Friday, March 12, 2010

Tell Yourself a Story

Over on my own blog, I wrote this post about the way I outlined the book I'm now writing. I didn't quite get at the real root of what I wanted to say about the process, so I'm going to try again here and hope I'll do a better job of it.

I know that a lot of you don't outline before you write your first drafts, and that's okay. A first draft is a wild and wooly creature, and any way you can get one is valid, I think. Even though I outline, my first drafts are still mostly improvised. But at some point you're probably going to revise/edit/rewrite your first draft into something more polished and presentable, and at that point you should take a good hard look at the mechanics of your story if you haven't done so already. I pause to say that I really think this is most helpful if you do it before your first draft, but you have to do something like this at some point.

One of the most important things you have to know about your story is what your story is. By that I mean, you as the author have to be able to stand back and see how the main storyline works, what the important events (or "plot points," if you will) are, what the character arcs are and how they begin, develop and resolve, and how your plotlines all work together. Yes, you do have to know this. Why? Because those are the moving parts of your story.

The way I come up with these moving parts, and the way they are organized into the shape of my story, is to simply sit down and try to tell myself the story in the order it will take place. For example, I might have an idea for a story about, I donno, a woman who falls in love and rises from a lowly estate to become happy ever after. I know, it sounds sort of old-fashioned, but it's a popular formula and I'm using it. I'll call the woman "Ella."

So I try to tell myself Ella's story:

Ella is the maid of a nasty family with three daughters. A handsome door-to-door salesman visits the house, he and Ella fall in love and he spirits her away.

Okay, I say. Not much there. How about a complication? And some motivation for Ella?

Ella is the maid of a nasty family with three nasty daughters who are less nice and attractive than Ella, but are all constantly besought by the best men of the town because they have money. Ella is from a family that was once powerful but is now in disgrace and poverty and she longs for the good old days she never saw but vividly imagines. A handsome door-to-door saleman--

Waitaminute. A door-to-door salesman? That worked for a second, but now I don't think so. And do I want a riches-to-rags-to-middle-class story? Maybe. Is this about escape, or about comeuppance for the nasty family? Is the nasty family the antagonist? Or one of the daughters? Or someone else, back when Ella's family fortune was lost? Will Ella work to restore that fortune, and the stranger who visits the house will be the key to that?

And so on. I basically sit down and tell myself the story over and over and over again, from start to finish, until there is something there that makes sense and is compelling. I try to keep it short, like 200 words or fewer though that's less important than knowing the core of the story. Sometimes I make lists of characters:

Ella's father?
Ella's aunt/cousin/distant relative?

Nasty Family:
Mrs. Nasty
Mr. Nasty
Sis Nasty 1
Sis Nasty 2
Sis Nasty 3

Handsome stranger


And then I'll take the rough skeleton of the story, when I have one, and try fitting these characters into it in different places to see how they might influence the action or the backstory or the outcome. It is a lot like collage, the way I do it, or like trying on every piece of clothing in my closet in every imaginable combination until I say, "Hey, that looks goooood." The thing is to come up with a story arc for the protagonist that works. And then (or while creating the protagonist's story arc), you need to figure out the story arcs for the other characters including the antagonist (because he's not a prop, he's a character). Thanks to Lois Moss for pointing that out with such clarity.

Anyway, this is pretty much how I turn my vague ideas into actual stories. It's an iterative process of refining and changing and molding and it's a process that's been pretty good to me. Does this look like it could be a useful technique? If not, tell me a better one: I'm all ears, metaphorically speaking.

Also, I have been pretty slackerly in my posts lately and I thought I'd try practical advice again, even though it's Friday and traditionally Fridays are for filler.


  1. Great post. Whether you plot or write by the seat of your pants, it's important to ask those types of questions. Otherwise, you risk having to re-write the story, not just edit it. Learned that the hard way. Ugh.

    Lynnette Labelle

  2. yeah, no thanks on re-writing the story. If i make huge mistakes like that, then i can pretty much just write the story off.
    Which is why i now outline!

  3. This is a great post, Scott. Of course, I always like examining how you outliners do things just to see if I can steal any of it for myself. Oh, and I had no idea you have your own blog, but I'm following it now!

  4. I'm more of a seat-of-the-pants type of guy. If I tried this, I'd be walking around talking to myself all the time--or at least more than I do now. As if I don't have enough problems maintaining a facade of sanity.

