Note: There’s simply too much talk about with Story Building to make it a single blog post. With that in mind I would like to introduce to you to Mystic Potluck’s first multi-part post. Please Enjoy Rambling about Story Building Part 1
Getting a story just right is a difficult task for any writer. There’s no way to shake it, building a story is tough. Even the most solid writers wrack their brains and pull out their hair trying to make the story just “right”. It’s not just a simple matter of checking A, B, and C and it’s not about simply about cutting a scene or two. There’s more to it than that. It’s an organic process that calls for a meticulous attention to detail. So how do we go about improving our story building skills?
Before we go any further, let’s make sure we all understand what a story is. At its barest form a story is a telling of events. However, simply telling the viewer random events is a good way to have things thrown at you. So if you’re into having things thrown at you feel free to blurt out random events to your heart’s content.
As for those of you who like your face more when it’s not being hit by shoes, smelly fish or smelly shoe wearing fish our discussion of story needs to go deeper. Let’s back out for a minute and talk about plot. Plot is the tangible, outlineable occurrences within the story. Remember in elementary school when you learned about the “plot diagram”? Well grab your glue sticks, juice boxes and packed lunches because we’re going back to 4th grade. Take a look at the plot diagram below and venture into PlotDiagramia
As we begin our journey through PlotDiagramia we first come to Exposition which introduces the setting and characters, and sets the mood of the story. Next the Rising Action is the series of conflicts in the story that lead to the climax or the big moment of the story. Moving up to the Climax is the place where the plot heads towards resolution; it’s the event that the Rising Action led up to. As we continue down the slopes of Mt. PlotDiagram (no doubt greeting the native PlotDiagramians and tasting exquisite PlotDiagramish food), we come to the Falling Action. The Falling Action is what happens as a result of the Climax. The final stop on our tour will be the resolution, often known as the “ending”
Now that we have a better understanding of the barebones mechanics of plot, let’s expand on it. Think of the story of your favorite book, game, comic, TV show, movie play… whatever, and while there’s an overreaching story arc you’ll notice that often times there are several arcs within the larger plot. The arcs are the organs within your story body. They are the threads that make up your story sweatshirt.
Phil: How long are you going to keep up these terrible analogies?
Oh come on now, that one wasn’t so bad was it?
Norman: What in the world is a story sweatshirt?
It’s you know… A uh…
Norman: A sweatshirt made out of story?
Norman: Sometimes I just don’t know about you
Phil: I think it’s time we took over
Norman: Shush! No where were we?
Norman: Ah yes, Arcs. While you may have some difficulty in grasping this concept of arcs being contained within the overreaching plot it may help to simplify things a bit. We’ll take a look at an example. The story is that Phil and I lost our luggage at the airport when we went to Ireland.
Phil: That was not my fault
Norman: That’s not really relevant here…
Phil: I’m just saying. It’s not my fault that a certain Irish ga—businessman has similar tastes in luggage.
Norman: I don’t know why you’re so worried about it. I mean we don’t actually exist
Phil: Tell that to his brass knuckled goons
Norman: Good point
Are you guys going to do this for the whole article? We have a lot to talk about here.
Norman: Keep it down in there!
Norman: Taking a look at our example, the plot is about how Phil and I decide to take a trip to Ireland, lose our luggage on the way and then get it back when the authorities raid an Irish mobster’s base of operation. It’s a fairly simple, straight-forward story. However, as writers you’ll no doubt want something a little more complex, a little more engaging if you will.
Phil: I think it’s plenty complex already
Norman: What do you mean? It’s a simple problem-solution story there’s no complexity here
Phil: Well sure if you only look at it from our perspective. But what happened to that nice Irish businessman as a result of us having his stuff? What about the raid itself? Every person there had their own story.
Norman: Ah that’s a good point. True that every character’s perspective is going to bring something slightly different to the table, but bringing up those other considerations is a great way to explain arcs. While the plot would still be focused on our actually losing and regaining possession of the luggage, the stories contained within this over reaching story are the arcs. They might deal with our contacting the authorities or when Phil got the sandwich while he was supposed to be watching our luggage.
Norman: It’s harder to see them in a simple story like this one but in more complex stories they’re easier to point out. Hey you, you want to take over now? It’s about time for you to talk about the next concept and I’m overdue for a nap
Phil: Don’t worry I’ll stick around and entertain your readers.
So we have an idea of what story is. Now, how do we go about creating a story? Despite what many people may think writing a story isn’t just a matter of typing everything that’s already in your head and just like that you have a story. Rather creating a story is something that may start with a central idea but will develop and evolve over time. Finished works are the result of an idea being morphed, manipulated and evolved through maybe a hundred different stages; we don’t get to see the starting story, just the result of all the hard-work.
