Butler’s Approach to Fiction Writing, Part II

Yearning is always part of fictional character.  In fact, one way to understand plot is that it represents the dynamics of desire.  It’s the dynamics of desire that is at the heart of narrative and plot. … Until a character with yearning has emerged from your unconscious, I don’t encourage you to write.   — Robert Olen Butler

I wanted to further explore Robert Butler’s ideas about the fiction writing process in his book, From Where You Dream (Grove Press, 2005), following upon my previous post.

Butler writes a lot about using your unconscious, about inducing a writing trance.  What is he talking about?

He emphasizes intuition.  Intuition about the character’s desiring and the turns of a prospective story that can’t come from an intellectual understanding.

Butler suggests a system of what he calls predreaming to attempt to come to grips with what is required.  He calls the system “dangerous,” because it might lead to an even more analytic approach, rather than to an intuitive tapping of the unconscious which is where the process must go to truly succeed.

He describes two kinds of novelists.  One kind plans everything ahead of time: there are complete charts of backstory for every character, every scene is set up, the plot is outlined completely.  Another kind, the draft writer, “leads an admirably dismal existence,” making continual approximations to her story, getting something out, anything, and ending with a sprawling first draft that requires a second draft, and then even a third or more.  Butler is more in sympathy with this second type.  But he thinks it just defers the danger of analysis killing the essential underlying cohesiveness of a work of art.

He suggests another way.  It requires the diminishment and disappearance of that constant analytical stream of thought that most of us contend with, much like the concentrated yet open focus of meditation.  One must make line to line contact with sensual imagery which makes up the voice of the unconscious and of your fictional characters.  There’s an essence in it that you can’t create consciously, but only access by dint of writing every day and being open to the cinema of your mind.  This is the “trance” that Butler seeks to induce when he writes.

To return to what he calls “predreaming” and preparing to write in this way, you’re going to “dreamstorm”: kick-back, relax and free-associate about your character and his sensual world, watch your character move around in this mental cinema with the dogs barking and the smell and pop of frying bacon, scene after scene, skipping about from the beginning, middle and end of the novel.

On a pad of paper (or computer), Butler suggests making a list.  He recommends writing not more than say eight or ten words to identify a potential scene.  It has to have a sensual, concrete hook to hang on.  A little vision or smell of something.

Perhaps sequences of scenes will develop.  That’s fine, but be prepared to float around.  Do not give any consideration to continuity.

Butler says:

This is very important: through the whole six or eight or ten or twelve weeks, you do nothing – and I emphasize nothing – to try to organize, structure or otherwise manipulate these scenes.  You do not even try to reconcile totally contradictory scenes.

Eventually there will come a point when this process feels finished.  You might have two or three hundred scene indicators in your list.   In the next stage, Butler recommends getting as many 3×5 index cards as you have scenes.  Write the identifying phrase or set of words for each scene in the middle of the card.

The next day, come to your writing space, “go into your trance” (which seems to largely mean a concentrated writing and awareness of moment-to-moment experience and the ways we feel emotion through the senses), and start going through the index cards, observing the little hits of emotion and reaction that may come from each card.  Butler says look for the first good scene in the book: the best point of attack.

By “point of attack” he means that point in the story that best introduces the conflict, the specific manifestation of the character’s yearning, where something important is at stake.

Finding that, you move on to what could best be the second scene.  At the end of the first day, you might have eight cards lined up in sequence.  Keep them together.

The next day, as if reading your book, you flip these cards over, enter that sensual, emotional frame of mind and start looking for the next sequence of scenes.

Maybe a big gap will develop in the scenes.  Time to go back to “dreamstorming.”  Let the gaps fill.  Or maybe some scenes are superfluous to the emerging structure. Let them go.

The point, he says, is to look for the line of continuity without worrying how the transitions occur between scenes.

