Story ideas but no story? Great character but nothing else? Action-packed scenes but no idea about the primary character?
Is all the writing advice for developing a story driving you insane?
Maybe this episode can help.
Welcome to the Write Focus, a podcast for writers at all levels who want to improve their skills. We focus on process, productivity, craft, and tools.
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This episode—in fact, the whole Write Focus blog and podcast—developed after an email conversation with a newbie writer asking questions. Find our blog at thewritefocus.blogspot.com.
My credentials? Well, I listed them in the first episode, but a question came in asking for more information. For 30 years I was a professional purveyor of English composition (Ha! I enjoyed that description.) I worked at the high school and college levels. For most of that time, the students in my courses didn’t want to write OR read any of the required coursework, so they had little incentive to do their best. My job became scaffolding writing techniques for students so they would become successful. Those techniques had nothing to do with programmed writing and everything to do with discovering what was unique and individual to each student. Now that the intensive career is over, I can concentrate on pursuing my own particular loves in the world of writing. Since 2015 I have self-published over 20 works of fiction along with several guidebooks for writers at all levels. The guidebooks draw on my own experiences, the successes AND the failures, and the knowledge and expertise gained from a Master of Arts degree in English literature and composition and those 30 years of experience. Credentials OVER. From now on, I will point any questions to the opening of this episode.
Which is our 3rd episode. Officially Series 1, Episode 3. 1 : 3. (2:00)
This 3rd episode continues from the first two, which are answers to questions that a newbie writer asked.
One question was about my process of writing novels (which is different from writing nonfiction).
For years I tried, seriously tried, to follow what every writer in the major markets said about story development and character revelations and more. Whenever I applied it, I failed. It clogged up all creativity. I gradually found what worked for me and what did not. All writers have to discover this. It’s a matter of practice.
Dean Wesley Smith, one of the Pro Writers that I consistently follow, uses something that he called Writing Into the Dark. He published his method with that very title, Writing into the Dark, and you can find it on major online distributors. Smith’s advice reinforced what I came to believe about my own creativity and writing style.
Smith writes one clean draft, gets it proofed, then launches the story into the world. What he means by “clean” is that he doesn’t write gobbledygook like “put something romantic here” or “another red herring here” or “a fight scene”. He works through the problems as they occur. (3:00)
One thing to remember is that every story is different. Writers can define themselves as plotters or pantsters or puzzlers.
Serious Plotters plan the whole book in advance, every chapter, every scene in a chapter, blocking all the details before they write the first sentence. True pantsters launch without any plan and never plan at any point; they save everything for revision. Puzzlers write an intriguing scene, figure out where it lands in the course of the novel, then write another scene and another and another, then determine what needs to be written next and go from there. They begin as pantster but quickly become plotters.
I launch every book the same, with a general idea of story arc, a clear idea of my tagline or theme, and the goals, motivations, and conflicts for my primary characters. About 50 to 100 pages in, my process begins to alter. That process may change twice or three times in a single book. I launch totally into the dark, plot the next scene, plot the arc of the story, then I may abandon that and go pantster again. I may plot several chapters in detail, follow that plotting, then head into later chapters as a total pantster. I may be a pantster for the majority of the book then plot the ending.
Whatever method you choose—and it’s a choice—the ONLY thing that matters is that your ideas AND words are flowing. If they aren’t, switch it up.
Many people give advice about the Snowflake method or Save the Cat or the Beats or Plot Points with their pinches. Or even following the story structure taught in colleges and universities, known as Freytag’s Pyramid with rising action and falling action. These are ARTIFICIAL constraints used to analyze finished stories that are now handed out as gospel. They are not gospel. They are methods. Each has helpful insights into plot, but none of them have to be followed blindly. You can mix them up. You should mix them up.
About 15 years ago I discovered Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey which is based on Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. (5:04)
This story arc offers the best plotting method for me. When I explore other plot structures, I see their weaknesses based on this as well as where those structures actually follow the Hero’s Journey, whether that is a literal or metaphorical adherence to the structure.
The 12-Stage writer’s journey can be applied to Jane Austen’s novels and films, Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Dorothy Sayers, Stephen King, virtually anything on current and past fiction bestseller lists, Finding Nemo, Shrek, Last of the Mohicans (the film with Daniel Day Lewis—that long drink of water), anything action-adventure, anything romantic, anything mystery and suspense.
Here it is in brief.
1] Ordinary World – present the character in daily life. This is to show how the character will change through the course of the book. My struggle is to keep this stage extremely short!
This step meshes with writing advice from ages ago about “starting at the first moment things are no longer normal,” meaning that the character encounters something that changes the ordinary progression of life.
Of course, we have to show the character in that ordinary progression before we explode it.
2] Call to Adventure – this is the event that starts the conflict. (6:12)
3] Refusal of the Call – Most people don’t want to change their life. They try to return to things as they were. This stage shows that attempt as well as how the change cannot be stopped. More action. More angst.
4] Meeting with the Mentor – this can be a friend or an actual wise person. I once had a taxi driver speak the words of wisdom to the protagonist. This can be the character thinking words of wisdom while on a phone call to a sister or brother who tries to convince them not to go down a path. The mentor’s advice doesn’t have to be followed.
