My last post described something I suppose would be akin to writer’s block. I had an image packed with a particular feeling but no story. As much as I dug for the story, it wouldn’t come forward. Luckily, after something of a breakthrough, I’m ready to start on turning what was just a vague idea into a novel. I’m predicting that I’ll end up with at least 100,000 words. My last novel, which was for my English Honor’s project, clocked in at about 73,000 and was nowhere near the scope of this project. But now that I have my main conflict(s) set mostly straight in my head, I can begin to organize things and get it ready for creating a rough draft. So, in this post, I’m going to outline the steps I’m taking or have already taken to get a novel ready for writing. My basic preparation philosophy follows that of film pre-production and so may seem kind of dry or tedious. However, it has worked in the past for me and can save you major headaches later. This list is mostly in order but I don’t necessarily go in order for some of it in practice. Still I’m going to put it in some kind of logical sequence that will prove useful when developing your own stories.
- The terminal point of departure is getting the story. This is something that comes with practice. A situation is not a story. A scene isn’t a story. Sometimes the rush of discovery of an idea can make one fly off to immediately start writing. While you certainly may not lose anything by writing since all writing is practice and can be used to improve, it may lead to a narrative dead end. So, one must work on identifying what makes a story and I may dedicate a future post to this since it is a vital part of writing. The story must be able to sustain tension and that will be derived from the overarching conflict. You can use a situation or scrap of an idea to build your story around or figure out how one of these smaller motifs can be converted into a story sustaining conflict but before anything else, you must have a sense of what the story is going to be about.
- At this point you’re going to want to know who your big character is. Not the one with the good looks or the troubled past or the the burning desire of revenge. The other big, important character. The setting. By setting, I mean time, place, milieu. What they do in film is to do location scouting and I’d suggest doing the same thing. You don’t need to jump in your car necessarily and in fact, it may be impossible for you to do that, especially if your story takes place somewhere totally out of this or any world. However, if there is a train station or market or something like that in your story or you think there might be one and you have one close by, go there with a pad of paper and even a camera and start taking notes and photos. Note the sounds, the feelings, the smells. Everything. Even visit at different times of day and see how it changes. If you can’t get to the setting of your story in the flesh then that’s alright as well because that just means you need to visit it in your mind. Take an hour and do nothing but dream of a location. Don’t just get the obvious things like sights and sounds but try to imagine smells and feelings as well. Try to pick up on the little details too, like signs of usage, little imperfections, how things might be spatially in relation to each other and how they may affect each other. Then there’s the issue of time. When does the story take place? This may not be just about the story taking place “Long, long ago,” or far in the future though it certainly encompasses that. The setting of time concerns the period of time the story takes to complete which becomes important if there is a cause for haste such as an impending event or if the story takes place in the midst of an event that is happening in the fictional universe such as a celebration or calamity. Finally, there is the human element which creates the milieu. What is the civilization of the story like? Is it set in this world? What part of the world? What subgroup of people? What culture? How do they relate to other groups? What are the internal dynamics? This is all part of milieu and understanding how it exists in the world of the story gives your characters a believable, living world to inhabit. So, place, time, and milieu are all parts of the setting. You can always count on the first two but the third, if properly understood before writing, adds a further dimension to your writing that will further engage the reader. So understand the context into which you will place your characters and then set to work on the next step.
- Put out a casting call. A story lives and dies by its characters. You could have a great plot but lousy, uninteresting, or unbelievable characters and that isn’t a position you want to be in. You want characters who live and breath, who think, feel, hope, hate, fear, love, everything. In other words, you want to have your world populated by characters who feel like they are real. But you also need to have characters who are up to the challenges or who can develop to be up to the challenges of the world of your story. So this is why it’s a good idea to take time to at least get your protagonist and, if you have one, your villain/antagonist fleshed out. Figure out who they are and what they want. A great and often times amusing way of getting a very good idea of your characters is to stage an interview or casting call. Literally write out a scene in which you talk to your characters about their pasts, their likes and dislikes. Even better, imagine you’re at a big diner with several of the characters. This gets all kinds of information out about your characters. How do they play off one another? What do they wear? What do their food choices reflect about them? How do they eat? Do they make small talk? This is also a good way to spot and avoid one dimensional characters. If your protagonist can’t talk about anything other than rescuing his damsel in distress girlfriend, chances are that he needs to be filled with more than just food. But the take home message is to experiment and find the characters your story will hinge and depend on and then dive into them and discover who they are. You may encounter character later in the story you hadn’t expected which is not only fine but great and when that happens you can do the same treatment to make them fully developed as well.
- Now that we’ve got some of the specifics worked out, it may help to write a brief treatment. I usually do in some form or another. This can be in list form or can be in regular prose form. But you essentially want to get the gist of the story laid out. Start at the beginning and with broad strokes, highlight the important bits. What main fulcrum points will keep the story moving? Once you’re done, go back and look for where it falls apart. Are there plot holes, inconsistencies? Find these and plug them. This will save you so much time in re-writes and stress later. Plus, your readers will appreciate an air-tight story.
- At this point you can either create a proper outline or just dive into writing. It depends on your style. I do a little of both to deal with more complicated scenes and chapters so to keep everything straight. There is an undeniable rush when you just jump into the story because it really is a process of exploring unknown territory. However, real life has shown that sometimes explorers do get lost and go missing, probably because they didn’t have a map. So mix and match to find the right balance of mapping where you are going ahead of time and feeling out the route for yourself.
- Finally, and this is really optional but I find it fun and helpful to get an even deeper understanding of how the world of the story works, make a prop roster. What important things do you have in the world of your story? What does it or they look like? How do these things function? How do they change throughout the story? This isn’t always necessary but if you’re doing a sci-fi, action, or fantasy story it can help you develop objects and technology in your stories to a highly nuanced and detailed degree which will make the story even more believable to your readers.
So these are the things that I do before I start tapping out a story. The first five are steps I always go through to some degree (I always outline at least some of a story). The last portion may be most useful in a particular kind of story though perhaps you may find a use for it in a way I have not. I hope that some of my strategies will also prove useful to you as you begin to develop your stories.