Just write the good bits (The Princess Bride Guide to Plotting)


In the first chapter of the book, the meta story sets up the old man reading to Fred Savage a bit more. The old man remembers when he was a young boy, his dad read him the read the Princess Bride and it was the most exciting book ever. When he finally finds an actual copy of it, he’s a bit dismayed that it calls itself a “Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure” in its first printing. 

When I read Madame Bovary, I was reminded of S. Morgenstern’s tale. While it’s a book about a woman who gets old without ever feeling as though she’d been young, has an affair and kills herself, it actually has the scene the Princess Bride describes where the main character spends several pages packing, has a quick tutorial about building fences on the way to the ball, and then describes in great detail how she unpacks that which she packed. When the character talks to his dad about the difference between the book he remembered listening to and the book he had in his hand, his dad said that he read “just the good bits”.

I think most of us think we know “the rules”, but the real revelation happens when we realize not what the rules *say*, but that they apply to us. Someone told me when I was a teenager that great books aren’t written, they’re rewritten and I realized when they were 35 that they meant me, too. Same thing about letting a book sit for six months while working on something else. The more difference between me and the book I was rewriting, the more I could look at what I said and not what I meant to say.

There’s a path my writing took that I see in a lot of other writers. At first, you don’t know how to put down what’s in your head because the thoughts just won’t coagulate onto the page. Then suddenly they do coagulate, even perfectly in some cases, but what you’re writing about has three or four truly awesome scenes that really emotionally connect with your ideal writer and a dozens of scenes that don’t connect at all.

This is the most dangerous stage, especially for writers who use a lot of external feedback. You can get entire novels that could be a pretty good long short story expanded 70k longer than it needs to be, but if those 70k either are very well written or they have nothing overtly wrong with them, writers can fall into a false binary where writing that isn’t wrong has to be right.

Bad —–> Not Good —–> Not Bad —–> Good*

*While “good” and “bad” are subjective terms, I’m using them here as to how well a bit of writing emotionally connects to the ideal reader, however you define those terms.

William Goldman has written some absolute classic stories. When I got to the part where I could write down exactly what I saw in my head, it was a back to the drawing board time when I realized that everything I saw in my head was really quite dull. Just writing the good bits is easier said than done, but it helps to start looking at a story like a train, where every car is a scene, and every scene has to carry something. If the scene doesn’t carry anything important, it can be worked on until it does.

There’s more about writing being the wit of the staircase and how just writing the good bits may not be enough, but this is a good place to stop. Madame Bovary was the worst book I’d ever read. My eyes would just refuse to read, I’d lose my place, and then have to flip back chapters to get back to a part I actually remembered. I decided to give up on my education due to that book. I stopped going to class for the last three weeks of school in my third year and I didn’t crack open the textbook for any of the final exams I went to just so that I wouldn’t get an incomplete. My GPA didn’t drop for some bizarre reason, but Madame Bovary sapped my will to bother with anything.

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