The Foundations of Story-Telling
90% of writers - those that actually get started on writing - sit down and simply write scene after scene straight from their imaginations. It’s a huge part of the attraction of writing as a career that this is a very pleasant and low-maintenance process - there’s something therapeutic about allowing the imagination free play in this way. It’s almost as though there are entire universes inside us, trying to escape into our outer worlds through the tiny keyhole that is our heads, in the miniscule amount of time that we permit that channel to open up.
You may have felt the ‘traffic jam’ building up in your mind when you don’t get to write. That’s uncomfortable but quite common. Having stirred our creative engines into life, they begin to knock on the door, no longer satisfied with a keyhole: they want out, they want to be a book!
Once you have something out of your head and onto paper - or more likely these days, onto a hard drive - there is often a sense of relief. But this is usually accompanied by a feeling that what you have written is somehow incomplete or unsatisfactory. The truth is that, in the rush to get something written, your creative heart hasn’t had much chance to put structure or order into what has emerged. There has been a flow, and that is good - it felt good, and it is good to see something in the shape of words rather than images or vague ideas in your mind. But now another part of that mind needs to step in.
This other part is a kind of internal editor. It is part of you, just as the creative part is, and what it has to do can be just as enjoyable as the creative flow. The internal editor’s job is to organise what you’ve written. There are several stages to this, and I recommend that you tackle it as follows (though you can pick and choose based on what works for you):
1. Let the creative flow happen for as long as you can, preferably up to about 200 pages if you are able to. That sounds a lot, but once you have that flow going it’s good to keep it going until you have amassed a substantial amount of wordage.
2. Read over it and see if you can summarise the whole thing in one or two sentences. This is worth spending some time on. The sentence you come up with is like the command, the intention, the core of the thing. Let’s say you’ve managed to write 150 pages of a war drama. You look over it and come up with these sentences: ‘Private Paul Hammersmith makes it through the beaches on D-Day but watches his buddy get killed in front of him. He then has to keep the promise he’d made to look after his friend’s family.’
3. Reduce it further if you can, by focusing on the emotion: ‘Burdened by his wartime experiences, Paul Hammersmith has to face his friend’s distraught family and try to keep the impossible promise he’d made’. The more emotionally punchy you can make that sentence, the better. In a book proposal, it should be able to hook a reader and begin to sell it.
4. Work on the sentence so that it’s clear who the protagonist in the story is and how awful his burden is.
5. Once you are happy with that sentence, divide it into four parts, one paragraph each. The first three paragraphs should contain a sense of triumph but end in emptiness and loss - something like this:
‘Private Paul Hammersmith plunges into the bullet-ridden hell of the D-Day beaches, barely coming through alive, hanging on every step of the way to his friend and hero, Jimmy Galsworthy. Clambering over the front-line German bunkers, thinking that they have conquered them, he is horrified to see Jimmy mown down in front of him.
‘Hammersmith manages to spend the last remaining minutes of his friend’s life with him, but when the inevitable end comes, he is painfully reminded of the profound but impossible promise he had made only a few days before: if one of them were to die, Jimmy had said to him, the other must care and love the family left behind.
‘Returning at last to England, Hammersmith hides behind the celebrations of VE Day. But his conscience provokes him to seek out Jimmy’s young family and to begin his clumsy, arduous journey into their hearts, struck cold and empty by their loss.'
6. Now tackle the ending: how is this all going to work out? If you’re aiming to write an upbeat story, you’ll want a positive ending in which the vacuum you’ve created is filled; if, though, you want a story with a sad ending, then the hero must fail and the story must wrap up with an even bigger void opening out before him.
These steps give you a basic plot outline. Now you can take what you have written and mold it accordingly, losing the bits that don’t contribute to the main thrust of the thing, and perhaps filling in some holes and weaker parts.
This is one way of putting some shape and structure into what was originally a creative outpouring. There are others. You’re seeking to get the clay onto the wheel with the first part, then mold it with the second into something attractive and even beautiful. Both parts play their role in shaping a story that works.