Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Look where you are going.

I started watching a TV show, CANADA'S WORST DRIVER.

The show takes people from all over Canada who are bad drivers and lucky haven't killed someone yet, and teaches them how to drive.

The biggest lesson they teach is to look where you are going. This may sound simple but it is a hard skill to master. When you are barreling towards a post your instincts are to stare straight at it. When you do that the car will follow and you will smash into it. If you see your escape route and look at that, you will automatically steer the car in that direction. When you have to drive through a narrow space if you look at the space instead of the objects on either side you'll pass through them easily. If you look at the objects you'll smash into them.

The other lesson they teach is to look far enough forward to have time to react. Humans are biologically made to look 35 feet in front of them. This works great if you are running that give you all the time in the world to react. When you are driving at 55 mph, or even 30 mph, this gives you a split second to react and the littlest things will make you panic and you'll drive faster causing a feedback loop.

How do these two things relate to writing?

In two ways, there are times when your character “takes over” and as the writer you are just recording what they are doing. Different writers have different names for why this happens. GMCs Goals, Motivations and Conflicts, Character “voice”, well defined character. It is just the fact that your character is looking where they are going.

It also works as a writer, if you are writing a scene where your character is about to hit an obstacle, the natural tendency is to write about the obstacle. This makes the reader feel like the character is a deer stuck in headlights. Instead of focusing on the obstacle have your character focus on how they are getting around it. That is how confident people work and it makes for a confident character.

The other way these driving lessons relate to writing is looking forward far enough to react.

In grade school we are taught to focus on sentences and paragraphs. I remember having to write a paper on Wall St in fourth grade. Naturally I had to get there. I started writing the first act and the teacher came over and looked at the two paragraphs I had written and said I wasn't doing the assignment. I explained how I needed to get to Wall St in order to write about it. She asked why I didn't do that yet. My response was, “In the first Paragraph?” It was almost like fourth grade English teachers don't look at the classical structure and dramatic pacing of a 400 word essay and are more concerned that the students get the basic mechanics of writing down.

Unfortunately it is too easy to fall into the trap of looking immediately in front of you while writing. Using the three act structure it is easy to train yourself to look far enough forward. In the three act structure in the first act the characters are introduced and the conflict presented.

Start out looking were the main character wants to go. Show the obstacle, and have the character look for ways around it. Then have the conflict arise. The main character sees the conflict and looks to the escape route not at the conflict. Always looking to get to where they want to be at the end of the first act.

In the second act, the conflict is unavoidable and the main character is knocked away from where they are going. As you write look to where your character is going to end up.

In the third act the main character has to defeat the obstacle and start on the a new path. So the writer should look at the ending.

By looking forward at where you want your character to be you don't have to worry if you jot down an awful phrase or start machine-gunning commas into your writing. These things can be easily fixed but if your main character starts wandering around aimlessly for 10,000 words it is really hard to get them back on course.

If both you as the writer and your main character are looking at where you want to go and not looking at the obstacle the writing will flow smoother and the character, plot and pacing will come out better.


  1. Going for the path and not the obstacle, not an issue for me. I'm always focused on the solutions not the obstacles in writing (and driving though I've had the crap scared out of me by things moving in my peripheral vision before).

    Looking ahead, that's been more problematic, possibly because it's all about the characters so I often haven't even dreamed up an obstacle for the first five chapters. I'm better about it than I used to be, but it's still so tempting just to hang with my loveable characters far too long. I'm such a silly girl.

  2. Looking ahead can make your characters stronger. It is easiest with the villain. Having them set their eyes on a goal and do everything to reach that goal no matter who it hurts.
    But the hero can look forward as well. Hamlet wanted to send his Uncle to hell, Romeo wanted to be with Juliette for all eternity. Frankenstein's monster wanted a hug. These were strong protagonists who looked forward. The characters were so strong that even though they failed you enjoyed the journey.