Getting to Know Your Story (Part II)

In a previous post I talked about the notions of idea versus story, and last time in Part I I discussed the importance of doing research–aka learning.

You cannot hope to understand your story if you don’t even know what is supposed to go into one in the first place.  You cannot write a good novel without having basic knowledge of storytelling elements beforehand.  Trust me, that lack of knowledge will pop up later as some glaring weakness in your writing you hadn’t really noticed before, which means you’ll have to stop writing, go investigate the problem and then learn about it when all you want to do is write the darn thing.  At least if you’ve done the research first you’ll know how to spot those weaknesses when they do manifest.  More importantly, you’ll know how to fix your own problems.  (There’s that do-it-yourself aspect again…)

Most of them, anyway.  The rest is for first readers and editors to catch.  But we haven’t gotten that far yet.

Today, I am going to use my experience writing a novel to provide some examples of methods and techniques you can use to help you start fleshing out that vague, nebulous idea into what will eventually, hopefully, become an actual story.  A completed first draft.  Perhaps even a novel worth reading.  (Though, who knows?  You may discover your idea isn’t large enough for a novel but instead is more suited to a short story or novella.  No one length is better or worse than the others.  I just happen to know I’m writing a novel-length tale, so my blogs are going to naturally reflect this.)

NOW, *ehem* to the point.

Even while you’re learning about the basics of storytelling, you can begin exploring your new story idea.  Looking back on my experience thus far, there are a couple of things I wish I would have done differently before I decided I was writing the actual novel.  Doing more research about writing is one of them.  (And you may get sick of hearing it, but I can’t stress it enough.)

I did it backwards.  I explored my ideas some, started writing the novel, and then went back to learn more about the basic elements of storytelling–concept, character, plot, theme…those things.  (I also see setting mentioned as one, but really you can view your setting as another character.  Some people also list conflict as a basic element, but your plot should already include that after it’s been planned/figured out or else you’ll put readers to sleep.  Larry Brooks also lists scene construction and writing voice, or style, as “executional competencies.”  I think scenes belong to the larger plot, but they certainly do merit their own discussion.  However, style isn’t such a basic thing and doesn’t emerge until you’ve written a good number of words, so let’s not go there just yet.)

The other thing, I think, has to do with the discovery process of figuring out what story you want to tell.  I don’t believe a story just magically comes to you all wrapped up in a pretty pink bow saying, “I grant you the power of omniscient knowledge and artistic insight.  Now go, aspiring writer–write!”  Though, that would be pretty awesome.

What does happen is this: Your mind is captivated by some vague-ish idea, be it a thought, a character, a setting or some other element of a story, and it grabs hold of you like a…well, I don’t know what.  But you can’t shake it because it’s determined that you, lucky you, become its voice.

Unnecessary mysticism?  Perhaps, but for lack of any other way to describe the phenomenon, that is exactly how I feel about it.

Exploring Your Idea

If you can’t just walk away from something like this and are suddenly inspired to become a writer (Lord help you), then what you have to do at that point is explore this thing, this vague idea that’s spontaneously come to you.  What is it, exactly?  (Idea, concept, or story?)  What does it want to become? (A short story?  A novella, a novel?  Something epic?)  What, if anything, does it have to say?  Hmm…

More directly, what do you want to say?  Why?  (More on this another time; it’s something I’m still exploring, more or less, as well.)

Perhaps you’re the kind of person that is really good at coming up with a clear plan, implementing it and sticking to it.  You come up with a story idea; you outline your setting(s), character bios, and plot(s) and develop a premise;  you are blessed with a clear vision of what your novel is going to be about after some effort; and then you’re on your merry way writing the thing.

I’m not that kind of writer.  I think I have to take a more organic approach, and by that I mean I can’t just sit around thinking about things for them to “come” to me.  I have to sort of muck around first and make connections between things that aren’t even necessarily related to one other before I come up with something that would work for a novel; the premise and the story itself have to kind of morph out of a collection of broad ideas that I feel should go together but, at the time being, don’t mix well logically.

