Talk Write — Using The Stick-pile

What Do You Mean By “Using The Stick-pile”?

Many years ago, I was writing my first, first novel (which was never finished nor published).  Every free day I had, I’d visit my favorite coffee shop, find a comfortable nook, and continue working, with my laptop, on the chapter at hand.  One day some artist friends of mine stopped in at the coffee shop and we chatted and I told them about what I was doing.

As it turned out, I offered them a finished, printed chapter, which I had on hand, for them to read.  And they did, aloud, right at their table in the middle of the coffee shop.  When they had finished and returned the pages, one of my friends asked me about a particular passage in the chapter which described a dream, dreamt by the main character.  He asked:  “Are you planning to do more with that dream later in the book?”  The truth was I had not even thought about doing more with that dream; my view was that it had already served its one and only purpose.  But it got me to thinking:  Should I do more with that dream?  Have I raised a question in the mind of the reader which needs to be answered?  It felt like the answer to both those questions was yes!

What I eventually learned was that building a story can be compared to building a house or some other material structure.  When you begin your project, you have your two-by-four boards of lumber and your two-by-sixes and so on, all stacked nicely and ready to use.  Then you start cutting the boards into the right sized pieces to build your walls and gables and so on.  The odd pieces you cut and don’t use, you toss on the “stick-pile”.  But during the building process, there are many times when you return to the stick-pile for a piece of lumber that will serve whatever purpose you have at hand.

The same concept is true when building a story.  As you build your story, you will write “elements” of the story—scenes that support certain story “truths”.  For instance, let’s say that it is true that character, Bob, is character, Fred’s, brother-in-law.  And the reader knows this because you have written a scene in which Fred marries Kelly, Bob’s sister.  And maybe Bob blabs inappropriately while giving a toast at the wedding reception and causes an embarrassing moment for his sister.  At this point, you, as author, might be done with Bob; he’s had his little cameo and now you throw him on the stick-pile of your story.  Then later in the story, you find you need character, who has a tendency for “loose lips”—who discloses too much during conversations.  And you need this character to talk about Kelly’s past dating history.  Your first impulse may be to use a new character for this job, say a girlfriend of Kelly’s.  But—wait a minute—how about checking the stick-pile?  And lo and behold, there’s Bob, ready and willing, and he can do twice the job that some girlfriend of Kelly’s (whom the reader has never heard of before) could ever do.  Voila!  You’ve found exactly what you needed on the stick-pile.

What is important is that we remember every story element we’ve written in all our previous chapters, even if that element happened two-hundred pages earlier.  I’ll give you an example.

In my novel, Wanderer Come Home, I have two primary characters who are strangers to each other.  For twenty-four chapters, they do not meet.  But, of course, they must meet; it’s a very important event in the story.  And I know exactly the circumstances under which they will meet.  I could make the meeting a happenstance, a lucky accident but then that will mean they are total strangers and thus would not usually engage in any sort of deep conversation.  So how do most people meet each other?  They usually meet through a mutual friend or acquaintance, right?  And here was my problem:  Who could be that mutual acquaintance?  Well, it just so happened that a character I had thrown on the stick-pile worked perfectly.  So I ended up writing a happenstance meeting and an arranged meeting between these two characters.

But why is this sort of thing important? you may ask.  The short answer is: giving your reader plausible causes for events in your story makes the story a) more believable b) smarter and c) structurally more solid.  In real life, we know that events don’t normally happen out of the blue.  Usually, one thing leads to another which leads to another and so on and these connections have meaning for us.  Have you ever met the person who can—and does—tell you the whole history of how he and someone else came to know each other?  That person is just relating, out loud, what we all do in our heads.  Relationships have dimension; they are not flat.  If you write a story without dimensional relationships, your story will come across as flat to your reader.

Well this was a long one.  I’ll try to keep them shorter.  But please do add your comment below and join this conversation.

That’s good for now.