  5. I just started outlining a plot. I love it. I know exactly where my story is going and what's motivating my characters.

    Great post!

  6. You just made my brain hurt.

    I do character bios for each character that I know will factor into the story and I know what the start and end will be. With the manuscript I'm currently revising I knew some key points that needed to happen. But then I left everything else to be worked out in the draft. But to each their own.

  7. I used to be the seat-of-your-pants type. I did that for my first novel and I believe that's why it took so long for me to call it finished. None of the plots points were coming together.

    On my current WIP, I took a different approach. Like you, I sat down and really thought through the story. After I started writing, I realized for it to work, I needed to sit down again and think through it some more. I didn't outline chapter by chapter, but I created a Powerpoint graph with my plot points and a Word document with a timeline visualizing the timeframe of the novel.

  8. I usually plot --using pretty much that same exact method though I've never been able to define it as well as you have --while I write the first draft. As in, I write down the first idea and then chapter one to see how its going to feel on paper and then when, say somewhere in the middle of chapter three (or it could be much earlier --or later) when it starts to feel wrong I go back to my "outline" and revise that before moving on, sometimes revising what I already have written. Its probably not the fastest way to write a book but I can't really know where a story is going to go unless I take the time to examine the characters and setting in the detail it takes to actually write a scene anymore than I can string scenes together without knowing where the story is going.

  9. I love the way you put this. I need to do more planning like that at the beginning. I think it would save me a lot of wasted work. Composing off the cuff is fun, but more gets cut that way.

    Glad I could point something out to his lordship with clarity. I endeavor to make all my characters the center of their own stories, but I'm afraid I still fall way short on it. It's so easy to get caught up in the protag's tale. Ah well. Practice. Practice.

  10. I've been more slackerly than you have, Mr. Bailey, so no worries there.

    I like this post. Unsurprisingly, I work in a similar way, but from a different angle. Not so much planning up front, but later after the first draft is done and I have the characters molded a bit. Now, though, I do think I need to ask more of these questions up front instead of just jumping in. I'm getting better with each novel, I think.

    I'm more interested in Cinderella's life after she "lives happily ever after." :D

  11. Lynnette: I do pretty serious work in revisions even if I have outlined, but even so, time spent planning at the start saves a lot of time later on.

    Falen: My very first novel was written seat-of-pants for the first 20 chapters, and then to an outline for the last 20 chapters. I was never able to make the first half of the book work, and I just abandoned it. On the other hand, I don't do any real planning for short stories; they're easy enough for me to cut and move around so those are almost always made up as I go along and then rewritten.

    Eric: Hopefully you'll have a new tool now! Lady Glamis has her own blog, too.

    Chuck: I got used to people looking at me like I was crazy just because I was acting out scenes on the bus. Sanity is for non-writers.

    Carolyn: I will admit that in a lot of ways, I really hate outlining, because it's hard work and nowhere as fun as writing. But I love having outlined.

    Stephanie: My last novel was written with no idea what the middle would be, but I knew pretty well how things ended. I can't tell a story if I don't know what I'm eventually supposed to be moving toward.

    Crimey: I'm trying to figure out some sort of graph/map to use so I can chart out the important bits of the novel. Something like a cross between a flowchart and a timeline, but I'm not quite willing to use something like MS Project. I want something I can draw by hand. I'd love to see your Powerpoint thing, though. Sounds cool.

    Taryn: "I can't really know where a story is going to go unless I take the time to examine the characters and setting in the detail it takes to actually write a scene" rings true for me. Usually I don't outline until I've written a couple thousand words, just to see who I think the characters are and what the tone of the piece is going to be. And even after I outline, the whole thing--outline and book itself--evolves and changes as I go along. But I still have to know what my target is as I move forward.

    Lois: Like I said, I use my outline as basically a framework in which I improvise. So there's still the fun of experimenting, but there's still the fun of cutting loads of crap that didn't work as planned. Thank you ever so much, m'lady.

    Ivana: When I was working on my last novel, I thought that my outlining system was the ultimate invention and I'd use it for the rest of my writing life. For "The Stars Are Fire," it didn't really work and I had to come up with a different outline framework. I still go through the process I posted about, but the end result is significantly different and I'm looking at overall structure in a new way this time around. So I have a feeling that every novel I write is going to be written in a whole new way. Which of course means that every single suggestion I make to someone else is based on ideas I have that are provisional at best. So much for me knowing what I'm talking about!

