The Rainbow Bridge
Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From Ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life.
Romeo and Juliet
By John Jarvis.
The sheer beauty of these lines reminds us not only of how great writing can be, but also of the most debated question in all writing: Can such writing ability be taught by a system; or is it instinctive? Perhaps the question can be better put by bending Pilate’s phrase: What is artistic truth?
In search of an answer to this question, we need to look at the three most popular writing theories.
What I call CONSCIOUS STRUCTURAL WRITING is a working out of a film or novel by using certain guidelines without resort to the psyche. Examples of this method are any systems that require a writing decision when on a certain page regardless of the flow of the story.
Contrasted with conscious structural writing is SUBCONSCIOUS STRUCTURAL WRITING. The conscious guidelines of this method are roughly the same as the first, but this theory adds psychic guidelines as well. This method requires the writer to interact with his or her premise, especially during the note-taking stage; it is based upon myth, the journey of the hero, which by definition is subconscious. An example of this system of teaching is the Jarvis Method, which is incorporated in, for example, StoryCraft Software.
Finally, there is PURE SUBCONSCIOUS WRITING. The advocates from this school maintain that writing cannot be taught; that it is, instead, somehow divinely inspired. By definition, then, there are no teaching examples of this theory. This is the approach one finds in most small and medium-sized colleges, and it is, therefore, the approach to which most writers are exposed.
The natural next question is: Which approach is best? I obviously favour the Jarvis Method, which exemplifies subconscious structural writing. Yet I must admit that the first method, conscious structural writing, has a definite advantage: speed. If you have deadlines to meet, the last thing you want to do is go back and forth between premise and concept as my Method advocates. Of course, your writing will be a “paint-by-the- numbers” system, but if that does not bother you, then use it. As I say, for certain types of writing where one has to have things ready by a certain time, that is the best choice.
So far as the claims for the third method, pure subconscious writing, it does not in practice appear to have any real advantages. Even the better works composed this way (for example, the last works of Joyce) are not highly regarded.
That leaves us with the Jarvis Method, or subconscious structural writing. The main reason Irwin Berent and I developed this Method and the StoryCraft Software is, quite simply, that we believe it’s the way most writers write. All of us have had the experience of first constructing what we think is a great premise at the premise stage, and then watching this “great” premise become “ungreat” as we proceed into the actual writing of the story. In short, we writers normally interact with our concepts as we write, and we need a teaching method that allows for this dynamic flow. An often overlooked feature of the Jarvis Method is that, while it allows the writer to take many notes throughout the entire writing process — letting the mind develop ideas as they come — it also still offers enough structure (unlike the pure subconscious method) to keep the writer on a safe but sure track.
Still, you may be wondering why the Jarvis Method differs from the conscious structure method since both methods use guidelines. The answer is that the Jarvis Method is grounded in myth, instinct, rather than in a conscious working-out of a story. Indeed, one of the arguments of Jung and Campbell for a mythical interpretation of life is that we are born with certain structures in our brain; that is why we respond to certain works and not to others. (And that, by the way, is why we use the classics so much in StoryCraft’s courses and software; it’s simply a matter of the tried and true.)
In short, the guidelines used in the Jarvis Method are founded in history rather than created new-born out of someone’s head. They are as true as the story of Adam and Eve is true, and go beyond the glass darkly to our spirit — our rainbow bridge to far-off mountains and seas. A bridge that animates both our lives and our art.
— John Jarvis
In One Word: How to Get Your Story Focused . . .and Keep It Focused
By Edward Feit.
When I began writing, every reviewer who saw my scripts said much the same thing: “you have talent, but your stories are unfocused” or “good ideas but your story goes all over the place.”
Being a dutiful lad wishing to make progress, I bought some books and looked up “focus.” Result: nothing! I tried books in the library, still nothing on focus. I asked the reviewers who told me I was unfocused. They made with some mumbo-jumbo, but still no real information. In the end, after much heartbreak and heartburn, the idea came to me. You have to have an underlying theme! Sure, the hero has wants, sure he sets out on the journey, and so on . . . but beneath it all, you have to know the UNDERLYING IDEA of your story and stick to it from beginning to end. The underlying idea, what your story is REALLY about, must be in your mind at all times. That’s how you stay focused!
Well, now sure that I had found my solution to focus, I tried writing out the theme in portentous prose, but it didn’t quite work. Then, if you can believe it, again, inspiration (plus the hope of winning some bread in a contest). What was it, you ask? Simply (and I do mean simply) this: Get the idea down in ONE WORD. Note, I said one word, not two, not three, one. Why? It’s easier to keep one word in mind than three, six, twelve, or whatever. Keeping your underlying idea in mind at all times is the key to focus, and focus is what you want.
Let’s take the movie The Verdict as an example. The Verdict comes as close to a perfect story as anything I’ve seen. The journey is that of a lawyer, a drunk and a sleaze, who, to get justice, takes on the entire Boston power structure. The underpinning in one word: JUSTICE. If you see the movie – and if you haven’t you’ve a treat in store – you’ll find that almost every scene after the hero enters the Extraordinary World (that’s the term StoryCraft’s Jarvis Method aptly uses) deals in one way or another with justice. Why doesn’t the hero’s demand-line work? Because the hero’s demand-line changes as he enters the extraordinary world. In fact, the scene that drives him into that extraordinary world has virtually no dialogue!
We see the sleaze, superbly acted by Paul Newman, working on a medical malpractice case. He goes to the hospital to see the young woman sent into an irreversible coma by the doctors’ negligence. He is happy, taking Polaroids to squeeze a few more bucks out of the hospital, the doctors, and the church that owns the hospital. He sneaks into the ward and starts taking pictures. Then, as the pictures emerge from the Polaroid murk he realizes what a terrible injustice has been done! The doctors have sentenced this woman to a living death. A nurse appears, she sees Newman and tells him he has no right to be there, anyway who is he? Voice firm, he says: “I’m her attorney!” You know that, despite the eagerness of all to settle – despite the eagerness of the church, the hospital, the doctors, and, yes, even the plaintiffs to settle – Newman will take the case to court.
That’s writing! Incidentally, The Verdict almost exactly follows the lines set out in StoryCraft Software. So, what to do! Get your story’s underlying idea in one word, build your story around it, and cut off any scene that doesn’t, in some way, contribute to that idea. This doesn’t mean no subplots. Far from it. But the subplots must feed into the main plot through the underlying idea you chose – that one, single word!
— Edward Feit, professor (emeritus) at the University of Massachusetts
at Amherst, has worked for many years as a professional writer.