266 – Writing With Your Gut
Sometimes in writing you just know what to do, even if you can’t say why you know. That’s your gut in action, your writerly instincts making themselves known. But how does writing with your gut actually work? What are its strengths, what are its weaknesses, and how can you improve it? We discuss all of that, plus some special advice on how to improve your dialogue by lurking in chat rooms!
Generously transcribed by Bunny. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreant podcast with your hosts, Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.
Chris: This is the Mythcreant podcast. I’m Chris, and with me is…
Chris: And I’ve got a bad feeling about this. But that’s good, because now our podcast has more tension.
Wes: Oh, I see what you did there. Nice.
Chris: So our topic is writing with your gut, and it’s worth starting by defining what that means. It’s a pretty common saying in writing, but not everybody is keeping up with the latest, new, hottest books on writing topics. Basically, it just means using your feelings and instincts when you’re writing. And often, specifically, when people talk about using your gut, they mean choosing story events when you’re writing because they feel right in the moment. They feel like that would be a good way for the story to go, that would be engaging, or that would be riveting or what have you.
Oren: Well, the only good advice I’ve ever gotten from my gut was not to trust my gut. So I’m not sure if I’m the best person to talk about this.
Chris: Yeah. Let’s get right into it and some of the reasons why I want to talk about it. So, one of the biggest discussion points when it comes to using your gut is sometimes writers debate whether a discovery writing or outlining is better. They should probably not be debating these things too hard, but nonetheless they do. Discovery writing is also called pantsing. It’s when you’re writing and you’re making it up as you go. You’re kind of improvising the story as opposed to outlining or planning the story ahead. And the main criticism I see of outlines or planning is the idea that if you ad lib, you’re able to follow your gut more easily to make the story more powerful.
Oren: Oh man. The most annoying part of writer discourse I’ve ever seen was after Game of Thrones season eight when everyone was like, “Ah, you see, the problem here was that they planned too much and wound up with an ending that didn’t work for their characters because they were just so committed to the ending!” And it’s like, no, the problem is that they were bad at writing. We know that. They even told us that they completely skipped out and phoned in the last season. There’s not anything deep to discover here. It’s just a regular, boring case of bad writing.
Wes: That’s so funny to me. [Sarcastically] The problem was they planned too much. Yeah, sure.
Chris: To be charitable to this viewpoint, I do think that some writers probably do have more trouble getting in touch with their gut when they are outlining, because you’re a step removed from the story. Not everybody has the capacity to look at an outline and feel it out. Now, the thing about using your gut is that it just isn’t mutually exclusive with outlining or planning your story, but sometimes, people definitely can have an easier time getting into the mindset of what’s happening in the moment or their character motivations versus if they’re looking at a more bird’s-eye view, abstract representation of the story.
Wes: The other really challenging thing is planning just seems accessible. I can sit down with paper, and I can chart it out and just grind on my plan for this story. And how do you practice trusting your gut, following your gut? There are certainly ways to do this, and we can talk about some, but it’s less accessible, and that’s one of the frustrations that I hear when people talk about writing with your gut. There’s a chance they’re not going to explain that process very well, and then it can come off as maybe a little pedantic, like, “Oh, I just knew what that character would do. I just trusted my gut and it has never failed me.” And I’m like, “Well, that’s great for you, but how about the rest of us who are trying to practice our craft? What do you mean, trust your gut? How have you learned to trust it?” Like Oren said, I agree: I don’t trust my gut at all. I keep that thing at bay because I don’t know where it’s going to take me.
Oren: It’s such an alien concept to me when people say, “Well, this character just told me what they were going to do or what they were going to say” and “I just knew. That character is alive and talks to me.” I’m like, “I have to actively think about every single thing my characters do.” That’s why on my first draft, my characters all sound the same. They all just sound like me because I don’t know what they’re going to say. I have to go back after I’ve written it and be like, “All right, let’s change the way this character talks so that they don’t sound like every other character.”
