Philip Pullman on Stories

Stories have to begin. Out of the welter of events and ideas and pictures and characters and voices that you experience in your head, you the storyteller must choose the start. You could begin anywhere in the chronology, of course; you could begin in the middle, in medias res, which is a soundly classical way to begin; but you do have to begin somewhere. One of your sentences is going to be the first.

When you write a story you’re not trying to prove anything or demonstrate the merits of this case or the flaws in that. At its simplest, what you’re doing is making up some interesting events, putting them in the best order to show the connections between them and recounting them as clearly as you can.

And this is perhaps the first thing to say about writing and intention: intending to write a particular kind of story is not the same sort of thing as intending to rake up the leaves on the lawn, or telephone one’s cousin, or buy a present for one’s grandchild. We know we can do those things. We don’t know we can write a story that will be funny, or moving, or exciting, though we hope we can. All we can honestly intend to do is try.

The mind has plenty of ways of preventing you from writing, and paralysing self-consciousness is a good one. The only thing to do is ignore it, and remember what Vincent van Gogh said in one of his letters about the painter’s fear of the blank canvas — the canvas, he said, is far more afraid of the painter.

Stories are not only a sequence of things that happen, they are also — or they can be — patterns as well. The shape of the story-line can weave in and out in a shape which is attractive in an abstract way, which is aesthetically pleasing no matter what it means.

I learned a long time ago that it was a mistake to intend, in a calm and rational way, having looked at a range of options and considered their relative merits and drawbacks, to write a certain book rather than another. The part of me that intended to write that particular book wasn’t capable of it, and the part of me that was capable of writing books didn’t want to write that one.

Philip Pullman. Daemon Voices. Knopf (September 18, 2018)