Story essence

Recently, I purchased “Story trumps structure”, by Steven James. I was attracted to the book by its provocative title and the foreward by Donald Maass, who I much admire. Although the book is mostly a manifesto for organic writing (‘pantsing’),
as opposed to plotting and outlining, it is still an excellent read for all types of writers. To me, the idea that story trumps structure is somewhat nonsensical, because structure is such an important component of any story. A story is limp without it. And the story pattern that James sets out — orientation, crisis/calling, escalation, discovery and change — is a pattern that is easily mappable into a three-act structure as others have done. Put simply, he has simply re-labelled the main elements of story structure. He also sets out eight things that are needed in the beginning of the story. These are the story beats that normally fall into the first act. To me, the idea that James is abandoning structure is a bit ridiculous; although he may have a point about not placing too much attention on formulaic plots.

There is a lot of good practical advice in Jame’s book. His emphasis on maintaining tension is spot on. He states:

“At the heart of story is tension, and at the heart of tension is unmet desire. So at its core a story is about a character who wants something but can’t get it. As soon as she gets it (or fails in her quest to do so), the story is over. If the reader doesn’t know what the character wants, they won’t know what the story is about.”

Good advice. Later in the book he says:

”When you focus on what lies at the heart of the story— tension, desire, crisis, escalation, struggle, discovery, transformation — you’ll intuitively understand what needs to happen in each scene to drive your story forward.”

Although he makes this statement to advance the cause of organic writing, the advice is just as relevant to those of us who are plotters and outliners. There is a lot of good advice in Jame’s book, although it won’t cause me to abandon using my scene cards just yet.

Reading Jame’s book got me thinking more about what the essence of a story is  really about. The Oxford English Dictionary defines story as:

“an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment.”

It’s not very helpful. After some thought, I came up with an alternative definition for fiction writers, which I think  captures most of  the essence of a good story:

“ A story is a tale about a character or characters, set in a particular environment or time, who struggle to deal with an important problem or opportunity that comes into their live(s) and which sets in motion a sequence of events and actions that logically lead to a climatic ending consistent with the theme of the story.”

It may appear a little long-winded for a definition, but it seems to capture most of the important attributes of a story, which are:

  • It’s about a character or characters, not necessarily human, that the reader can empathise with or at least find curious.
  • It has a setting which will affect the characters’ behaviour. (For example, 16th Century aristocrats may behave quite differently from that of the crew of a 22nd Century starship. Setting will also influence the genre and the story’s appeal to readers.
  • It’s about a big problem/opportunity (the catalyst) that comes into their lives that they have to deal with, where the consequences of failing to deal with it are dire (the stakes). This provides the requisite character motivation (desire/goal).
  • It’s about an escalating struggle (conflict/tension) to overcome/exploit the problem/opportunity (the outer journey), and in the process overcome their own shortcomings (the inner journey/character arc).
  • The characters desire to overcome/exploit the problem/opportunity results in a logical causal chain of events (the plot line).
  • It has a satisfactory ending consistent with the theme of the story (the emotional pay-off). The reader might not be able to predict the ending, but the ending should be consistent with what the reader expects from the genre and story line.

Of course, much of the skill of a good writer is in how they get the reader to empathise with the main character, how they maintain and build tension, and how they deliver the emotional  pay-off that the reader wants in the ending. So no definition can fully capture the emotional experience of a good story. But it’s probably a reasonable starting point for the definition of a story.  Let me know if you agree.

Finding the story

For me, one of the most difficult aspects of writing is finding the story. Finding ideas is no problem: everyone has ideas. How many times have you been told that by someone that he or she has a great idea for a book? But an idea alone does not make a story. It’s the next stage that I find difficult: taking that idea and developing it into a story that is new and exciting.

If writers are to be believed about what they say of their craft, there are two very different types of writers: ‘pantsers’ and  ‘plotters’. Plotters plan their way forward with detailed written outlines/synopsis, character sketches, scene lists and other devices; whereas pantsers write organically by the seat of their pants not knowing where the story is going to take them. However, I suspect the real truth is that most writers probably fall somewhere  between these two extremes. Let me take a step back and explain.

Most writers that  call themselves ‘pantsers’ do so because they don’t produce a written  outline or synopsis of their story before they commence writing, and because they feel that such an outline would constrain their creativity.  But that’s not to say that they don’t think deeply about their story lines and their characters  before they start writing, that they don’t have notes, research  and jottings about their story, or that they  don’t have some idea of the direction where they want the story  to go.  I suspect that most ‘pantsers’ probably have a very good idea about what they want to cover in the next few chapters that they are writing, but have probably only a feel for what will happen beyond that point.

