How to Tackle the Big Picture: The Building Blocks of Fiction

Every other Wednesday morning I meet with a friend who is working on a screenplay, assisting him with matters of craft such as dialogue, character development, description, etc. My friend doesn’t have a lot of experience in the writing profession, though he did originally have—and has ultimately produced—a terrific story. The questions he presents to me often challenge me to think deeply about my own approach to the creative process; even though he’s in some ways a beginner writer, his project demands the level of attention and toil of a full-length work, and he has high aspirations for it. 

During our latest encounter, he brought up the question of managing such a large story during the revision process. How do I keep all the storylines and characters—their twists and turns and motivations and fears—in the back of my mind as I pour over the screenplay scene by scene? he asked. This reminded me of something John Gardner said in The Art of Fiction, which I first read years ago and recently browsed through again: “Fiction is made of structural units; it is not one great rush…The good writer treats each unit individually, developing them one by one.”

In essence, Gardner’s point ended up being my advice to my friend: don’t worry too much about the bigger picture; instead, go over the screenplay moment by moment, section by section, ensuring that the writing is working on every possible level, trusting that once this is achieved, it will be for the benefit of the story as a whole.

I often see writing students hindered by the prospect of having to write and revise an entire piece, the idea of producing hundreds of pages of fiction while maintaining some semblance of order, cohesion, narrative momentum. Some are so stumped by it that they give up before they start, or ultimately choose to not revise a project that seems to them to be “a total mess.” I think it is important to always remember to tackle larger projects gradually, in “units.” Work on a description, an action, a dialogue exchange, then go on to the next unit. Eventually the writing will be such that the entire picture will become clearer, the structure will have a stronger foundation, allowing for the story to be contemplated as a broader entity.  

My friend found the advice to be rather useful, though I can’t really take credit for it. As Gardner also said, “One way to begin on the road to artistic mastery…is to work at the systematic development of fiction techniques.” Treating each unit with the same amount of attention as one would a complete story will inevitably yield improvement, something we can be proud of, something to catapult us to the next section, and the next, hopefully realizing at some point that all those twists and turns and motivations and fears are already there, working in unison, all artistically explored and evoked.  

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About the Author

Dariel Suarez was born and raised in Havana, Cuba, and immigrated to the U.S. in 1997 at age fourteen. He is the author of the novel The Playwright’s House (Red Hen Press) and the story collection A Kind of Solitude (Willow Springs Books), winner of the International Latino Book Award for Best Collection of Short Stories. Dariel is an inaugural City of Boston Artist Fellow and the Education Director at GrubStreet. His work has received the First Lady Cecile de Jongh Literary Prize and will be anthologized in this year’s Best American Essays. His prose has also appeared in numerous publications, including The Threepenny Review, The Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, Michigan Quarterly Review, Literary Hub, and The Caribbean Writer. Dariel earned his MFA in Fiction at Boston University and currently resides in the Boston area.

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