Finding Your Story

Writing fiction involves a variety of elements:  knowledge of the craft, story sense, intuition, preparation, flexibility, focus, and trust. Some writers can only manage to juggle a few of them. For example, a writer may cling to writing technique so rigidly that he or she is unwilling to receive constructive criticism, reluctant to revise a single word, and resistant to deviating from the initial story outline. Other writers may rely so completely on inspiration or the muse that they can’t stay focused from start to finish, and the very suggestion of planning or outlining makes them break out in a panicky rash.

Those are the extremes on opposite ends of the spectrum, of course, but they illustrate accurately the issues that some writers suffer in trying to get stories on the page.

Let’s look at these elements more closely:

Knowledge of the craft involves knowing how to write sentences well, how to convey meaning clearly and coherently, how to spell and punctuate, how to open a story, how to build conflict, how to design characters, how to deal with viewpoint, description, rising action, pacing, and how to write an emotionally cathartic climax that resolves the story in a way satisfying to readers. Craft comes easily and instinctively to some. For others, it can be an arduous, challenging ordeal of practice and study. Either way, you must know your craft if you are to become an effective writer. Not only in terms of your readers, but also in view of how the process of putting a story together needs to be something you’re so well trained in that you no longer have to consciously think your way through scene construction, for example, but can instead put your full attention on the content of that scene and what your players need to say and do in it.

In short, knowledge of the craft frees your mind to concentrate on the actual story.

Story Sense stems from your talent and how exposed you’ve been to stories. Have you read copiously for a long time? Doing so builds and enhances your story sense. Are you a film buff, one that watches movies not to examine stage direction or camera angles but the story and emotions? Then you’re adding to your story sense.

Avid readers possess excellent story sense, and that’s why they become irate if a plot suddenly veers off course or a character reacts in a way inconsistent with her design. Think of the little boy in THE PRINCESS BRIDE, protesting when he thought his grandfather was messing up the story. That’s story sense at work.

As a writer, listen to it and let it guide you. There are times when writers hit what seems to be a dead end or they face putting together a huge and complicated story event that intimidates them. But even if they lack sufficient craft to know how to handle what lies ahead, if they will heed their inner instincts they usually come out fine.

It can be challenging to obey story sense. So often we’ll think of something for our protagonist to say or do and then we talk ourselves out of it. Later, an editor or writing coach will ask, “Why didn’t Irmentrude open the door?” and you shout, I thought of that! I was going to do that! And then … I sort of talked myself out of it.

Why?

You lacked confidence in your own story instincts.

Intuition is closely allied with story sense. Maybe it’s another term for the same quality. But it’s an emotional feeling about where you should take your story next, or about what you should write about, or about which character should be your protagonist. Intuition is your gut telling you to have your hero leap off that building, even if you aren’t sure how to ensure his survival. Intuition pushes you to take creative risks, to dare let your characters say and do things that you wouldn’t in real life. Intuition is your gateway into creating larger-than-life story people and situations.

Preparation involves thought, research, planning, plotting, testing, and outlining. Good prep saves writers time. Yes, it delays actually typing words when you’re dying to get started. But it rescues you from dead ends, mental roadblocks, plot holes, and other dangers that can force your plot off course. What’s so horrible about writing a plot outline anyway? It makes you face the soft spots in your idea. If you face them, then you can fix them. Better by far to do that than write fifteen pages that later have to be thrown away.

Some writers, especially when they’re inexperienced or still learning their craft, shy away from outlining because they don’t have many ideas and they’re afraid to over-examine what they have. In fact, they may know instinctively that their idea is weak and won’t hold up to examination.

But if your story idea is so fragile that it will crumble in an outline, it’s not worth writing. Good ideas can’t be destroyed. You can examine them, thump them, test them, play the what-if game with them, invert them, change the characters around then back again, and they will hold together. What a relief that is!

You prepare by making sure you have a central protagonist, a central antagonist in direct opposition, and a clear goal. With that triad, you can then logically and systematically create a series of events that will occur as these two opposing characters maneuver against each other to achieve what they want.

If you skip this preparation or ignore the triad, then you will be doing a lot of writing and tossing, again and again. Perhaps that’s your method and you persist until you finally find some sort of plot you can follow. But often, writers who are unprepared hit too many roadblocks and obstacles and end up confused, frustrated, and willing to abandon what might have become a very good story.

Flexibility means being willing to allow a story leeway. It means that despite the planning and outlining and careful thought, there is still elasticity in the story’s framework for a few unplanned details and incidents that will enhance and improve the plot. It also involves being willing to listen to an editor or agent when they make good suggestions for the story’s improvement. It means keeping yourself humble enough to continue learning no matter where you are in your writing career.

Focus is achieved through preparation, through knowing you have a solid plot that will go from start to finish without dumping you somewhere in the middle, and then sticking with it. Not rigidly, but following your outline without taking wild tangents or impulsively changing your protagonist’s motivation for no better reason than a dream you had the night before.

Focus is about sticking with a draft until the story is completed. It’s about pushing aside distractions and doubts and worries and fatigue, and continuing until you type “The End.”

Trust was perhaps the most valuable lesson I learned in my training–other than the actual craft itself. Because once you know how to construct a story and how to put the triad in place and how to line up goals, conflict, motivations, and reactions, you have to trust the process. Even with an outline, I find myself in the fog partway through a novel. I’m human. I’m a writer with a big imagination. I can conjure up fears and self-doubt as well as anyone. I can grow weary of my characters. I can be so tired I can’t hear my story sense sometimes. And yet, I have to trust that what I’ve set in motion will keep going. I know that if I line up certain pieces of any story properly, it will move successfully to the finish. And I have learned to trust that, whether I can see light at the end of the tunnel or not.

4 Comments

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4 responses to “Finding Your Story

  1. Love this! Thanks for sharing!

  2. Brava! I needed this. I become more and more aware of what I lack along this storyteller journey. I miss the confidence in my intuition and story sense. I worry skill is suffocating the talent, leaving the story with a hollow ring to my ears. I’m glad to know it’s a common dilemma I can overcome.

    • Absolutely. We writers are always suffering from a lack of confidence. Even those of us who talk a good game can collapse like a house of cards at the slightest bark of criticism from an editor. So it’s important to know that you need to let your story sense and that inner quality that makes you a writer shine. LISTEN TO IT. It’s nearly always right, and the doubting voice is nearly always wrong.

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