The method of John Irving

Through iTunes U, I watched a brief lecture given by John Irving where he talks about knowing the ending of his books before he begins them. Something about that talk inspired me to take a new approach to how I write my stories, and after using this approach to crank out a short story in two days, it has proven to be amazingly effective. I feel stupid not having used it before, it’s that simple.

Elevator Speech

In a single paragraph, write what the story is about. This paragraph is called the High Concept. This kind of text could easily go on the back cover of the paperback novel or even as a teaser on the DVD jacket when your story is optioned by Steven Spielberg and goes blockbuster. It’s also referred to as an Elevator Speech and for good reason.

Let’s say you are standing on the ground floor of a New York skyscraper, waiting for an elevator to the top floor. Standing next to you is some guy in a tailored business suit. The two of you begin idle chit chat and at some point you mention you are writing a novel. As the elevator doors open and you both step inside, the guy says, “What’s your book about?”

You must convey the gist of your story in the amount of time it takes the elevator to reach the top floor in a way that makes the guy in the tailored business suit — who just happens to be the CEO of Random House — want to write you a six-figure advance check on that book plus sign a contract for your next four novels.

Create Character Bios

I create simple biographies for each of my main characters. These bios are usually 1-3 paragraphs long, depending on how important that character is to the story. Each bio will contain a brief description of the character’s physical appearance followed by any details germane to the story.

Plot Event List

Once you have decided upon the overall plot of your book and written it out in the form of an Elevator Speech, you must then figure out what actually happens in your story. This is the fastest part of the process. With a blank sheet of paper or document on your computer, write out a series of short, simple sentences, one per line, that describe the chronological events or scenes that take place. Try to keep each sentence short enough that it fits onto a single line. Brief is good. Don’t worry too much about the actual order of the events because you can rearrange them later if necessary. Here’s an example:

  • Alice meets John while standing in line at the coffee shop.
  • John takes Alice out to dinner.
  • Alice and John wreck their car while driving home.
  • John wakes up a month later in the hospital, confused.
  • A nurse tells John that Alice was killed in the car wreck.
  • John’s doctors discuss his prognosis.
  • John is told he’ll never walk again.
  • John thinks he sees Alice standing in his room.
  • Alice’s ghost visits John during his rehabilitation.
  • etc.

You get the point. Each sentence represents a single scene in your story.

Create characters and scenes in Scrivener

I’m a huge fan of Scrivener. It is a fantastic writing tool and it’s ability to help me stay organized really jumps my writing effort ahead. Part of Scrivener’s usefulness is it’s ability to help keep my story research organized and at easy reach. One way I do this is create character bios in Scrivener. As I’m writing, I can reference these notes with a single click, then jump back to my story, all within the same program.

I then create empty text blocks called scenes and then arrange them in any order I wish with a simple drag-n-drop operation. I can organize them into chapters, too. Using my plot event list, I create a new scene within Scrivener for each line on my plot event list. I use the scene description to label the scenes within Scrivener, so I can tell at a glance which scene I want to work on.

Write out each scene

Once I have created a scene for each item in my plot event list, I can now write the text for each one in any order I choose. Because I’ve broken down my entire story into manageable, discrete chunks, it’s very easy for me to focus my mind on the creative task at hand without worrying about plot holes and other details.

The plot event list is like framing a house. All the dimensions and layout of the rooms is decided here. Writing out each scene is like putting in the floors, drywall, fixtures, and even the furniture, one room at a time. Since the room itself is already defined, I can focus and flesh it out completely. Since all the other rooms have also been framed, I don’t have to worry about how this room will fit into the overall structure.

Mental Benefit

Since writing a novel is a very large undertaking (described as eating an elephant one spoonful at a time) this approach breaks it into manageable chunks. This helps my brain work more efficiently. I start with the high concept first, followed by brief descriptions of my main characters. Next, I create simple descriptions of scenes and key events in the story. This is an entirely creative process and it goes rather quickly. Finally, I flesh out each scene. Since I’m only having to creatively focus on one scene at a time, I don’t have writer’s block caused by feeling overwhelmed by the magnitude of the overall effort. It’s like walking around the world but only thinking about the journey 100 yards at a time, yet knowing you’ll reach your final destination because you have the entire route planned in advance.