When all the cards are finally arranged, take the first card and start writing the novel from this initial scene.  Unexpected things happen, because, after all, you’ve only got a hint on each card.  More unexpected scenes may pop up.  They may even require a change of structure.  In this case, Butler says, return to the “trance” and reorder all the scenes and cards required.  Iterate as required.  Keep it flexible.  This is rewriting of structure, rather than draft after draft.  In my very limited experience as a novelist, getting away from endless drafts is highly desirable.

For Butler, writing in sequence from beginning to end is important.  Another novelist might work it differently.  But he thinks the impulse at this stage to skip around comes from wishing to avert one’s eyes or to write the easy scenes first, avoiding difficult emotions.

Of course, in the end, everyone who wants to write has to find what works for them.  And it may be nothing like this process Butler outlines.  But for me, a person who has on the one hand found the preparation of outlines and complete backstories stifling and arid, and been burdened by the grind of drafts that never seem to really get near the story I inarticulately want to tell… well, Butler’s approach is exciting.



For more about this approach to writing see:

Architecture of the Novel – A Book Review

Three Books for the Writer Self – 3) Ensouling Language

Explore posts in the same categories: Book Review, Writing

9 Comments on “Butler’s Approach to Fiction Writing, Part II”

  1. Diana Says:

    I’ve enjoyed these posts about this book and this second one made me break down and order the book! I am intrigued…

  2. fencer Says:

    Hi Diana,

    Thanks for dropping by…

    It seems to outline a way of writing a novel that I’d not heard of before, and even leads me to think I should try it!


  3. bloglily Says:

    Mike — This sounds wonderful! If you do try this out, I’d love to hear more. xo, BL

  4. fencer Says:

    Hi Lily,

    I working my way up to it… as usual. Got a bunch of notes to collate in one place and then I am going to try it as he recommends.


  5. Diana Says:

    Well, my copy of this book is en route and I’m impatient. As is my usual style, I’m tinkering with someone else’s great idea/plan, even though the person who came up with the plan is infinitely more experienced than I am but still, I’m thinking I can improve upon it. :P

    It seems daunting to me to have a card for every single scene right from the get-go. I can’t even conceive of shuffling three hundred index cards and keeping them all straight. I’m wondering if this procedure would work better for me if it were to be followed for each chapter or segment. In other words, brainstorm ten or so scenes, then write them. Do the next ten, write them.

    Or I could be, once again, hyperfocusing on the “how to do” instead of “doing.” But I might try this, at least until my book arrives…

  6. fencer Says:

    Hi Diana,

    Butler stresses how flexible this process is intended to be, and he apparently doesn’t do it the same way twice. The paramount thing, at least what I get, is the imaginative reverie and the sensual/emotional reality for the character and for the scene as the basic unit of a story. But nothing is nailed down in how you do this.

    But he describes at least a couple of different ways he’s worked at it. One is more the way I described, although in that case he had 200 scenes that resolved into 92, for instance. And that number would fluctuate as things developed.

    The other way he outlines is more like what you describe, as you’ll see when you get the book. He “dreamstormed” 200 potential scenes and then took eight scenes that might be near the beginning, arranged and rearranged and then wrote those. Then another six or eight and so on.

    May I ask about your novel that you’re working on? Can you say a little about it (I always know I feel reluctant to talk about these things too much)?


  7. […] aware of how the process occurs. The writer Robert Olen Butler refers to this as accessing “the dream space.” It seems to follow that if I believe in a universal creative force that’s present […]

  8. Wondering if you’ve used Butler’s to write a novel… I’m in process, but got impatient and started writing. Now I’m going back to see if I can redeem the process and the novel… Can it work in reverse, or midstream? I think it can…

  9. fencer Says:

    Hi Ekphrastic Mama,

    I’ve arrived at my own method for writing novels, which is what every novelist must do. This method is always being refined and re-worked. It uses elements of what Butler proposes, mainly the sensitivity to what the unconscious is offering us, which for me may only be glimpsed in elusive fleeting moments — if I pay the right kind of attention.

    If you search “novel writing” on this site you’ll find a lot about what I’ve learned. Which may only apply to myself!

    “Ekphrastic.” I had to look up that word….


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: