Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Riting School: It Started Once Upon a Time

Once Upon A Time…

Getting your multi-chapter story off the ground.

I get comments like this a lot:

I have this great idea for a story and I really want to write it. I’ve never written a long story before, so how do I get started? Do I need to do an outline?

For you seasoned writers who know this stuff, bear with me and consider this a refresher course. I’m directing this article at first-time writers who’ve been bitten by the bug and have an itch that needs to be scratched (not that itch, pervs). So my plan is, when I (or other writers) get this question, we can simply point the inquirer to this wee lil article, complete with pretty formatting and examples.

12 Steps to Pre-Novel Planning

In grad school, there was always an undercurrent of fear when fellow creative writers mentioned they were slated to take “The Long Project.” This class was a semester of getting that novel they’d always wanted to write off the ground, churning out chapter after chapter, then laying themselves bare for brutal feedback during peer workshops. (Some of you fanfic writers might be wondering what the big deal is. Well, congratulations—if you’ve already experienced life as a “chapter machine” and had debates with reviewers over your work, then you’ve one-upped many CW grad students.) This class also took the ideas floating in our heads and made them tangible realities—realities that often require year-long commitments, which can be kind of scary. But when your lil idea baby grows up and you complete the story, you’ll have such an incredible feeling of accomplishment and euphoria.

Before you actually begin writing your first chapter, a strong foundation needs to be laid. Trust me that doing the prep work will save you a lot of headaches in the long run.

1. Finding an Idea

They say truth is stranger than fiction. So true. The best story ideas come from simply opening your eyes and being aware of what is happening around you…

  • Spend a day people-watching at an airport or a park, and let your imagination grip you.

  • Visit a museum and read the displays not for information, but for story ideas.

  • Scour newspapers and media sites for those odd little news bites, and build on them.

  • Flip through your old photo albums, diaries, and yearbooks—mine your own experiences.

  • Go to the library, pull three random books off the shelf, and weave a story with them.

  • When you have interesting dreams, take note—Stephenie Meyer did (ker-ching!).

Tip: Buy a little notebook you can carry in your purse or bag to jot down ideas. They will hit you when you least expect them, so record your light bulb moments before you forget.

2. The Story Map

Your story map will shift and change as you write, but it is exactly that: your story’s map. When you take a trip with a destination in mind, you need a map to help you get there. That is the purpose of your story map—as you write, it will help you stay on course so you don’t write yourself into a dead end.

Once you have your idea, it’s time to get your basic story map down (keep in mind this will grow and shift as you develop your plot and characters). But to begin with…

  • Tell your story in a general way, and freeze at moments when the story shifts. These are actions or events that cause your main character’s course to shift. Think Back to the Future and the whole parallel universe thing.

  • Highlight your top ten most important story shift moments. This is the core of your story—the moments you are always building toward. (E.g., In Twilight, the first major story shift occurs when Bella lays eyes on Edward Cullen and vice-versa. That’s a game-changer.)

  • Identify generic conflicts of your book (E.g., Bella loves a vampire, Cullens have a secret life).

3. Geographic Setting

Aside from theme, nothing gets ignored more than the geographic setting of a story. Remember, “place” is a character, too—an important one. The setting shapes who your characters are, the types of conflicts they might struggle with, even the style and tone of your writing. Before you start developing your characters, identify your location. And this requires research. Even if you plan to falsely depict a location (hello, trendy boutique-infested Port Angeles), at least know in what ways you are fictionalizing a place.

  • Is your story set in a depression-era mining town western Pennsylvania? Find out what you can about the location—the scenery, the climate, demographics, culture, history, special events, unique characteristics.

  • Find a map of the location you are writing about or patterning a fictional place after. If this is a fantasy story and there is no map, create one yourself.

  • Pick a visual representation of your story which embodies not only the place, but the mood. This is your “banner.”

4. Historical Events

Another key element of developing your story’s sense of place is the time. If your story is depression era Pennsylvania, research events that are happening at a world level, then national, then regional, then local.

  • List key events that were of importance to the people in the time period you are writing about, even if it’s present day.

  • Have a good understanding about what events would have influenced your characters. Is this Vietnam era? Then your main characters might be worried about the draft. The Civil Rights Movement would have also had huge influences.

