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?


Getting to Know Your Story (Part I)

So let’s say you’ve got this fantabulous idea for a novel, right.  So then the first step, naturally, would be to start writing about it.  Riiiiight?

Err…if you mean start writing the actual novel, then I’m afraid not.  I’ll explain why.


I can be a real stubborn one.  I’m the kind of person that will purchase one of those self-assembled furniture pieces from places like Target and IKEA and refuse to read the instructions because I’m smart and can figure it out by myself, thank you very much.  My dad’s an engineer (electrical, actually).  Works in the aerospace industry.  I’m sure he passed down some of his figure-it-out mentality to me through the bloodline, even if it’s just a fraction.  Convicted of this, I set my mouth in a grim line and put those insulting pictorial instructions with those ridiculous smiling faces aside.

Of course, I usually end up regretting it later.  “What?  Where did that piece come from?”

Disassemble.  Insert missing piece.  Reassemble.  Scowl at own stupidity.  Smart, eh?

Shut up, I tell my snickering subconscious.  Shut the frak up.

*   *   *
Not surprisingly, I’ve taken a similar approach to writing.  I like to learn things the hard way, apparently.  Make mistakes.  Make a fool of myself.  Gain incredible insights along the way.

The latter is the greatest part, the part I never regret.  The same can be said for making some mistakes along the way, though a good number of the mistakes I’ve made probably could have been avoided.

Here’s where I’m going with this: There are instructors out there in this big wide world who have set aside time out of their daily bustling lives to provide useful tips, guidelines and storytelling commandments, either free of charge or for an affordable rate, to would-be writers who think they’ll have no trouble figuring it all out on their own by doing things their way.  (This page is proof.)  Writers like me.  And, perhaps, you.

I think it’s quite possible to figure it out all on your own, but if you’re not a very patient, dedicated, or disciplined person you’ll burnout long before you’ve even gotten a quarter of the way there.  Lucky for me, once I’ve dedicated myself to an endeavor I don’t quit easily, but I also don’t like floundering around like a fish out of water for long and will eventually turn to someone for help.  But only if I can’t figure it out by myself first.

Call it a character flaw, but I really do like to figure certain things out on my own.  There’s a sense of achievement that comes along with that.  I’m sure you’ve experienced this for yourself at one point or another.  You’d understand.

Okay, so maybe there’s stuff I should learn before attempting a novel.  So what?

If you’re not convinced you need to get yourself edumacated before you set out to start a novel with any hope of potential amongst other readers besides yourself, then I’m sorry; I can’t help you.  No one can.  If that’s what you want, to figure it out on your own, then more power to you.

On the other hand, if you are new to this writing thing, want to benefit from those who’ve been there and learn more about storytelling before you embark on the incredibly ambitious mission of writing a novel (or any story for that matter), then there are a few places you can start.

The first: remember that page I mentioned earlier, that orange link?  (At least I think it’s orange, unless you already visited it.)  That would be a good start.  Or, if you have a favorite author(s), why not check out his/her website or blog?  They might even have free writing tips to share with you.

There are also some books out there that you might want to consider.  If you’ve read some of my other posts, then you already know that I’m a biased writer in that my focus is on the fantasy genre.  With that said, there are a couple of books I’ve read and thought were helpful without them being limited to fantasy writers.

How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James N. Frey was one.  It gives you some basic things to think about before you start pecking away on your keyboard, relentlessly churning out fiction into your poor word processor during ceaseless nights, and perhaps even, days.  (Sometimes you get that into it.)  The Key, by the same author, was also useful to me in understanding the archetypal Hero’s Journey and character types but also cliches, how to avoid them and how it’s possible to mix character roles to create more complex characters.  Also, check out Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style.  It goes through the basics of how to put a coherent sentence together, but it also talks about how to appropriately use certain misused words and phrases like lie and lay.  Style and grammar all wrapped up into one.  It’s a good reference book–one I still like to thumb through.

…and that’s where my book-reading advice stops short.  Like I said, I am of the figure-it-out variety, so I didn’t read too many how-to books before I dived back into the process of writing.  Most of my research, when I hunkered down and did some, was actually done online.  However, if you prefer books to online articles or want to mix up your educational-things-to-read list, then there are many bookstores out there, online and in-person, that make it easy to search for instructional books and make personal judgements as to which ones might help you the most.  This is especially easy online, where you can also browse other reader’s reviews on books you’re interested in and read their takes on how helpful those books were/were not.  That’s personally my favorite way to go about purchasing books.

Alibris, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Borders are all great places to search.  I’m sure there are more out there, but those are the one’s I’ve tried.  (Amazon is probably my fave. :D)

Learning about writing is a lot like homework in college: No one’s gonna keep looking over your shoulder to make sure you’re doing it.  Either you learn the material or you don’t.  That’s how I feel about it, anyway.  In essence, I think becoming a (creative) writer is just one of those do-it-yourself kinds of things.  That doesn’t mean there aren’t mentors out there who can give you pointers and advice along the way, though.

Now, to the Point.

Hm, this post is getting long, and I’ve barely brushed the titular topic!  You know what?  Here’s what I’m gonna do: Consider today Part I.  Tomorrow, I will post Part II.

“Soooooooound good?”

“Yes, sir!”

(Thinking of Inglourious Basterds there.)