  12. Scott, the more I write the more I'm realizing each and every project, including shorts and flash fiction, has to be approached differently. If it's not, it's almost always a failure. This is both exciting and frustrating to me.

    I think when writers get sucked into a "formulaic" phase of their work, it's not a good thing. Maybe for their pocketbooks if their work keeps selling, but as an artist, no way. I guess they came up with one great way to write, and that's good, but where's the creativity? I wonder if I'll ever do that - just find something that works and stick with that. Or if I'll try and make each and ever piece a truly unique piece of work.

  13. Michelle: I'd like every book/story I write to be unique and creative, but I wouldn't mind finding a reliable technique for getting there. I'm also sure that most people don't worry about their processes as much as I do, and I envy them. How I write is almost as important to me as what I write. But maybe that's because the act itself is fun and fascinating for me, and I am a source of endless amusement to myself.

  14. Scott, we are more alike than you know. The process is SO HUGE for me. More with novels than shorts. I think with shorts I let myself "write" more than with novels, mainly because much of the process happens in my subconscious. But novels are way too long and messy for that to happen naturally without my conscious intervention.

    You should see my desk. I have charts and graphs and lists pinned up all over. Then I look at my finished book and get all depressed. With all that planning you'd think it would be flawless!

  15. I've found outlining the plot to be an indispensable tool. All my previous "seat of pants" efforts have gotten so muddy and aimless that I've put them on indefinite hold.

    My current WIP started with a clear, structured outline. My basic outline changes as I fill in the characters, but at least I have a framework to hold everything together.

    After I write each chapter, I go back through it and ask myself at each page, "How does this part move the story?" That helps me keep it focused, with the right amount of tension and momentum. I leave in some description and some quiet moments--as long as they are doing something important to move the story along, whether that's transitioning or setting a mood or sneaking in some mundane information that turns out to be important later. If the scenes I've written are not moving the story forward or their function could be better served elsewhere, they're cut. Pruning as I go along saves me the work of writing away in a totally wrong direction for days.

    Having an outline also helps me jump around and work on different parts of the story, as the inspiration strikes me, without getting lost.

    And the characters? I'm finding this weird phenomenon where I'll start by plugging in a faceless, bland person (more of a prop) or stereotype who just needs to do something to move the plot. But then I'll get to thinking (with my psychology background), "Why would a REAL person do that, though?" And then my character springs to life as someone I had not imagined before. The plot outline flexes to accommodate the character. And if the outline can't flex enough, I scrap that character and ask, "Okay, what's another reason a person would do that?" and I start again with a new lively character.

    This is an opposite technique to what I used to do, which is start with some cool characters and "see what they do." It's a little counter-intuitive for someone who likes "character-driven" narratives, but it's working better for me--and I'm writing better characters--than when I started without a structure.

  16. This is a fascinating post/discussion. At first I was feeling how different my approach is from your approach, but there are plenty of similarities too. Right now, I'm really rejecting outlining and story structure in the beginning, but I'm beginning to think it's just because I don't do it well. I don't have much knowledge of structure beyond the classic three act structure, and when I try to organize a story that way it feels very formulaic and unnatural. I think that a story needs a structure, but that structure must be "disguised" enough so that the flow of the story feels natural. If you're good at disguising, then starting with an outlining might be smart. If I'm bad at disguising, then starting with an outline, for me, results in a stiff story. I need to just write and see where things go, mainly because I'm a bad disguiser and because I don't want to know what my story is about when I start. But, at the same time, I can feel my brain starting from the very beginning to organize the story, much like what you say in your comments about writing the first thousand words or so first. I think that's me. I start to write, and then my mind starts to try on different structures based on that. I don't get it on paper, but it's in my head, a mental outline.

    I'm almost done with two new stories where I'm actively trying to reject the structures I'm familiar with, Scott. So far, I'm loving these stories and I'm really curious to see if they fly for others. I'm having a lot of fun at the moment, but as you say, this is probably easier in short story form than in novel form. I want to try it in novel form, though.

