Ten Story Building Techniques
Welcome back to Firsts in Fiction, loyal listeners! This week, Steve and Aaron are joined by Alton Gansky (prolific writer and host of Writer’s Talk) again to talk story building. The video of our live cast on Google Hangouts is available on YouTube here. If you prefer, you can watch below the show notes. As always, you can listen above or download the episode here. Find Steve and Heather and Aaron on Facebook, Twitter, iTunes, and Stitcher. You can find Al on Facebook or on his blog here.
Here are ten ideas to help with story building.
1. Be aware and observant: Often times, coming up with ideas is not as much of a process as it is a process of recognition and observation. Story ideas exist everywhere, and as writers, we need to be sensitive enough to see them, and to pursue them. We need to find the “What if” questions, and ask more follow up questions: “What would it be like if…?” “How would it feel to do…?” The answers to these question will help to form the bones of our story.
2. Don’t tell yourself no right away: Who knows how many outstanding ideas die before they’re born because we’ve been conditioned to tell ourselves “no.” Tigers can’t fly. Quails aren’t colorful. Why not? Sure, we need to work within the realm of reason, but rather than simply dismissing the ideas immediately, poke around a bit and find a reason why a tiger could fly, why a quail would be colorful.
3. “What if” is for characters as well as plot: There’s a misconception that stories and novels revolve around a single “What if.” The truth is, there are several. Take Hemmingway’s Old Man and the Sea. What if there was an old man who caught a marlin on a hand line? This is the heart of the novel, but Hemmingway continues to layer the conflict and ask why the old man must keep the marlin on the line rather than simply letting it go. What if this were the only fish he’d caught in years, and his livelihood depended on his catching of the fish? What if his apprentice left the old man’s employ because of the old man’s inability to make a living? These types of questions deepen the plot and the characters.
4. Tell yourself “no” later: When you’re asking “why?” (for example, why doesn’t the old man simply let the marlin go?), your first response is probably not the right answer. If it’s the first thing to come to your mind, it will be the first thing to come to the readers’ minds as well, which isn’t what you want. There’s no surprise that way. Instead, dig deeper.
5. Weaker ideas are not “bad” ideas–let them mature: Often times, we can’t find a way to make our ideas work. Sometimes, this is a problem with timing. File the idea away, and come back to it later. Occasionally, the passage of years will give us the distance from an idea that we need to make it work.
6. United we stand: Several ideas are not strong enough to stand on their own. Rather than throwing these away, it’s good to hold on to these. Sometimes, by merging two or three ideas together, we can construct a truly unique and memorable story set-up.
7. Have more than you can handle: It’s a good idea to write your story concepts down, and to always have more than you can write. If you have a plethora of ideas to choose from, you’ll be able to pick the best ideas, and the weaker ones, the ones that need more time in the oven, can benefit from a few months on the back-burner (if you’ll pardon my mixed metaphors).
8. Leave yourself challenges: Part of the fun of being a discovery writer is leaving yourself challenges. One of my favorite lines in Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas is “All this happened before the cow exploded.” (May not be word for word, but there’s for sure an exploding cow). He may not have known what cow was going to explode, or when or why or how, but it became a marker for the manuscript, something I looked forward to figuring out as I read through the book. Leave yourself some lines to follow through with later, something that will shock, surprise, or delight.
9. Bouncing ideas off other writers: Starbucks should get royalties on about a million different novels. Steve and I sit down there often (or try to) to bounce ideas off each other. The process of chatting with each other can help us see how our ideas will be perceived by readers and challenge us to explain them more fully. Coming out of these meetings, I find myself refreshed and eager to get back to work.
10. Creativity doesn’t end at the start of a project: Specifically for character development, the process of writing itself becomes an act of discovery, an exercise in creativity. It’s not uncommon for me to find the heart of a character near the end of a novel. The process of revision is another opportunity to layer creativity, to discover new aspects of character and plot. This is fine (though Outliners often find it annoying and deflating). As a discovery writer, I enjoy revision. I know, I know. I’m weird. But it’s important to love the story more than you hate the work.