It is almost eight years since I started writing novels, and I’ve learned an awful lot in that time. It hasn’t been easy. I had a story I wanted to write and I wanted to start writing it as soon as possible. But I soon found out that you need to make some key decisions before you even start to write about point of view, person, and tense. And you need to have an understanding of story structure. So I did what I suspect many other writers have done. I read a whole host of ‘How too…” books on the subject. Many of which were helpful, and some of which lets say were a waste of time.
Remember that stereotype writer we often see portrayed in movies. The guy (or girl) with glasses who sits in front on a typewriter and bashes so many thousand words each day. Or who, stares at a blank page, swills whisky and suffers from writer’s block. This stereotype is often reinforced by successful writers, who say to be a writer you need to write every day as though this is the only process a writer needs:
“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down a typewriter and bleed.” ― Hemingway.
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” ― Stephen King
“You must write every single day of your life… You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads… may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.” ― Ray Bradbury
It’s true that if you want to be a writer you need to write and you need a determination to see it through. Writing a book is like running a marathon ― you can’t give up when you hit the wall. You have to keep going or you’ll never reach the end. But writing is not just about bashing words into a keyboard. There’s a creative process by which a simple initial idea is grown into a complex narrative we call a story.
Unfortunately, analysing a writer’s published work does not necessarily give a great deal of insight into the process the writer used to get to that final point. We may well identify the key turning points in the story but this does not tell us how he/she found them or developed them.
To add to the confusion some writers claim to be ‘pantsers’ doing very little preparation work for their stories, while others are ‘outliners’ using detailed outlining techniques. Although I suspect most writers are engaged in some level of planning and analysis even if it is only in their heads developing the main character and his goals.
The point I would like to make is that you don’t have to write a story sequentially starting on page 1 and finishing with “the end”. It’s a daunting task to carry that level of detail in your head. Some pantsers might say they don’t have to know the story at the outset as they just follow the main character until they get to the end. Maybe that works for them, but not for me.
The approach I take is a layering approach, which starts with the basic elements of story and gradually expands to a basic draft and then grows into a final draft in an iterative process.
Stage 1: Brainstorming ideas.
A story has to start somewhere with an initial idea. The purpose of brainstorming is to create as many ideas as possible without making judgement. Usually the idea will come from one of the five main story elements:
- A character
- A challenge: a problem or opportunity or unusual situation that will drive the story
- An antagonist
- A storyworld
- An ending
Stage 2: Developing the story premise, the broad story line, and identifying the main characters.
A story idea can be turned into a story premise by bringing together the story elements into a single statement explaining who the story is about, what he or she wants, what stands in their way of getting it, and why the want it. In simple terms, the premise is a statement about the hero’s big story challenge.
The story line or main plot line is broadly what happens to the hero. Does he/she succeed or fail and what are the main sequences that get him/her there.
At this point we need to understand the main characters, their role in the story and their primary motivation.
Stage 3: Developing a beat sheet for the main story line
The Beat Sheet lists the main stepping-stones in the hero’s storyline. It will usually include the main turning points and key hero sequences of the story.
The main turning points would be at least:
- The catalyst/inciting incident – What starts off the story conflict and motivates the hero to eventually act
- Act One Break – The point where the hero commences his quest or challenge
- The Mid Point – Usually a major revelation or reversal
- The Act 2 Culmination – Usually the darkest hour for the hero
- The Climax
And the key sequences are hero’s quest broken down into 6-8 logical stages.
Stage 4: The Main Scene list or outline
The scene list or outline is a bullet list of scenes that can be easily identified from a the beat sheet. (It is not the final list which may be much longer). It is usually at this stage that I set up scene cards using Scrivener, breaking the list of scenes down under four headings:
- Act 1
- Act 2A
- Act 2B
- Act 3
The scenes themselves may well have one or two lines of text explanation. I may well add further notes where they occur to me. (Other writers may well want to turn this scene list into a more detailed outline with bullet points within each scene. I find it more effective to add detail at the time I am working on individual scenes rather than laying out all the scenes in detail in advance of the first Basic Draft.)
Stage 5: First Basic Story Draft
My first drafts are usually just the bare minimum to get the basic story down on paper. The word count will be substantially shorter than the eventual final draft 40-60%.
Stage 6: The Expanded Draft
This is the stage where I organise my scenes into chapters and where I add the missing scenes to the text. These could be sub plots, the story lines of other characters (eg the antagonist), or transitions. It is also where I take a further look a dialogue and descriptions and layers of further story content. This is an iterative process that continues until I reach the final draft
Stage 7: The Final Daft
My final drafts are usually complete except for proofing. I tend to edit as I go, so the final edits other that proofing are usually limited.
Looking back at what I have described above may give the impression that my writing process is planned and logical. It never feels quite like that in practice. New ideas can enter the process at any of the stages forcing a re-think, and they often do.
So there it is — my take on the story writing process. What do you think? Maybe you have something better to offer?
2 thoughts on “The writing process”
As I gave a presentation in 2019 about plot and the process of writing, I was interested to compare your stages with my own. I had written up my speech as an article afterwards. I think your system of working is sound. Studying how writers work is very helpful. I am certainly not putting my way of working as something better to offer than your steps, as each writer has to find their own path. I think teaching is only ever about presenting a map from which a writer finds their own path. Generally, our methods have a lot in common and we are considering the same sort of things. You are a good builder.
Personally, my main concern is being overwhelmed by a tangle of wild ideas and fantasies that I have to keep under control by tight organisation, vigilance and knowing where I am headed. I am trying to keep my attention in the right place at the right time and provide a frame to support the growth. I have to keep my characters under control as I become the main characters and see from each point of view.
I can relate to your concern about being overwhelmed by a tangle of wild ideas and fantasies. But I also see that as an enormous strength. It means you have a rich imagination. One general once said ‘no plan survives engagement with the enemy’, and with writing new ideas can occur at any point of the writing process. The difficult part is knowing whether that new idea is a priceless gem to be explored or a distraction from your story. I’m a strong believer in planning, but sometimes my story plans don’t turn out entirely as initially expected. And I’m okay with that.