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Destroy to Create?

By Dennis Ricci

“In the creative process, the whole idea is to destroy ninety percent of your work.”

I heard those words eight weeks ago at the Robert McKee Story Seminar in Los Angeles. At first his principle struck me as a brute-force approach–produce one hundred pounds of ore from which you extract ten pounds of story gold.

Then I thought, hey, I’m a redeemed child of God. Jesus lives in me. I’m filled with the Holy Spirit. I have the mind of Christ. When I write (and edit, and rewrite), I do my level best to recognize I’m in God’s presence, doing something He created me anew in Christ to do, in continuous co-creation partnership with Him. Shouldn’t my work have a higher yield?

In the spirit of testing everything and holding on to what is good, I kept my mind open to discover the wisdom behind McKee’s hyperbole.

He went on to say that the best storytellers use a three-step development process:

Step-Outline: a series of one-sentence expressions of each scene and how it turns. Each sentence would read something like this: “John enters the house expecting to find Mary home, but instead discovers her note saying she’s left him for good.”
Story Treatment: For each sentence in the step outline, write two to three paragraphs with detailed story elements: environment in which the action happens, what the characters do and talk about, and the subtext. A treatment tells the whole story, but without dialogue.
Manuscript: write the scenes you described in your treatment with dialogue and descriptive detail. Edit/rewrite until you have a pitch-ready product.

Let’s say you’re writing a 90,000-word novel. Your Step-Outline may contain ninety, one hundred, or more one-sentence scene-turn descriptions, with multiple iterations until the story feels right. Your Story Treatment would be three hundred paragraphs, maybe a hundred words each, again with multiple iterations. Then you’d write your complete manuscript drafts.

As a co-creator with God you would complete these steps with a listening ear and heart, drawing on the inspiration of the Spirit. Some days it will flow better than others, but you work each day by faith that you’re writing with God and He’s writing with you.

Let’s calculate the process output for our 90,000-word novel, assuming three complete drafts of the Step-Outline and Treatment and four complete manuscript rewrites:

• Step-Outline: 120 scene-turn sentences, 20 words each, x 3 = 7,200 words
• Story Treatment: 240 paragraphs, 100 words each, x 3 = 72,000 words
• Novel Manuscript: 90,000 words, x 4 = 360,000 words
• Total output: 439,200
• Final product: 20% of total

When I wrote my debut novel Perilous Judgment, which released last year, it took me five calendar years and eight rewrites. I didn’t do an exact analysis, but each rewrite had between twenty and fifty percent new material. So, the example above is equivalent to my actual experience. To reach McKee’s ninety percent, I would have needed to double my output.

As I pondered with the Lord, here’s what I realized: moving from good to great storytelling requires exponential effort. It’s the narrow way that few find.

So, as I work on my second novel, I’m challenged to value quality and depth of output more than pace of production. To learn that each hour, each day spent at the keyboard writing copy is a call to discover more of Him and the man He wants me to become.

Co-creating with God, then, is not a matter of destroying work to create, but creating work to discover and refine what He’s already created in me.

Before penning fiction, Dennis Ricci enjoyed a 37-year career as a marketing strategist, management consultant, and freelance copywriter. Now, in addition to writing novels, he mentors aspiring writers, conducts writing workshops, and co-directs a Healing Rooms ministry with his wife, Jill. Dennis and his wife live in Thousand Oaks, California.

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3 Responses to Destroy to Create?

  1. DiAnn Mills says:

    Great post! Always the professional with a fabulous story and voice.

  2. Dennis Ricci says:

    Thanks, DiAnn! Appreciate your encouragement, as always.

  3. Lori Altebaumer says:

    That first sentence was not very encouraging, but thank goodness the rest of the article was! Thank you for the fresh perspective. I like the three step process and think it just might be the thing I needed this morning as I prepare to work on my plotting. Your article reminds my of the story about the sculpture who was asked how he took a big chunk of rock and turned it into a beautiful statue of a horse. He replied that he just looked at the rock and began to chip away at anything that didn’t look like a horse. Thanks Dennis!