However whether it’s you, Brandon Sanderson, Grant Morrison or Joss Whedon a story has to start with an idea. The idea is what you tell people when they ask you what your story is about. That being said the idea will evolve over time. As writers our job is to expand on this idea by asking questions, playing the what-if game, and exploring conflicts surrounding the idea.
Norman: I’m sorry, the what if game?
Well sure, it’s where you take your basic story idea and brainstorm ideas by asking yourself “what if this happened or what if this character did this? What would happen if this event happened differently?”
Norman: So… Brainstorming?
I thought making it a game would be more fun for people.
Norman: Brainstorming is more than enough fun for everyone.
Well regardless of what you want to call it, it’s important to work with your idea and not to give up on it too easily. Even the most complex, mind-boggling, cerebral stories had to start somewhere. What separates good writers, however, is their ability to explore their idea, expand on it and fit it into a story.
After you have your idea, you can start to story build. How do we go about that? Well the first step is to find out your preferred story building method. For this I refer to legendary fantasy author George R. R. Martin creator of the Song of Ice and Fire series who provided a fantastic analogy that explained that writers fall somewhere along a spectrum between what he calls architects and gardeners. An architect plans out every little detail before they even type the first words. The walls, floor, and ceiling are all accounted for, measurements are made and the structural components of the story are already in place. The writing itself would be like decorating the already established structure. Meanwhile, gardeners like to grow their stories organically. They begin writing often with little to no pre-planning. They plant the seeds of the story and simply watch it grow, all the while being careful to trim and maintain the story so it doesn’t get unruly.
There are of course, drawbacks and benefits to each method. For instance one positive aspect for the architect writers is that it’s easier to keep a story organized; planning ahead of time means you’re less likely to write yourself into a hole. A drawback to this is that the writing process can feel stale and some writers may feel trapped by these rigid guidelines. Conversely, gardeners enjoy the ability to evolve their story over time in what ultimately becomes a more freeing and unrestrained practice; it’s the story building method for those of you who like to just go with the flow
Phil: I love going with the flow
The problem is that you try to go with everyone’s flow simultaneously
Phil: Don’t you judge me
No judgement here. Of course most people don’t belong firmly in one camp or the other but instead just kind of float about along a spectrum which is for the best since they can get the best of both worlds. Finding out where you lie on the spectrum and figuring out if you lean more towards the architect method or the gardener method may take a little bit of time and some good old fashioned trial and error.
Phil do you have anything even remotely relevant to add?
Phil: Ehh, people need to learn how to feel the story. You know?
Surprisingly, yes. A lot of story building is just going to be instinct. Unfortunately there’s no checklist we can give you to tell what makes for a good story and what doesn’t. If, however, you develop a critical eye and learn to assess your story with the mindset of making it better then it’ll be easier to develop that feel for what works and what doesn’t. However, that’ll be another topic for Write Talk. For right now let’s go back to building a story.
Building a story is going to be a little bit different for everybody but if you remember the basic components of a story, arcs within arcs and expand out from an idea then you’re story construction will go much more smoothly. After that, you’re kind of on your own. You’re the one who has to write this story and writing isn’t about following a set of directions.
That being said, I can at least give you a few tips that I’ve picked up along the years. While writing things out beforehand may not be your style, it’s a great way to keep your story organized. Of course, you can still maintain that flow of thought, organic story evolution by keeping the outline brief; think of it as a reference guide in case you ever get lost. Secondly, if you’re a more visual person writing your plot out on notecards is a great way to see the plot and make adjustments later on. A final piece of advice is to start with the ending. This might seem strange but often times writers will have their “big scene” in mind and writing becomes a matter of figuring out how to get the story to that point. As a bonus this is a great way of cutting out unnecessary exposition since it allows you to start as close to the ending as possible.
With these tips in hand you can go about creating your story, remember though as complex as your story may get you can still refer to the basic plot diagram for guidance. Furthermore, keep in mind that stories contain mini-arcs within the main-arc but the arcs still follow the basic formula of exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and transition/resolution.
I would love to keep going on and on but unfortunately we are out of time.
Norman: Time has no meaning here.
Don’t think that was just a little melodramatic?
I’ve kept you for too long my dear reader and thus we must part ways for now. Do no fret and please no tears. On part 2 of in my Story Building Ramblings we’ll talk about the story creation process in more detail, what to consider when editing your story and some other tips to help those of you who are stuck coming up with ideas. Until next time and I hope you enjoyed this installment of Write Talk