This is a kind of headlights planning: where the immediate chapters ahead are clear in the writers head, but beyond the writer’s plan is at best a little sketchy. Some pantsers claim that when they start writing they have no idea of how the story will end. But I suspect, if they are honest with themselves,  they will have probably at least considered some of the options available for the ending. What they mean is that they have a passionate desire to remain flexible and creative throughout the writing process. They want to enjoy the same experience as their readers as the story unfolds.

However,  many writers that call themselves plotters, myself included,   may well map out a sketch of the story to begin with, but will not stick rigidly to it. For me, outlining/planning is a process that continues throughout the writing process and as you write new ideas and questions arise that need to be answered, and the  plot evolves.  There are also different degrees of plotting depending on the amount of detail the writer wants to go into.  A plot outline might be a simple list of bullet points of the main story events,  a collection of scene cards; or it could be a 3 or  even a 50-page written synopsis of the story. Plotters come in all shapes and sizes.

Personally, I would describe myself as a plotter, but I’ve never written  a  formal synopsis before commencing a project. I prefer to map out the main events of the story using scene cards with one or two lines of description for each scene. For my current project, I currently have approximately 47 scene cards (22 cards for the first Act, 20 for the second Act  and 5 for the third Act). This may seem a little unbalanced, but it’s because I have completed writing the first Act and I am part way through the second. As the story develops, I will continue to add more scene cards to Acts 2 and 3 as the level of detail becomes clearer.

The point I am trying to make is that plotting is a flexible process. Most of Act 1 of my current book went to plan, with only a modest degree of changes. But I am now a third way through  Act 2 and I am already making major revisions to scenes:  introducing new scenes, changing the timing of scenes and deleting or re-writing scenes. It is part of the process of finding out what works and what does not.

John Truby in The Anatomy of Story wrote that if you are not sure whether to write a scene or not you should write it. It’s the only way you will find out if the scene really works. He’s right. Whether you’re an ardent pantser or a plotter, finding the story is a creative process, and both plotters and pantsers need to experiment to find it.

Outline and outliners

How do you measure the progress you’re making on writing a book? Do you think in terms of the word-count you’ve written or the number of scenes you’ve completed? The answer possibly lies in the type of writer you are. If you’re an organic writer (or ‘pantser’) that believes that any form of outlining is too restrictive and waste of time, you’ll probably focus entirely on word count. If you’re a writer that uses some kind of scene outline then you may prefer the latter. But what is an outline?

In my school/college/university days outlining an essay was simple. You made a list of points you needed to cover in the essay, and then you started writing the essay, crossing off the points as you went along. You could write a novel the same way, although I suspect it would take a lot more time to come up with the list of points. In practice, most writers use notebooks or files to collate their notes and research and it may take a considerable period of time before the author is ready to commence. But some writers will go further and organise their research and information into some form of story structure or scene outline that will form the skeleton for their novel. But even here, practices vary enormously.

One of my favourite books on writing is James V. Smith Jr’s ‘The writers little helper’. Smith covers a whole range of topics on writing, but when it comes to outlining he advocates you don’t bother. He argues that outlines can become a mission in themselves without adding to the creative aspects of writing. Instead he suggest a Ten-Scene Tool to sketch in the ten most important scenes (or master scenes) in your novel. These include, the opening scene, the point of no return complication, other pivotal complications, the climax and the ending. His rationale is that the Ten-Scene Tool forces you to simplify your central story line. This is not to say that the other scenes you will have to write are not important; but that they are less pivotal and are there to set up the master scenes and provide texture. In my mind, this is still an outline albeit at a helicopter level of detail.

Contrast this approach with that of Karen S Weisner’s in ‘First draft if 30 days’, where she sets out a six stage structured approach to produce a scene by scene outline of 50 pages or so. Far from believing an outline restricts creative development, Weisner believes that the brainstorming process continues throughout the writing process and that it is easier to modify an outline of fifty pages than it is to modify a manuscript of 200–400 pages. Considering she is an award winning novelist of more than twenty books, the system clearly works for her. Whether you agree with producing this level of detail or not (which for me came as a bit of a shock) you will find her approach fascinating. She uses some twenty different worksheets, which are set out in the Appendix C to her book. Even if you are the most ardent pantser writer in the world there is probably something you can take away from this book. She has also written ‘From first draft to Finished Novel’, which picks up from where her earlier book finished. Both books in my view contain a great deal of good practical advice for a newbie novelist.

For the current novel I am working on I have an outline currently consisting of 46 planned scenes, which are summarised on scene cards in my Scrivener file. The amount of detail on each card is relatively high level: a heading and couple of sentences of explanation. As I continue to write, I expect the number of scenes will increase, because I have a tendency to split scenes into smaller units, and new scenes will be necessary as transitional scenes are incorporated and more detail is fleshed out. On the spectrum of outlining, I probably currently fit somewhere between the two extremes of Smith and Weisner.

Which approach is right for you? Only you can tell, but for me it is worth experimenting with to find out.