5. Central Characters

Once you’ve researched your setting, you’ll have a better picture in your head of your central characters (e.g., Twilight’s central characters are Edward and Bella). In fact, ideas may be flying from your brain too fast to jot down. So now it’s time to lay the groundwork for character development. I can’t stress how important this step is—having a solid sense of who your characters are and how they react will shape the rest of your story. It will make or break it. Sketching a character is a valuable way to understand a character’s personality, appearance, desires, motivations, strengths and weaknesses.

Character sketches should include:
  • list of defining character traits, strengths and weaknesses

  • paragraph with brief history

  • 1-2 sentences on character’s primary and secondary conflicts/motivations

  • picture closely resembling your character

I’ve used this character sketch example before in my “Baddies” series, but I’ll pull it up again for reference:


Character traits:

  • Is evil and wicked, but sure could fool us!
  • ‘Father of Lies’
  • Speaks beautifully
  • Oozes sex appeal
  • Epic warrior qualities (brave, fierce fighter, regal appearance)
  • Desires power
  • Jealous
  • Filled with hate, rage, vengeance
  • He’s the first rebel (today, he’d ride a motorcycle, smoke ciggies, wear a leather jacket, and have a sexy bouffant ala James Dean. Dean, I said. Not the other bouffanted beauty).
  • The great Mick Jagger describes him as “a man of wealth and taste, been around for a long, long year…”

Backstory: He’s been cast out of Heaven by God after leading an epic rebellion, and is trapped on a rock in the middle of a fiery lake. He was an angel of light—Lucifer—who fell after growing greedy for power. His tragic flaw is his desire for power and revenge. While he may be beautiful, speak seductively, and sometimes appears as a phallic serpent to a virginal young woman whose name starts and ends with an ‘E’, don’t be fooled—he’s sided with evil instead of good.

Character’s Primary conflict: Satan wants revenge on God for booting him out of heaven and into, literally, the fiery pits of Hades. He’s out to hit God where it hurts the most.

Character’s Secondary conflict: Adam is such a goody-two-shoes, there’s no way in hell Satan (pardon the pun) will get him to bite the forbidden fruit. Eve, on the other hand…

6. Central Theme

Once you’ve developed your basic story map, setting, and characters, you’ll start to see themes, or “subject matters,” naturally emerging. This is slightly different from your conflict, in that it’s broader (but your conflict is almost always rooted in your theme). To find your theme…

  • Do some brainstorming—what would the “prom themes” be for your story? What naturally emerges when you think about your plot and your characters? (E.g., several Twilight themes include Personal Choice, Love, Isolation, Mortality, Sacrifice, Appearance.)

  • Once you’ve come up with your themes, write a couple of sentences about how and why each plays a part in your story.

7. Primary Conflict

Now that you’ve explored the depths of your story’s foundation a bit more, time to revisit those initial conflicts you jotted down. Given what you now know about your characters, setting, and theme, has anything changed? Do you have new ideas?

  • Write a paragraph summarizing what the main conflict of your story is and why. (E.g., the main conflict of Twilight is that Bella is human and Edward is a vampire…therefore, we have a star-crossed lovers scenario).

  • How will this conflict play out? What sort of resolution will it have?

8. Secondary Conflict

You’ve identified your primary conflict, so take a look at your characters and setting, and think about what sort of secondary conflicts might develop. Take into consideration both internal and external conflicts…

  • Which of your characters’ traits and motivations might cause them to clash with others? Do any conflicts emerge?

  • What about internal conflicts? Perhaps one of your central characters is at war with him/herself? (E.g., an internal secondary conflict of Twilight is Edward’s abhorrence of his vampire nature).

  • Now factor in the setting and time period. Does that exacerbate anything? Are outside forces brewing that might cause trouble for your characters? (E.g., an external secondary conflict of Twilight would be James’ desire to kill Bella.)

9. Supporting Characters

You’d got your central characters down, as well as your conflicts. You have a better idea of what roles will need to be filled, and by what type of character. Let’s do your casting call—sketching your supporting characters. Supporting (or secondary) characters are not your central characters, nor are they your minor characters. (E.g., Supporting characters in Twilight would include Charlie, Renee, Alice, Carlisle, James, Jacob). These are the characters that have crucial roles to play in your plot by their presence, or even absence (as in Renee’s case).