Chris: I think that is the trick. This is the one of the reasons why I generally don’t support using process advice in place of actual theory when it comes to storytelling. Process advice is like, “Go out and listen to people, or read books, or imagine the scene ahead of time.” They’re all about what your process is to come up with the writing. And the problem is that it doesn’t teach you what was wrong with your writing. It’s not necessarily reliable. What happens if you do that and then nothing changes? And so, with the gut issue, the most common advice I see is to read good stories, and maybe it does help some people. I do still have questions: if you still need to train your gut, how do you know what stories are good?
Wes: I’m a proponent of reading widely, and I think maybe the main qualifier there is that I don’t think you need to necessarily read good books. I think you need to read books in your genre that people are talking about. Maybe they’re bad, and that should be fine, because that means you read widely in your chosen solar punk genre or whatever (we still want that really bad, by the way! I had to plug it.). If you read widely, I find that you start digesting a lot. You pay attention, you start seeing what the conflicts are, who the characters are, and the plots, and then you can start seeing maybe what is repeated throughout, what might be contrived, what’s old, what’s cliched, and so on. It’s beyond just reading. It’s almost like you need to actively study that, and then you do internalize those things over time. I mean, it’s one of the reasons why, Chris, you and Oren are just phenomenal in your critiques. It’s because you guys have such a breadth of knowledge on so much media that you draw on these things really easily. You can just watch a show and then critique it. And you have so much experience that you’re drawing on that because you’ve consumed so much media and you’ve spent time talking about it. And that’s kind of what I’m getting at here. If I sat down to write a western, I would have no idea what to do because I don’t really know if there are conventions that I need to follow beyond hats and guns.
Oren: No, that’s about it.
Wes: Okay. Nailed it! And so I think that if we’re advising people to read it, you should read widely and with intent. It’s a bonus, because there is the pleasure element that you get from reading the stories, but you should consider what your purpose is as well and see if you can apply that.
Oren: First of all, Wes, thank you for saying such nice things about me. The way I would have described that is read critically because that’s how you can actually get use out of reading stories, either in your genre or just stories in general, because if you don’t read critically, then at best, you’ll end up soaking up both the good and bad things that the story does and you won’t have any way to tell them apart.
Wes: We’re really talking about school, aren’t we? Jeez. If you’re just reading critically and not necessarily sharing what you’re reading with anyone in whatever forum – in-person or online, however it suits you – you might not see what’s good, what’s bad, but what’s worthy of discussion or not. You might take something and say, “Oh that seems fine.” Because you don’t maybe have the context for why that was bad.
Chris: One thing that I think is good to mention about all of the media that we consume – and definitely this is something that I actively do as I consume media, and it really helps that I spend a lot of time thinking about it and writing about it – is that we try to go beyond the gut when you consume a story and do what we call intellectualization. I know it’s a huge mouthful, but it seemed like the best word for it. We try to take all of those feelings that we feel when we consume a story and actually figure out, in intellectual terms, how we can quantify why we had them, why we didn’t, and then come up with guidelines for them. And for me, that’s what all of that consumption is for. And I guess the biggest thing I want to say about the gut is that people tend to think of it as opposed to your intellect, that those are two things that are fighting with each other or on opposite sides. In reality, I really think that they should be working together, and thinking about the gut in isolation of the intellect… if I didn’t have my gut, I would have no data with which to come up with intellectual guidelines for how to do storytelling. My gut tells me when something is working and when it’s not, but it can’t tell me why. Only my intellect can tell me why.
Oren: Right. And, as a dev editor, being able to intellectualize this stuff is actually a requirement because I need to be able to tell authors what they’re doing wrong and how to do it better. And if I couldn’t do that, then I’m not really a dev editor. I’m just a beta reader, at that point.
Chris: And going back to what we were talking about before with, like, “Oh, how do you train your gut?” It’s hard to quantify. Sometimes people end up giving process advice. That’s a result of not having the intellectual tools and ideas and concepts to support what your gut is doing and to understand it. I wish the human brain just had a way to attribute feelings. I wish it had a mechanism by which I can tell why I’m feeling this feeling. But it just doesn’t. You have to poke around in there and measure your feelings until you figure out what is causing feelings. It’s very irritating.
