Do you know your story before you write it?

Mockingjay_Part_2Recently, I saw the movie, Mockingly Part 2, in 3D. A great movie adaption of the ending to Suzanne Collin’s trilogy of the Hunger Games. I had forgotten how truly poignant the the novel ending was with Katniss losing her sister in the final throws of the war after having volunteered to take her place in the Hunger Games. Also the the revelation that the new President Coin was just as evil as the old President Snow was a nice twist. Great story telling and a great ending.

In my last blog I put forward the view that all great writers create distinctive memorable characters from an original story idea or concept. The character and the story idea fit together like a hand and glove to produce something that looks new and exciting. In this case, Katniss and the Hunger Games that saw children fighting each other to the death.

But finding the story idea and creating the main character is only the first step in story development. A good story teller has to have some idea where the story will take them. In  the Hunger Games, Katniss survives the Games,  only to be sent back again, fall in love with Peter, escape, lead the fight back against the Capitol to defeat President Snow, and then kill President Coin, who she held responsible for her sister’s death. That’s pretty much the story in one long sentence! But how do writer’s find this kind of story line?

The answer is everyone is different. For some writers just giving their main character a problem (surviving, in the case of the Hunger Games) and letting the character decide where it takes them is enough. These are the ‘pantsers’ who fall in love with their characters and let them dictate where the story goes. I can understand the attraction of this type of right-brain free writing, which can lead to the discovery of new ideas. But it can also lead down some blind alleys and trashing large amounts of writing.

Then there are those that plan out the plot in a detailed outline before putting pen to paper (the “plotters”). These may be more left-brain analytical thinkers. Although the process of discovering the plot points, if done properly, can be just as much a right-brain activity as the free writing method.

Most writers, however,  probably fall between these two extremes. They use a range of different story preparation methods, including rough character sketches for the main story players and their story lines, lists of obstacles to be overcome, the key story twists and turns, sketches of the main scenes, and story boards. Most at least have a good idea of how the story will end. Preparation does not necessarily have to mean an outline. Most writers use notebooks to capture their best ideas and useful information. Plot is only one dimension of this, but an important one.

I would argue, that whatever type of writer you are, you have to have some idea of where your story will take you and this requires thoughtful preparation. It’s not an easy process as I am currently experiencing with my latest novel. But it has to be done, before you really start writing if you’re going to be successful. John Irving sums this up as follows:

“Know your story before you fall in love with your first sentence. If you don’t know the story before you begin the story, what kind of story teller are you? Just an ordinary kind, just a mediocre kind — making it up as you go along, like a common liar?”