing: that outline assured us that we had enough plot to justify the number of pages we were planning to occupy. We could and did permit side plots to run in parallel with our central story, but we wanted none of that padding stuff.
Is here any padding in the preceding 551 words? Well…