It’s like pulling select things out of the vast aether and trying to make sense of it all.

It’s like a giant puzzle, in my mind.  I’ve got the pieces (some of them, at least); now I just need to figure out how to put them together.  Or if I’m still missing pieces (plot holes, lack of character development, etc.).  Or if I have extra pieces (ideas that come to you but don’t necessarily work for the story or novel you’re currently working on.)

The organic process takes time, but that’s how I have to do things and I’m cool with that.

The moral of that short story: I don’t know what kind of writer you are; you’ll have to figure that out for yourself.  What I can do is share some suggestions on how you might go about discovering your story and come up with some preliminary plans.  (I say preliminary because those initial plans are bound to change, in one way or another.)

Just write.

Remember at the beginning I talked about what the first step might be after you’ve been bitten by the muse–aka got an idea?  I suggested you start writing about it.

Yes and no.

No, don’t start writing the novel just yet.  Yes, do start writing something creative.  Something that has to do with your new infant idea.  (As they say, you can’t be a writer if you don’t, after all, write.  They also say you may go through a million rotten ideas before you get to a nice shiny one.  I wholeheartedly believe both are true.)

What I mean is, if you’ve never written a novel before, don’t put yourself in the mindset of “okay, I’m writing a novel now” right off the bat.  Set out to explore your idea a bit.  Get chummy.  Get to know one another.  Some of your ideas may even insist that you know yourself a little better before you get try to get to know them.  *snap-snap-snap* Okaaayy?  (Black humor there.)  Your muse/subconscious can be self-righteous and sassy like that.

When I thought I was writing a novel, when I went through the entitled “Seven and a Half First Drafts,” I believe that what I was actually doing was making small attempts at scenes.  Perhaps some short stories.  The problem was I didn’t have a clear end goal in mind, no overarching plot to provide a sense of purpose.  The scenes had conflict and were connected through character and setting, but the overall plot was vague, undecided.

So I suppose I did gain some practice in this way.  (I also participated in some online role-playing at one Star Wars community for several years, but that is quite another story…)

Writing Tools

One of the ways you can “get to know” your novel before you start writing it is by keeping a writer’s journal.  You wouldn’t believe how many journals I’ve kept on my WIP (work in progress, from here on out).  Not only do I keep a paper-and-pen journal–you know, the old school kind–but also a word processor journal because sometimes thoughts come to you when you least expect.

I always include the date of entry and give it a title.  This helps to set a writing goal, something to write towards.  If I want to explore a certain character, for example, then I name that entry something like “Voi’s Character.”  Or, if I’m exploring more than one thing, I’ll link several titles together, like “Voi’s Character; Elementalism.”  That way, if I want to look back on it later, I know what it was about and can find it more easily.

(“Who is Voi?” you might wonder.  This dammissi, which is Borellian for “little woman,” or more commonly “miss.” Depends on how it is used.)

Once I name the journal entry, I’ll try out several things: just plain talking to myself, freeform word association, bubble diagrams, stream-of-consciousness entries, spiels of dialogue, vignette studies of certain settings or characters living their lives… There are a lot of different techniques you can try and different reasons to use them.  Whatever will help you get from formless idea to a coherent story that has a point to it is what you should use.

Another thing I do is collect images like there’s no tomorrow, and my poor hard drive suffers for it (though luckily I’ve got a back-up external drive now with like a terabyte of storage space).  If I see something that inspires an idea for a setting or character, for example, I’ll save it to my “Element 7” (a working title for my current novel) file under those categories for inspiration.  I keep files on characters, settings, technology in my world, historical photographs to observe certain outmoded lifestyles from… You name it, I’ve got it.

