You’re staring out the window, letting your imagination go, when a family member interrupts and asks you to do something. “I’m working,” you protest, and then immediately realise it was the wrong answer. So you put your thoughts aside and do as they request. Sound familiar? It happens to us all. And I would never suggest you should ignore family. But contrary to what anyone else thinks, daydreaming is real work for a writer — just as much as tapping on the keyboard.
Have a great idea for a story? What if in some future dystopian world children are forced to fight to the death for some television show? A story starts with an idea like this, but the idea alone is not enough. It needs to be nurtured. It needs a hero or heroine. In this case, it is Katnis. What makes her special? She volunteers for the games to protect her younger sister. What does she desire? Survival, of course. What are the consequences if she fails? Death — a pretty good motivator. But the consequences of success also gives her a dilemma; she can only survive if all the other competitors are killed. Let’s add a complication to make it more interesting. What if she falls in love with one of the competitors? Now that creates an interesting dilemma. How is the story going to end?
Some of you will recognise this storyline. It’s Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games. I’m not aware of how Suzanne Collins developed her story, but the approach above is still an excellent example of how an idea can be developed by simply asking questions to draw out the story. A story needs a concept that gives rise to a source of conflict: a television show where children fight to the death. A story also needs an interesting character: Katnis. And together they give the premise for the story. We now have a dramatic question that will drive the story: will Katnis survive the Hunger Games?
So how far should a writer daydream (I mean plan) before he or she starts to write their story? The answer is that each writer is different. It’s all about what works for you. Some writers would be happy to start writing at this point and find the story organically as they write. They simply put themselves in their character’s shoes and let their character take them on their story journey. This is sometimes referred to as pantsing – writing by the seat of the pants. Others might want to flush out just the main turning points of the story: what are the main obstacles and crisis that their hero/heroine will have to face? And yet others might not be happy to start until they have a detailed outline breaking down all the main story beats and scenes, and some detailed character sketches. We are all different.
But whether we are writing a minor scene organically or developing an outline of just the main story beats, the creative process is much the same. It’s about asking questions and looking for the answers. At this point of the story what does our character want? What’s stopping him/her getting it? What will they do? Will they succeed and what are the consequences of their action? Where does this lead them next? The process is a natural one driven by character desire and a logical pattern of cause and effect.
Even if you are an ardent pantser that hates the idea of using an outline, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t spend time story planning before starting. Let your imagination soar. Spend time with your characters. Consider alternative plot lines. You might just come across something special. There are many ways of planning, without necessarily using a formal outline. One of the best books on planning is Janice Hardy’s Planing Your Novel: Ideas and Structure. It’s a series of workshops that will take you through the planning process. Another useful book is Randy Ingermanson’s How to write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method. It’s a ten-step process towards the development of a story. It’s a process of taking small steps to build up an outline. The first step is a one-line description of your story, the second is a one-paragraph summary, the ninth is a four-page outline. You don’t however have to use all the steps. It’s up to you.
Another interesting approach is Harold Page’s Storyteller Tools. He uses Conflict Diagrams and something he calls QABNs (Question, Answer, But Now) beats to drive out the story flow. For example: ‘The king is killed by dwarfs’ army, but the princess escapes their clutches. Will she find the wizard and persuade him to help her defeat the dwarfs? But first she must …But…” It’s a bit like writing a summary of the story using questions and ‘buts’. It’s an interesting process that helps discover the storyline.
Whatever process you use to discover your story is up to you. There are no rules; no ideal process. It’s what works for you. But all stories start in the muse. Keep a notebook for those ideas that crop up. You might not use them now; but they may have value later on. And don’t forget to daydream. It’s work after all.