Or, In which I take issue with the following quote:
“Finding the stories is not the hard part. Writing them down is.” ~Annie Proulx
Eh…I disagree. Coming up with stories that work, that are actual stories, is harder for me than writing them down. Everyone struggles with a different part of the process; finding the story is the one that gets me. The post is about some of the strategies I use to build stories after I’ve got characters and a scenario. The post:
I have learned a lot about myself as a writer in the past year. One of my keenest insights was realizing I do not find stories particularly easily.
I find characters. I find opening scenarios. I find inciting incidents.
But figuring out what comes next and creating enough conflict and events to have an actual story? Ye gods, save me from that Herculean task, for my poor uncertain skills are unequal to it.
For me making an actual plotline out of my characters and their situations is much, much harder than writing down the story once I know it. So how do I take my characters and give them a story—how do I figure out what happens to them?
Let me take you through my current process.
I start by deciding where I think the characters will end up.
With romance it’s an easy answer—together—but with any genre and any story, you should be able to give yourself some idea of the end you want or expect the characters to reach, whether it’s solving the mystery or saving the world…or failing to.
After I decide the end, I look at what’s preventing the characters from reaching that end based on where they are in the opening scenario. Is it an emotional (or other internal) block or an external block? What do they have to work through or overcome in order to reach the end point? Is there more than one problem or block? Does something have to change in their circumstances to make that ending even a possibility?
Then I take what I know about the characters, their circumstances, and the problem(s), and figure out how those obstacles could be overcome in a way that is consistent with the characters and their world.
Sometimes the blocks cannot be overcome without an external pressure that changes the situation, and so I think of possible pressures that could force that kind of change.
From all of these pieces—the end, the problems, the pressures, the solutions—I can draw what the main events of the story are. The necessities encompass:
- the inciting incident – what puts the story in motion; what takes the characters from the opening scenario and puts them on the path toward the ending scenario
- the block – what is preventing the characters from getting to where they are going
- the climax – how they overcome the block to reach their destination
At a minimum, then, you have three main events in every story, and in many (most?) stories, there will be more.
Some things I have learned about plotting out these events:
1. Coincidences are bad, mmkay? I don’t mean there cannot be some element of luck in the story, but there need to be pretty good odds—statistically significant odds—for serendipity to occur. For example, your Regency heroine is fleeing through the London streets an hour before dawn. If your hero is a rakehell, likely to be up all night drinking or whoring or gambling, then it’s not a giant coincidence for her to cross his path. A small one, but nothing too extraordinary, because he is often out at that hour. If, however, the hero is a virtuous man out at that hour for the first time in years, and he’s not connected to the people chasing the heroine…then it’s a giant coincidence, and (in my opinion) a problem.
2. Sometimes you can put more than one scenario together in order to create the story. For example, in my current WIP, I had the hero and heroine all set up to be in love and to ignore it because their social situations would not allow them to marry each other. There was no way for me to resolve that problem and stay true to their personalities without an external pressure that made marrying the best of their options instead of the worst. I didn’t want to use anything so trite as a pregnancy or a scandal, so I flipped through my file of “stories to write” for help. I found the perfect catalyst in an idea I had conceived as being the inciting incident of a separate story. Since I hadn’t done anything with it yet, I had no qualms about shifting the idea from being its own story to being a plot point in another story.
3. Digital publishing means you don’t have to conform to a predefined format. The days of adding (or subtracting) subplots or secondary complications to make your story conform to a pre-set word count are gone. You can let your story be what it naturally is, and there will be a place for it in digital publishing, be it self-publishing or with a digital-only/digital-first line from a publisher. I believe the story will be stronger for being the length it wanted to be rather than a distorted length you forced it into because of the arbitrary (print-based) word counts of agent or editor guidelines.
4. The events you cover in your story need to have a narrative purpose. Not every scene has to contain a substantive piece of the plot, but each of them does need to have a reason for being included, such as setting up later action or laying the groundwork for changing the character’s mind. Going back to point 3, you can cut the dead weight without harming your story because those extra 10,000 words don’t matter anymore. What matters is telling a tight story, Goldilocks style, where all that you have is exactly what needs to be there—no more, and no less.
5. Forget trying to “up the ante” of your conflict just for the sake of upping the ante. Some stories are going to be naturally dramatic, full of conflict and strife. Others are quieter stories, more in tune with what real life actually throws at most of us. The best rule of thumb I’ve seen is simply that if your characters can solve a problem on the first pass then it isn’t really a problem. But not every story needs to have world-changing stakes, and I think too many discussions of conflict imply that they do.
So there it is, in 1000 words, how I go about figuring out my stories and how I evaluate possible plot points. Anyone else who consciously constructs storylines have tips or tricks you swear by?