Oren: And at least in my experience, being able to intellectualize these things helps you do better with your gut as well. Because, at least for me (and we’re getting into process here again), when I do things, I tend to start with an outline where I start with some element of the story that I like. Some element that really sprung into my mind. And I do kind of write with my gut from there because I don’t yet have a formula to produce a good story. If we make one eventually, that could be pretty cool. I don’t have one yet. And so at that point, I kind of am writing with my gut. I’m like, “All right, this is a story about a lady who has a dragon front arm. That’s a pretty cool concept.” And I’m like, “Okay. And then a bad thing happens. Uh oh.” And that’s because my gut knows that there should be conflict. And as I go, I’m doing this in the outline phase because my gut is going to get some things wrong, because I’m just not consciously processing all of the data that I might need if I was going to try to write this out completely intellectually. And if I do it in the outline phase, it’s easier to go back and be like, “Oh yeah, okay. So that thing where it turned out her foot was a rabbit, that was kind of a neat idea, but it doesn’t go anywhere.” My gut was wrong on that one, so I can take that out. Whereas if I was doing this in the full draft, that would be a lot of work. I don’t want to go back and revise my whole draft more than I have to.
Wes: Was the rabbit’s foot wrong because the arm kept trying to eat it?
Chris: In stories where it feels like the storyteller was optimizing for what felt good in the moment and not looking at the big picture, I’ve noticed a problem where you end up with a story that’s a series of really clever moments that don’t actually make sense once you think about them. For instance, you’ll have a cute moment where one character is surprised to see another character, but then right after, you’ll learn that they had every reason to expect that person to be there. Things like that happen. This is what really bummed me out about the first season of Magicians. It’s not the only thing. I really did not like the first season of Magicians. But I noticed that all over the place, where it felt like the writers were optimizing the scene at the cost of the episode.
Oren: Because if you don’t have any kind of planning, then you don’t have a way to make things come together at the end, which is important. And you can come at that from a number of different angles. You have people who are like, “Well, you either have to think of the plot or you have to think of the characters.” And it’s like, “Well, no.” You need a satisfactory ending either way, and you can either create a satisfactory ending and then go back and make characters who will get you there, or you can work on your characters until you get the characters that you need to reach a satisfactory ending. Those are both perfectly legitimate options. Either way, you need to work on it.
Chris: As far as training the gut goes, another thing that I like to point out is that a new storyteller doesn’t necessarily know what tension feels like. We’ll tell you what tension is, and if you know that intellectually, that is a feeling of stress or uncertainty or suspense, but it does take some practice to know what that feels like, and I don’t think of it is training your gut. I think of it as training your brain to pay attention to your feelings. Basically, if you are in touch with your feelings, you will be a better storyteller.
Wes: You’re absolutely right. When you pitched this podcast idea, a few books came to mind. One of them that I read by Malcolm Gladwell is called Blink, wherein he’s basically looking into why and how we can make split second decisions. Is there anything that’s informing us? And he draws from a wide range of social psych, research, and experiments and things just to say that our experiences inform us. The people who are more in tune with reflection, self-analysis, and things like that tend to be able to explain their rationale better, or they’re not surprised why they chose something.
They can rationalize it more beyond what Oren was saying about, “Well, that’s just what the character told me that they would do!” It’s like, “No, I know that this is the case because of X, Y, and Z.” It’s just this general notion that it’s requiring quite a lot of, I like your guys’ word, intellectualizing. Those experiences and those emotions are what’s allowing you to make these decisions. There’s very much that conscious element to making gut decisions. They just come later, after a lot of experience in work.
