Monday Motivation: Is your story outline a fossil or a blueprint?
How do you generate story? There seems an obvious answer to that: you imagine a series of events involving and challenging a character whose responses will then constitute your narrative.
Well, that rather loose definition points to the final product; it identifies the endpoint of a process, after the story’s been devised, the t’s have been crossed and the i’s duly dotted.
But take a step or two back. You’re busy tracing the lineaments of your story. You’re inventing motivation for your character. You’re dreaming up the sorts of incidents and events that can carry your story forward. You’re cunningly identifying locations in which the action will take place that will be both believable and intriguing.
In short, you’re working on the intricate business of designing a house. It happens to consist of three storeys. Ground floor, is your first act. You want your house to have a striking façade that’ll draw your readers in. Your second floor is rather more complex. It has more rooms for one thing, with a couple of extra inhabitants who’ll complicate matters for your protagonist. And then, of course, there’s the third floor, where you plan to stage a memorable resolution of your plot.
This is not the metaphor that Stephen King uses in describing the process he engages in. He says that a writer is like a palaeontologist disinterring the fossil of a dinosaur from its rock matrix. Little by little, the writer traces the pattern of the bones to finally reveal the entire structure of the story. The story exists in the rock before the writer stumbles on it.
Well, that’s a cute idea – but it ignores the role of the imagination. It also ignores another key strategy that the best storytellers deploy. And that is: they’re capable of changing the design of their story as they develop it, sometimes in really radical ways.
They’re able to change the façade of their house entirely. Instead of a modest little front door, they can decide, on reflection, to make their entrance imposing, even palatial. They can decide to add extra rooms to their first floor. They might stick more or less with their original resolution (their protagonist marries the girl; the detective identifies the killer; the adventurer returns with the opal plucked from the forehead of the stone idol) – but they might dispense with that final foray into the attic, and stop instead at a point of maximum drama.
A palaeontologist is stuck with the bones he’s investigating. He doesn’t like the fact that his fossil is a shambling plant-eater? Too bad, he’s got to make do with what slowly reveals itself in the rock.
Over the past week, we’ve encountered examples of both mindsets.
One is a writer who’s labored mightily for two or three years to write a thriller. We had a good look at it and concluded that it needed to be thoroughly revised. Its façade was misbegotten, its second floor seemed to belong to a different building entirely, and its third floor was more or less non-existent. Better to set the story aside, we said, and draw up a new plan. But the writer was invested in King’s palaeontological paradigm: his story was the one that had suggested itself to him, and, damnit, he was sticking with it, come hell or high water. Good luck, we said, admiring his doggedness but doubting the possibility of success.
The second manuscript we examined was the fourth draft of a novel whose author had asked us to assess. (He’d referred the earlier drafts to us as well, and we had made various suggestions and recommendations.)
This writer had made radical changes to his story. He’d designed – and executed – an entirely new first floor. The changes he’d made invigorated the story. They generated intrigue, and introduced his key characters to us in much more dramatic fashion.
He had, in short, taken a good hard look at his plans, had identified their weaknesses, and had devised new story strategies to buttress and support his narrative.
Every story idea is a tentative solution to a dramatic problem. If your solution fails to resolve the problem, then change your story, invent new characters, shake up your structure… start again.
It’s the difficult thing to do – but it’s the right thing to do.