‘Without intention, we can prepare and explore, but we cannot tell a story. Once there is story, there is an intention: a will toward a particular-if subtle-end.'
Susan Bell, The Artful Edit
I’ve written about different elements of writing before, but I haven’t really touched on perhaps the most important - intention. Yet in my day job it’s the first question I ask the author of any work I’m editing or writing. Once you have a purpose for the writing, everything falls into place. You have a focus that guides the writing, as Susan Bell states, ‘toward a particular... end’.
When it comes to fiction writing, sometimes the intention gets lost along the way. Perhaps you discover something new in the free writing process that seems more important, or stronger than the intention you originally set for your work.
By all means - get sidetracked, discover new tangents - that’s the fun of writing. Providing that in the editing stage you uncover your intention that will act as guide for your reader.
When it comes to uncovering your intention, Bell recommends asking - ‘What am I trying to do here? Where am I going with this?’
Intention can also apply to your characters. Just as it’s important for you as a writer to know what you’re trying to achieve, it’s equally important for your characters to have an intention.
Anne Lamott refers to this as the ‘emotional acre’ of a character and suggests you ‘find out as much as possible about the interior life of the people you are working with’ (p45).
There are many ways you can get to know your characters; from character questionnaires, to character histories, free writing scenes or writing journal entries for them. These are all useful ways to get beneath the surface of your characters and discover what really motivates them.
Once I’ve spent time getting to know my characters, I create a character matrix for my story, listing each character and answering the following questions about them:
- What do they want?
- What do they need?
- What do they fear?
That way it’s easy to see the connection between characters and opportunities for potential scenes, particularly when there is a conflict of want.
Other potential scenes arise from two characters wanting the same thing, one character wanting what another has, or a character’s want masking a deeper need.
I try not to create this matrix too early in the writing process. It’s nice to have gaps to allow the characters the opportunity to reveal themselves.
So next time you’re stuck, ask yourself - ‘What’s my intention?’. Not just what you as a writer is trying to achieve, but also your characters.
Bell, Susan. The Artful Edit: On the practice of editing yourself. New York: W. W. Norton & Company Ltd, 2007.
Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird: Some instructions on writing and life. Melbourne: Scribe, 2009.