Writing From the Subconscious

We are seeped in Story.

At no other time in history have we had such easy access and such constant exposure to Story.

Even non-readers are repeatedly exposed to the fundamentals of Story through movies and television, and you could even argue that social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook tell a certain type of Story. These forms have an implied structure and through our continued consumption, it is reasonable to presume that the average consumer has subconsciously developed a nose for Story.

How our subconscious comes into play during the crafting of a novel is two fold.

During the first draft (whether fiction or non), we instinctively anticipate what will come next because Story has a dependable rhythm and because of our constant exposure to Story, we know when a tale has gone off beat.

‘A’ happens which leads to ‘B’ then someone does something that results in ‘C’.

Now, of course we do need to take into consideration that there is nothing particularly thrilling about clichés or formulated plots. And yes, of course, there are some highly successful works that have pushed against these familiar structures. The Pulitzer Prize winning author Jennifer Egan comes to mind.

Side note: When Jennifer was asked “what are you working on?” during the three years she spent on ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad’, she told folks that she was working on a very short, very bad book. Humility.

The point is, we are all well schooled in classic story tropes. We can recognise the structure of an Underdog, Boy meets Girl, Rags to Riches and Who Dunnit story within minutes of watching a film or turning a page. This stuff is familiar, and we enjoy it because of its familiarity. Obviously, if you realise halfway through your manuscript that your story is entirely formulaic, then you may need to ensure that your characters are interesting (though not necessarily likeable), that there’s a good sprinkle of page-turning magic and plain old good prose. And look, a pinch of innovation could be a real lifesaver. (And if that were easy, we’d all be doing it).

The second way we write from our subconscious happens during the re-draft.

It sneaks up on you while you’re re-working a scene. A snarky line of dialogue that you’d forgotten about or a throw away line you slipped in just so you could hit your word count. However, in light of the story that is now complete, you see that this line of dialogue or prose is actually foreshadowing an event that happens three pages/chapters from now. AND YOU DIDN’T EVEN KNOW YA DUNNIT. Thanks subconscious.

If you sit down and read the whole first draft from start to finish, you may pick up on repeated imagery. Metaphors or poetic prose that neatly tie in with a central theme, or better yet, hint towards a theme you hadn’t intended on including.

There are other surprises too like when you realise that chapter fifteen should really be chapter one, and while you’re gently tailoring the passage to its new position you discover how perfectly the third (pre-existing) line sums up the entire novel. AND YOU DIDN’T EVEN KNOW YA DUNNIT.

Then there is the character that acted unnaturally guarded in chapter three and although the scene didn’t work, you decided to leave it. Upon re-reading the manuscript you discover that a perfect opportunity exists in chapter fifteen for said character to reveal himself as ‘The Villain’, hello major plot twist! AND YOU DIDN’T EVEN KNOW YA DUNNIT.

Your subconscious can provide a damn good imprint, but sometimes you do need to sharpen the outline.

Though these anecdotes sound a touch magical, they really do happen. However, a lot of the time you do have to rewrite entire scenes or discard them or recognise that you have lost complete control over your themes or forgotten a particular subplot halfway through the manuscript. Hey man, your subconscious isn’t perfect.

Stephen King once described writing as an archaeological process where the writer discovers their story by slowly chipping or brushing away at a clump of shapeless soil. Slowly, the writer reveals parts of the story one individual bone at a time until eventually, a whole dinosaur appears.

You could read this quote as metaphysical, the story already existed and it was the author’s job to reveal it, or you can read it as psychological, the story being a result of internal and external influences. Perhaps it is through the excavation of the story that the author is able to subconsciously bring together their personal experiences (internal) and their exposure to Story (external).

Ann Patchett, for example, says that her novels tell the exact same story: a group of strangers come together to create a society. Ann credits this repeated premise to her mother’s second marriage, a decision that resulted in Ann gaining three step-siblings; Ann’s mother brought together a group of strangers and created a family. It wasn’t until Ann sat down to write her latests work, ‘Commonwealth’, that she realised she’d made a career out of re-hashing her own childhood experiences.


Image: Merry Christmas by Hauke Sandhaus

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