Chris: Definitely, when I’m consuming stories, a lot of times what I am doing is that hard process of, “Okay, I know it, when I see it, but why?” I’m trying to find patterns between different media that explain the feelings and why they happen. I don’t think process advice should ever replace those intellectual lessons. If you feel something that’s wrong in your gut, and it can’t tell you why, only that it’s not working, having your intellect there to give you reasons why it might not be working and ideas for improving it, I think is really important. But at the same time, having the right process for some people could really help them evoke feelings better, particularly for getting into characters. Some people might find that if they do their character backstory, they have a much better, stronger feel for that character and have an easier time using their gut for that character than they would if they didn’t do some of those process things. But at the same time, we have to understand what the goal is, so that you can test process options and see if they work for you and know that they work for you or not.
Oren: Yeah. That’s why it’s so important to understand, just from a philosophical standpoint, that there are ways to make stories better and ways to make stories worse. And this is just a thing that a lot of people have trouble with, because some of us are used to the idea of storytelling as this completely subjective thing, that it can be anything and all stories are equally valid. With that viewpoint, it’s just very hard to improve, because you can’t construct the actual framework that you need to judge the story’s final result, which is what we do at Mythcreants. If that was something we believed, the whole point of Mythcreants would be pointless.
Chris: And of course there are some factors, like taste, which can make it really hard to use your gut. Definitely, if you’re writing a story that is optimized for wish fulfillment for people like you, it might feel really good to you and not feel good to other people. So that’s another limitation that gut has. But at the same time, I think when it comes to things like tension and pacing, it’s really essential to be able to take that gut measurement of when something feels tense enough. It can be really subjective how much tension you’re creating in a scene and whether that tension is enough to stretch out past this slow scene. And there are some good guidelines for what is too much, too many slow scenes or too many fast-paced scenes. That also happens. If you have action scene after action scene, it can just feel exhausting. They start to lose their effect. So there are guidelines about that, but I still think it’s very valuable to take that gut measurement to know when we’ve had too many slow scenes and we need to speed back up again, or vice versa.
Oren: Although I was going to say that determining how much tension you should have in a story is another place where your gut can steer you wrong because of your personal tastes. One of the things that varies a lot between readers is tolerance of tension. Tension is generally good and it’s required for most stories, but everyone has a degree to which the tension is too much. And, of course, that level changes based on your mood and all bunch of different factors, but everyone’s range is different. And if your range is particularly high or particularly low, you can end up with some pretty skewed stories where the tension is either really low because to you that’s like, “Oh boy, that’s a lot. I put some salt on my food and it’s just too spicy now, too spicy!” Or, if your tolerance is really high and you’re just tossing on jalapenos, like, “I don’t get why other people have a problem with the scene. There are only fifteen disembowelments. What’s the issue?”
Chris: Yeah, that’s a hard one. I’m still figuring out best practices for that a little bit. I do think that a lot of times shifting the type of conflict might be the best way to deal with a lot of those differences, as opposed to making the pacing really slow and it feels like the tension is completely dropped, for instance. I mean, you certainly wouldn’t want a story where it feels like an action story sometimes and then the characters hang around for three chapters and all the tension goes out the window. At the very least, you’re not giving the audience what they expect or a consistent amount of tension. But I think that a lot of people who don’t like high tension in their stories tend to enjoy a lot of personal stakes instead of life-or-death stakes. But yeah, a lot of new writers still have to learn to add more tension and don’t have enough tension. And as a result, a lot of times editors and other professionals will be pushing them to add more tension. And a big question for me is, at what point are we just adding tension for the sake of tension and catering to a different set of readers that like higher tension? And at what point are we doing a good thing that is overall strengthening the story? That’s a hard question.
Wes: No clear answer, either. You got to trust your gut with that one.
Chris, What I tried to remember, though, is that a broken plot, even if it’s low tension, isn’t low tension for the right reason.