5] Crossing the First Threshold – whatever event occurs here, the protagonist cannot return to the Ordinary World from this point. Pure action or pure internal revelation.
6] Tests, Allies, and Enemies – this seems like a single short stage. Nope. It can turn into a series of chapters. This will form the bulk of the middle third of your novel. You can drop back and add in a new mentor or two, cross another threshold then restart the TAE as many times as you need. It’s up to you.
7] Approach to the Inmost Cave – nearing the crisis point. The bad part is coming. The angst in deciding to risk everything to achieve the goal is all that matters here.
8] The Ordeal, the Dark Moment, the crisis point. It’s about the 65-75% mark of the story.
9] The Reward – the moment when the protagonist realizes that yes, this journey is changing, is life-threatening or emotionally threatening. BUT—and it is a powerful BUT—the reward makes all the hardships mentally and emotionally and physically worth everything. (7:56)
10] The Road Back – things are settling, but hardships still occur.
11] The Resurrection – Evil resurrects and nearly kills the protagonist (either nearly killing a relationship or nearly killing the dream or nearly killing the person). AND the protagonist resurrects (relationship / dream / healing of the physical body somehow).
12] Return with the Elixir – which is pretty much self-explanatory.
These 12-steps are the story arc that I have in mind when I first start writing. I don’t develop anything other than a brief sentence or two and sometimes not even that. I may launch into the story without having Stages 10 and 11 figured out, or even the Ordeal, which is Stage 8. I do have an idea where I want my primary characters to be at the end. How they get there, however, can be a mystery.
You should have a character arc for all of your primaries. If you have subprimaries—characters who recur constantly and have their own viewpoint scenes BUT who do not control the majority of the story—they should also have a character arc. You definitely need a character arc for your antagonists (not the villains. Just the antagonists who create the central conflict that lasts from beginning to end). Yes, a thing like an EMOTION or a PAST EVENT that creates trauma can be an antagonist. (9:12)
My work process is currently this—and this is the method that I used to help my students with their compositions, the ones that revealed their individual selves on the page.
Sketch ideas and develop the tagline (or the theme or thesis) and the basic character information. (For a composition, this would be the topics for the body of the essay).
Write the rough draft, following the sketched ideas. Create the MasterBook while writing. The MasterBook keeps up with character and setting details, basic sequences of events and any clues (like red herrings in a mystery or quest elements in a fantasy).
Read through the rough draft to see how it works for pacing. Make brief notes as you read. Use the 12-Stage Journey to determine pacing and flow of story. Suspense and tension get the story moving, but down times are necessary for your primaries. Those downtimes offer opportunities to develop character angst and to reveal relationships.
Write the good draft. Add details for depth, for sensory experience, for character development and interaction, for relationship building—whether you have to destroy it before you can re-construct it, and more. This is actually the REVISION stage.
Revision means looking at the manuscript with New EYES. You want to make it clearer and better. You want to make it STANDOUT by being different from the expected.
This is where my students began to excel. When they looked at their compositions, considered what everyone else would say, and tried to say something different. Something NOT commonplace. Not pedestrian. Where truth lives. (10:37)
As you read through the rough draft, look for places where the story events or character reactions are too predictable. You know the ones: you’ve seen those story lines or behaviors on TV or in films. Avoid those.
In the crucial points of the story—the opening action, the first major stress point, the betrayal, the twist on expectations, the Ordeal, the last action—you should surprise the reader. Use Kate Wilhelm’s Law for originality. The first thing you think of is what is in the rough draft. Toss it out. Most people will think of that idea, too. Toss the second idea; many people will think of that. Only a few will anticipate as far as a third thing. To be totally original at the three major points (opening action, betrayal or twist, and Ordeal), you have to totally surprise all readers.
Character reactions have to be consistent. A hero will not unexpectedly become a coward. An honorable person will not lie without a good reason for that lie. You have to present the intellectual and emotional thought processes for that character to behave against type.
If you have multiple viewpoint characters, then you need to consider which character is best to present a scene. Whichever character has the MOST to LOSE is the best choice for the viewpoint. This allows more interesting motivations and opinions to be expressed.
Does the story slow down because the pacing dragged? Or did the pacing speed through something that you actually needed to write a few more hundred words for? (12:03)
As you consider adding, also consider subtracting whatever is repeated more than three times. Your MasterBook tracking will help here. Overkill on description needs to be wiped out. A scene you loved that doesn’t develop the characters or the story needs to vanish.
Editing is the next stage. BUT—well, Wow. We’ve reached the end of this episode, and we still have a lot to talk about.
Editing. Basic Publishing. Basic Marketing ideas. So, we’ll talk about these after our next episode, Horror Stories for Writers. I already have three horror stories to talk about, and I haven’t even thought seriously about drafting it.
Join us next Wednesday for The Write Focus.
If you find this podcast helpful, please drop a comment at firstname.lastname@example.org. Resources mentioned in this episode are listed in the show notes, with links or enough information to find the information.
RESOURCES ~ Amazon links given because I’m lazy
Dean Wesley Smith Writing into the Dark
Christopher Vogler The Writer’s Journey
Joseph Campbell Hero with a 1,000 Faces
Kate Wilhelm Storyteller
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