  17. I like your comment, Davin. I usually get to the middle of a book and then start outlining it from there. I like what Scott has said about trying on different clothes. That's exactly what I do, but most of the time I end up picking a really lame outfit and have to go back and do it over again with some input from more fashionable people.

  18. Davin: The mistake is to start with the idea of a structure and trying to fit the story into it. What I'm doing by telling myself the story over and over is trying to find the structure. I can think in loose terms about the 3-act or 5-act structure, but really I want to know about cause and effect, and motivation and desire, and conflict and resolution. The new book seems to have organized itself into a five-act, completely against the author's will. But there were, it turned out, five distinct things/states I wanted the protagonist to do/go through, and those things/states are what I see as the essential structure. The way you're seeing the structures as some sort of artificial thing, a cage maybe around the story, is something I went through as well. The feeling goes away once the idea of structure becomes just another aspect of the idea of conflict and outcome, or events happening in measurable time. I like stories that are essentially investigations into states of being or types of characters (if there's a difference). It's a lot like doing an experiment: you have a hypothesis and you subject substances to various artificial conditions and you observe what happens, how things have changed. Except that for a story, if you're me, you construct the whole thing in reverse or sideways. If you take my meaning.

  19. I don't understand the objections to "structure", like you need to "disguise" the structure.
    Like are you worried you will write: Joe started looking for a mentor, because that's what this section of his journey calls for.
    Or will you write, Joe turned to his father, the only man who ever told him the truth.
    Did you know that if you know the full running length of a movie, you can predict the times of major plot points down to the minute? But you never notice, not because the structure is "disguised" (it's not) but because screenplay structure has been used for decades and you just don't notice anymore.
    If you use story structure, not only will nobody notice, but your readers will appreciate it.

  20. I feel like I notice the structure in movies all the time after reading a book called Save The Cat. It's very hard for me to enjoy movies now. They all seem formulaic. Well, okay, not all, but many of them. I do feel like the better ones disguise it, so that you don't feel like you can predict what is coming next. I enjoy those more.

  21. Scott, I think you're right. I just used to feel too insecure to come up with my own structures. But, I do feel like I'm experimenting more with that and am getting good results.

  22. I'm glad you post something on Fridays that isn't just's the only day I have time to respond!

    Anyway, I consider myself an non-outliner, however I do have a document for each chapterbook/novel project I call "The Manifesto" (because it amuses me to do so). In it, I do just what you say...I try to explain to myself the kind of book I want to write (in varying lengths) so that I have a handle on things. (Shhh, I wrote a query before I wrote the book that goes with it...just to see if the final draft stayed close to the vision.)

    I think that's what I start with, kind of a vision. I can see certain elements about the book...maybe what the tone should be, who the characters might be, stuff that might happen to them,the voice of the narration, and I record all of this in "The Manifesto".

    Sometimes, I won't look at the document for months while writing, but when I am stuck, it helps to see what the original vision was, (even if it changes by the end.)


  23. @Davin: You can't predict what will happen, just when.
    Inciting Indicent-10 minutes in
    First Plot Point-30 minutes
    Major Reveral-60 minutes
    (I don't know if those are the right points/times...just making it up).
    The best movies use even more structure than the lesser movies.
    It's not whether you use's what you do with it.

  24. Andrew, I totally agree. I'm saying I don't know enough about structure to use it well.

  25. I'd also say that after reading Save the Cat, I can predict the "what" in the majority of movies now.

  26. Davin & Andrew: I think that most movies are pretty predictable, because most of them do use the common 3-act structure and I can see all the pieces moving and what will happen and when is pretty predictable. But a good movie will make me forget about that. But some movies are little more than their formulas, just as some adventure stories are little moe than their formulas. More to the point, some movies don't use the 3-act structure, just as some books don't. But every story has to have some kind of an organizational plan, and it's something the writer has to build. My post today was about finding the structure, whatever that structure is going to be. I tried very hard to make my current WIP into a 3-act structure, but that's the wrong framework for the story I'm trying to tell. And I still say that thinking about specific structure versus problem-solution/cause-effect is likely a bad way to go for a lot of stories. If, for example, you were to write a story that's not the transformational hero's journey, your 12-point or whatever structure wouldn't suit you very well, I don't think. And I'm rambling so I'll stop now.

  27. Scott, I think you are 100% right, and I agree.

  28. Except for those times when I'm 100% wrong.


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