Doug Rice’s novel approach to storytelling

Photo: Doug Rice
Doug Rice

Doug Rice hears voices in his head. But before drawing conclusions about his state of mind, you need to know that the voices are from characters in his next book.

Rice, a professor in the English Department and author of three published novels including Skin Prayer and Blood of Mugwump, says his writing process starts with a single character saying a single line. In one instant, he knows the nature and complexities of his novel’s protagonist. “By the time the character has uttered the first sentence, I know its entire life story,” says Rice.

For Rice, character development comes ahead of a storyline. “When I start to write a novel, I don’t know what the book will be about. I put the character in a situation that causes complications in his or her life and sit back and watch how the individual behaves in that particular situation.” He also does his level best to strike minutia from the story. “In our everyday lives, we don’t go home and bore our partners with every single detail of the day. I don’t do that when I write either. I include in the story the moments that matter, because those are the instances that change who my characters are as people.

“It’s impossible to know what the story’s beginning, middle and ending is going to be for these people. The root of the word ‘read’ means ‘to pick up along the way.’ So that’s how I write. The character’s personality dictates what’s coming up next.”

And what if he runs into a boring character or situation? “Luckily, art isn’t exactly like life,” says Rice. “I get to orchestrate what happens, so if I find my character in a situation that doesn’t matter, I can ‘fast forward’ through that and move on to something more significant.”

And Rice puts his money where his mouth is—wasting the reader’s time with an irrelevant scene is something he avoids at all costs. “There was a scene in one of my books where two characters were sitting under a dogwood tree, and it was important to the story, although I wasn’t sure why,” Rice explains. “I wrote 15 drafts of the same scene before I realized why it was important.”

The moral to the story, Rice learned, was that not everything is idea-driven. His goal was to write “inside the details,” because that was how his stories were ultimately guided.

So how does Rice know when a story is finished? “Total exhaustion,” he says. “I know when I’ve pushed a story as far as it can go. When I get to the point of suffocation, there isn’t any language left in me to tell the story.” He adds that the ends of his novels never tell the whole story. “I want the readers to be able to provide their own ending,” he says. “That way, the story doesn’t just belong to me. It belongs to the reader as well.”