The Four-Window Method

The Four-Window Method

lion-of-cairoDuring the course of the past few days I’ve had the pleasure of chatting with a goodly number of writers. It’s been good for my soul to talk shop with knowledgeable peers. But one question that invariably cropped up concerned my method of writing. How did I prepare my drafts? And as I explained it, curious looks would blossom over the visages of my brother-and-sister scribes.

Apparently, my method is just a little odd.

Here are the mundane bits: I write on a laptop, a very austere Dell with no bells, whistles, or Internet access, and use two four-gig USB drives to back up my files (one in a fire safe, one on my person); I use Microsoft Word exclusively — I’ve never found any need for a specialized “writing program”, especially when you’re just going to export your work to Word for publishers, anyway. Lately, I’ve not been able to put in desk-time every day, but when I do I write for at least four hours, usually in the mornings. Afternoons are reserved for PR or editing, and evenings belong to my wife.

Where I go askew is with the process of composition. I write one scene at a time, but in four Word windows. One window for dialogue, one for exposition, a third for bits of description or color or notes to myself (sometimes that third window will also contain a brief synopsis of the scene I’m working on), and the last window is where I assemble the draft. So, using the prologue for THE LION OF CAIRO as an example, the contents of first window would look something like this:

*That . . . that b-blade!

Yes! You feel it, do you not? It is the Hammer of the Infidel, and none can stand before it! What is your name, dog?

*Assad.

The Hammer of the Infidel kills before ever the final blow is struck! Even the gentlest caress of the blade strips a man’s resolve from him to leave him naked and trembling at the edge of the Abyss! Assad, eh? My brothers will know the name of the fool who thought to challenge the chief of the Afridis!

*A fine trick, since your brothers are already in Hell!

In this window, I use an asterisk to identify my POV character . . . in this instance the protagonist, Assad. I read the dialogue aloud to myself, tweaking inflection and wording to make sure I’m saying exactly what the plot needs me to say — I try to remember the dictum that every word of dialogue should advance the plot or the character.

In the second window I start drawing the scene with words . . . and it looks really disjointed, even at times mixing tenses:

Baber Khan ran a thumb and forefinger along the edge of his salawar, collecting the Assassin’s blood. His grim smile widened as he licked his fingers clean.

Assad sat with his head bowed, oblivious to the blood dripping down his lacerated cheek. The knuckles of his right fist were white where he gripped the hilt-shard of his saber. My birthright. His lips writhed, nostrils flaring as he fought off the fearful paralysis induced by that devil-haunted blade by focusing on the broken steel before him. My father’s saber!

Baber Khan laughed. He stepped closer and raised his salawar, its tip poised for a killing blow.

Assad glanced up. Before the Afridi chief could react, the Assassin exploded with the unexpected desperation of a wounded lion. He launched himself at Baber Khan, drove the hilt-shard gripped in his right fist into the Afghan’s groin. Blood spurted and steamed as his ferocious bellow turned to a shriek. The jagged length of blade bit deep; Assad sawed upward, ripping Baber Khan’s belly open to the navel.

The thing that makes this work for me is this: I know what’s going on, who is saying what and to whom. Action, to me, should be as choreographed as a ballet, with each participant reacting to the other in a realistic fashion, as skill, training, and personality dictate.

The third window in this instance is fairly sparse, with a few notes to myself:

Assad is younger; show him as impetuous.
Kurram, per REH, is the village of the Afridis.
Look to Frost Giant’s Daughter for inspiration — battle in the snow, hot breath in cold air, pale sunlight.

And finally, once I have the elements of a scene to my liking, I open the fourth window and splice dialogue and exposition together. I polish as I go, sometimes going back to the drawing board if an element doesn’t fit like I need it to. It’s almost like I’m handcrafting the pieces to a puzzle, with only a sketch to go by.

Here’s the finished version:

“That . . . that b-blade!”
“Yes! You feel it, do you not?” Baber Khan replied; he ran a thumb and forefinger along the edge of his salawar, collecting the Assassin’s blood. His grim smile widened as he licked his fingers clean. “It is the Hammer of the Infidel, and none can stand before it! What is your name, dog?”
“Assad,” the young Assassin replied. He sat with his head bowed, oblivious to the blood dripping down his lacerated cheek. The knuckles of his right fist were white where he gripped the hilt-shard of his saber. My birthright. His lips writhed, nostrils flaring as he fought off the fearful paralysis induced by that devil-haunted blade by focusing on the broken steel before him. My father’s saber!
“The Hammer of the Infidel kills before ever the final blow is struck! Even the gentlest caress of the blade strips a man’s resolve from him to leave him naked and trembling at the edge of the Abyss!” Baber Khan laughed. “Assad, eh? My brothers will know the name of the fool who thought to challenge the chief of the Afridis!” He stepped closer and raised his salawar, its tip poised for a killing blow.
“A fine trick,” Assad said, glancing up, “since your brothers are already in Hell!” The Assassin exploded with the unexpected desperation of a wounded lion. He launched himself at Baber Khan, drove the hilt-shard gripped in his right fist into the Afghan’s groin. Blood spurted and steamed as his ferocious bellow turned to a shriek. The jagged length of blade bit deep; Assad sawed upward, ripping Baber Khan’s belly open to the navel.

So, there you have it. The Four-Window method is a little more involved than simply writing scenes out, but it works for me. If you’re a writer, too, do me a favor and post something about your own method of composition . . . use the comments section or, if you prefer, write your own blog post and send me a link!

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Daniel Nyikos

That seems like of a lot of work, but at the same time it seems like it takes a lot of the guesswork and juggling out of the writing. I think I might try this!

Also, Baber Khan sounds like someone straight out of an El Borak story. So props for that, too!

beket

Yeah, I have a similiar method, only it’s a thousand little pieces of paper spread out all over the desk.:-)
Okay, sadly, there’s a lot of truth to that, but I tend to be very straight forward when writing, typing in on a no-internet access laptop, in Microsoft Word. But I “take notes” within the doc which I cut and paste in chronological order throughout and when I get to that point in the story, I expand the notes. Of course, I’m writing short fiction, so the story doesn’t [usually] get too complicated.

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