Wes: Something that you should consider, too, are your friends, your acquaintances, your family, and their reactions to things. For example, if you’re consuming a show with someone, or if I’m watching a show with Oren or Chris, and they have a reaction to something that I do not have, it would be worth your while to just have a discussion about that. Because I, too, suffer from the problem that Oren brought up, wherein all the characters I’m writing or conceiving of are just me. They’re just the same person. And if you can have an opportunity to ask people why they reacted to something, provided you’re doing this gently and not probing them or asking anything too rude, you might learn quite a lot about behavior. A lot of us can consider a close relative or a friend and wonder to ourselves, “Oh, what would my best friend do in this situation?” And you might have a pretty good answer for that, because you know that person very well, probably because you shared experiences or they’ve told you about their experiences. This is all stuff that you can kind of use, as well, because gut is going to apply to all the characters in your story, the decisions that you’re making, and how you’re modeling them off of other people are off of your own planning. So I just think that there’s certainly a human element that you might want to consider as part of your process.
Oren: That actually brings me back all the way around to what I’ve talked about in other podcasts, where I think it’s actually a better idea to get beta readers from people you know than internet randos because with people you know, you at least have some ability to judge what they like and don’t like, and so you can see how their individual tastes, may be flavoring their reactions. Whereas if you just connect with some internet rando, you have no idea what’s going on in their head and like what stuff they like and don’t like, and what their biases might be. And not to say this is a perfect process with people you know, but at least you have somewhere to start.
Chris: I think a really good example is, I had one story where the end worked for most of my beta readers, but I had one beta reader who just couldn’t believe what the protagonist did at the end. And after asking her some more questions… and again, I think when it comes to probing more information, if you really are there to ask for information, and you don’t try to give information, if you use open questions and you don’t tell the beta reader anything about your story, I think you’re usually okay. I think it’s when you try to explain yourself, shall we say, that it becomes a problem. But what I found out was that she had attributed a motivation to the protagonist that was different than what was written in the story. And it was almost certainly because she was projecting herself onto the protagonist. She felt that the protagonist had specific needs that she has, that the protagonist does not have. Mostly, she assumed that because she loves doing challenging tasks and challenging her intellect, that the protagonist had the same need. So I have definitely found that to be true. And it does help if you know the person. And also, I do think that somebody you know is probably going to be more willing to answer your follow-up questions and take that time in general to try to give you the information that you want to know. So, yeah, that can definitely be true. If you put yourself in a place of always being interested in why they had the feelings they have, you can learn a lot of really interesting things from beta readers, if you’re not as concerned with whether or not there’s something objectively wrong with your story. Firstly, I think reactions like that are just really interesting. They tell you a lot about human psychology.
Oren: A smaller area that your gut can be very helpful for, and it is one place where I think training your gut is relatively easy, is dialogue, because dialogue is quite tricky. In dialogue, we are trying to mimic what we think people sound like, not what they actually sound like, because then you would have “uh”s and all that nonsense. We don’t want that. But you’re still trying to make them sound natural. And I have read a lot of manuscripts where one of the author’s problems was that they did not know how to do that. They did not know how to write dialogue that sounded natural, but not the way people actually talk with all these filler words and repetitions and all that nonsense. And in that case, just reading good dialogue is generally a pretty good way to train that. And just trying to sound like what that dialogue sounds like is, I think, a reasonable way to go, if you’re having trouble.
Chris: It seems like it might be helpful to, instead of listening to people talk when we’ve got all of these “um”s and “like”s and filler words that you don’t want in your dialogue, look at how people chat online. Nobody inserts “uh” and “like” in their chat messages, but it’s still a casual, conversational back-and-forth mode of communication.
Oren: If they do insert an “um” or a “like,” it’s to make a specific point.
Chris: Exactly, and we would do that speaking as well.
Oren: All right, well, we are just about at the end of our time, so I’m going to go ahead and call this episode to a close, but before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First, we have Kathy Ferguson, who’s a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber, who writes urban fantasy and knows all there is to know about Marvel. And finally, we have Danita Rambo, and she lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week.
Chris: If you enjoyed this podcast and want to slip us some gold-pressed latinum, head on over to patreon.com/mythcreants. We appreciate it.
Chris: This has been the Mythcreant podcast. Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Colton.