“I have always loved things, just things in the world. I love trying to find the shape of things.” Leonard Cohen.
I read this quote recently by the amazing poet Leonard Cohen. After I read it, it took a moment for it to sink in. Then it hit me: This is one of the keys to creativity – finding the shape of things.
The way I interpret the quote, Cohen isn’t speaking literally. It’s not about physical shape, it’s about finding the essence of things, the true nature.
For writers, this means finding the essence of a story and the characters. Why should this story be told? What does the protagonist want? Is there something the reader should get out of it?
Sometimes the questions can be easily answered. Other times, well, we have to dig deeper.
I find that it’s important to know what my characters want, what they need, what they long for. No matter how long or short the story, it all comes down to what the characters want. Do they want to find love? Revenge? Achieve a dream? Find a lost item they hold dear?
Want is what drives us as people, so the same goes for the people living in our heads and in our stories. I want to be able to pay my bills, so I go to work. I want to make my partner happy so I do things for her. I like to see people smile so I practice random acts of kindness.
But it goes much deeper than that. When you understand what a character wants, then you begin to understand their true essence, their shape. Is the character caught up in thoughts of revenge for some wrong? What is driving them to this? Why is it important to them? What do they hope to achieve by this act? Closure? Satisfaction?
It’s like peeling away layers of wrapping paper or uncovering nesting dolls. There’s more beneath the surface and we never quite know what we’ll find. You may think a character is a square, but as the story progresses you find out she’s a rectangle. Close to what you imagined, but not quite who you thought they were.
The same applies to stories. Many stories are straightforward when we write them. Start at one point and end at another. We can see the path. Others, however, can take sudden, unexpected turns. We think we’re writing one type of story and later realize it’s something altogether different.
I think that’s a good thing. A good story should surprise the writer as much as the reader. Knowing the true shape of a story ahead of time takes the fun out of the creative process. I start a story – either writing or reading – with expectations in mind. It’s unavoidable. I’ve read the blurb on the back of the cover or I have some notes written down in a rough outline.
If things go the way I expect I end up disappointed. I mean, I want to discover something new, be caught off guard, be surprised. I want to be like an archeologist and slowly uncover something different buried in the sand. I can see some of it and speculate on what lies beneath, but I won’t know for sure until I dig it out.
Think about this when you start your next creative project. Peel away the layers and discover the true shape.