Unique Approach To Story Writing

In Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream, the author explains his unique approach to writing a story. The foundational technique Butler promotes is the act of dreamstorming. “Think about how you go to sleep,” he says. “You lie down and all that garbage just turns off. Suddenly an image comes, and another, and boy, then you’re gone. And that’s how you write…You’re dreamstorming, inviting the images of moment-to-moment experience through your unconscious. It’s very much like an intensive daydream, but a daydream that you are and are not controlling (p 31).”

Robert Olen Butler From Where You Dream Quote

What Is Dreamstorming?

Why is dreamstorming so important, according to Butler? In his opinion, there are two kinds of stories: those that originate in the head and those that originate in a writer’s “white-hot center.” This idea was revolutionary to me. I knew that when I write, my stories and poems sometimes come out with intense meaning and sometimes come out hollow and lacking. Until reading this book, I was unable to identify why one story felt full (though not necessarily complete) and another felt hollow. By reading Butler’s book, it became clear to me that the stories that failed were written from my head, with characters that lacked clear motivation or a sense of yearning. “I would say that of the three fundamentals of fiction,” Butler explains, “there are two that aspiring writers never miss: first, that fiction is about human beings; second, that it’s about human emotion…but the third element, which is missing from virtually every student manuscript I’ve seen, has to do with the phenomenon of desire…It’s the dynamics of desire that is at the heart of narrative and plot (pp 39-40).”

Literary Vs. Genre

I knew that in order to have a good narrative, your character must want something, and there must be obstacles, both external and internal, in her way to achieve what she wants. In literary fiction, though, a character’s yearnings are less straightforward than in genre fiction. Says Butler: “A literary desire is on the order of: I yearn for self, I yearn for an identity, I yearn for a place in the universe, I yearn to connect to the other (p 41).” How can a writer convey these abstract yearnings? She must confront abstractions with concrete images. The reader must be able to intuit, through the writer’s direction and patterns of metaphor, what a character desires. Without a clear sense of said desires, it is likely a reader will lose interest without understanding why. Our stories must be rivers that flow from one point to another, not stagnant ponds, regardless of their depth. Butler says, “The literary art object is organic and emerges because every sensual detail interlocks with and resonates with every other detail. Everything circles back on itself. The deep patterning of the sensual details mirror that deep, most patterned level of sense detail in the world (p 97).”

How To Structure A Novel, According To Butler

In structuring a novel, Butler suggests the writer first dreamstorm as many scenes as he can. Each scene should be summarized in one phrase or sentence only. These scenes can contradict each other or come out in random order. After dreamstorming between 90 and 200 scenes, depending on the project, the writer should then decide which scenes to keep and which to throw out. Then he writes the remaining scenes on one notecard each and orders them in a logical way. This becomes the structure of his novel. After deciding the structure, the writer’s next step is to write out the meat of the individual scenes in the order he wishes them to appear. If he hits a road block, then he can add or remove scenes and restructure when necessary. This is where the notecards come in handy. The writer can lay out the notecards so he can see them all and then physically reorder them. I found this method to be extraordinarily helpful in my writing process. While I do feel the need for a roadmap, an outline feels too structured and forced. The notecard method still provides room for flexibility and creativity.

While I have only touched on Butler’s major points in From Where You Dream, there is much more to be gleaned from the book, and I intend to re-read and reference it regularly. I would definitely put this text on any writer’s must-read list of books on craft.