Mind mapping has also helped me figure out the finer points of my story.  It’s not as complicated as it sounds, only looks that way once you’re finished.  Basically, you take one central idea, generate a few connected sub-ideas and use those to further explore even more offshoots.  The goal, when you use it to help you develop your story, is to come up with ideas for characters, places, etc. that are connected to your central idea or concept and can later be used to generate a story.  Or, if you already have a premise, then you can use mind mapping to make the overall story richer by exploring deeper connections between characters, themes, settings, and so on.

Of course, there are many other uses for this tool outside of writing.  (I first learned about it in one of my interior design classes at ASU.)  In the end you get this giant diagram that looks like a network of brain synapses or something:

An example of a mind map I made at ASU with a friend.

Here is another, shorter, article about mind mapping, if you’re interested.  I’d share a map I made for my novel, but it isn’t as pretty, heh.  Like this one, from Wikipedia:

(By the way, your mind map doesn’t necessarily have to be pretty.  It’s just has to get your brain juices flowing.  I did my mind map for my story in black and white.)

Clustering is another technique I’ve used that’s helped me understand my story a little better.  I just used it a few days ago to sort out all the prominent themes in my novel; I found there were eight. O_O (However, I also discovered that they were all connected to each other either directly or indirectly, which helps create a sense of unity, and they all could be linked directly back to one prominent theme: humanity, or human nature.)  I didn’t use color in mine, but you can take a look at it:

I used solid lines to suggest direct relationships and dotted for indirect.  The “people/humanity” cluster had the most (all) solid line connections, which to me suggests it may be [edit: connected to] the central theme in my story.  I can use this knowledge now to help me assess whether or not my story reflects this then go back and “realign” sections where it does not.  Theme is a tricky element because sometimes you don’t “see” it until you’ve finished writing most of, if not all of, your story.  However, it can be used to create focus, unity and cohesion.  (Funny–this is starting to sound a lot like the principles and elements of design.)

At first I tried everything because I didn’t know what would work for me and what wouldn’t, but eventually I found techniques that got results, so now I’m sticking to them.  And that’s kinda what you have to do as a writer: figure it out.

“Ah-hyuk!  That’s all, folks!”

Really, it is.  For now.  I’ve rambled on long enough.  Bless those souls who actually read both posts on this topic.  I really do hope you got something out of it.

On another note, I am interested to know what others do to help develop their story ideas.  Got any unusual or particularly effective brainstorming methods?


4 thoughts on “Getting to Know Your Story (Part II)

  1. >Holy cow! There's a ton of great ideas here. I'll have to keep all of this in mind. Since I'm at page 252 of my 1st draft, now I'm going backwards and cataloging my novel scene by scene.It gets damn tough keeping everything straight!


  2. >Agreed! I use a program called yWriter to help keep track of my work. I like how it keeps the word count (overall, by chapter and by scene) and also allows you to assign character viewpoints, write in summaries of your scenes and print out overviews, among other things.I wouldn't try to format my final manuscript with it, but it does have its uses.


  3. >Just took a glance at yWriter. Looks pretty cool. Are you able to transfer your manuscript into Word or OpenOffice? For myself, my ideas come in a variety of ways. Sometimes it'll be just once specific scene (i.e. Stephanie Meyer and how she wrote Twilight). Other times it might be a major conflict. Plot/conflict always come first, then characters.I do map out my story, but honestly, as I write I hardly stick to it.It's more of a guide, and I'll go back and re-map it with what I've written. It's very organic for me.But look at JK Rowling. Oh man, her chapter outlines are incredibly detailed. If haven't looked it up yet, Google it. Just amazing – and she sticks to that outline too!


  4. >You can export your manuscript as a TXT file and open it in Word. I have an older version, yWriter 2, and it doesn’t allow me to insert italics, which is a problem for me. Just doing a quick Google search, though, it looks like the newer versions do let you insert italics, so formatting an exported TXT file in Word should be less of a problem with v5.I’m finding that your method of planning and execution is going to be dependent upon how you approach your story at the beginning, though each method has its own benefits. The frustrating part, for me, has just been figuring out a method that works best for me and the kind of story I want to tell. That's actually what I plan on talking about next week!


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