  • Identify at least five supporting characters

  • Do a character sketch for each

  • Find a picture representation of your character (or draw one if you can’t find one)

Tip: Unless you are writing a melodrama, don’t create perfectly good (or bad) people, or your characters will be flat. Sometimes it’s easy to fall into the “heroine is victimized” trap, so be aware…everyone has flaws.

10. Exploration of Tenses and Point-of-View

We’re almost ready to dive into your story, yay! Just a few things to take care of, stylistically (for a more in-depth look at uncovering your story’s style, see a previous Riting Skool article, “Bella’s Got Style”). Before you begin writing, decide which tense fits the story you want to tell. Will you use a first-person narrator or a third-person narrator with multiple points of view?

I could go into in-depth analysis of why certain POVs and tenses work better for particular stories (again, see “Bella’s Got Style”). But here’s a very practical trick…

  • Pick one of your moments from your story map and begin writing that scene in 1st person, past tense. Make sure you include both scene (dialogue and action) and summary (reflection, backstory).

  • Once you’ve written an excerpt, now rewrite it using lots of different tense and POV combinations. Maybe even try telling the story in 1st person from an unlikely character’s perspective (how would Twilight change if Carlisle told the story?). As you repeat the excerpt in different tenses, you’ll begin to see which combinations come more naturally to the story you want to tell. Some spark while others feel like pounding the wrong puzzle piece into place.

It’s not uncommon for writers to get halfway through a book and find they are struggling to write their story. Often, the problem is not the plot itself, but who is telling it and how. If find yourself in this situation, experiment with tenses and POVs again. You may want to consider rewriting the entire thing from a different perspective (I did this with my thesis—the rewrite was a nightmare, but the end result was magic).

11. Visual Motif

This is another of those fancy stylistic things that sounds difficult, but is actually a very simple way to add depth and cleverness to your story. A “visual motif” (or narrative motif) is a reoccurring object, description, place, idea, or statement that reflects your story’s themes. This is not just an extended metaphor, though the use of metaphor is certainly part of creating a motif. Visual motifs intensify a reader’s experience by giving them tangible symbols to emphasize your theme.

  • The trick to developing a strong visual motif is subtlety. Don’t beat readers over the head with overt symbols. A handful of well-placed variations should do the trick.

  • Avoid cliché symbolism—be creative with your imagery.

A good example of an effective and creative visual motif is used in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (OMG, I can’t wait to see this movieeee!). The story takes place after the breakdown of social order, followed by the complete devastation of all living things. (Even dialogue punctuation rules have been discarded by McCarthy, which is just damned brilliant.) Thus, it is a fight for survival for those few humans who are left—a theme of “Death and Life.” Throughout his novel, McCarthy uses bleak, stark visual images of ruined wasteland, destroyed homes, cities, rural and urban civilization to emphasize his theme. Here’s just one example:

"The land was gullied and eroded and barren. The bones of dead creatures sprawled in the washes. Middens of anonymous trash. Farmhouses in the fields scoured of their paint and the clapboards spooned and sprung from the wallstuds. All of it shadowless and without feature. The road descended through a jungle of dead kudzu." (McCarthy)

In the end, as the story’s theme comes full circle, McCarthy’s series of subtle visual motifs now fit together in a stunning, completed puzzle.

As you write, consider what sort of visual motifs organically grow from your setting. How do they emphasize your themes?

12. Beginning and End

Hurrah! Are you ready to just do it already? (Geez you pervs, I swear.) It’s time to start writing. But…remember how I mentioned at the beginning of this lil 12-step program that you need to know where you are going? Well, you last step is to actually write where you are going. Before you start cranking out chapters, write your opening scene and your ending scene. Your ending is likely to need rewriting by the time you actually get there. But writing it at the onset will get it out of the way, and give you something tangible to work toward.

Having a beginning point and an ending point sets your course. Now you just have to fill in the chapters between.

There’s the meat of laying the foundation for your story. The rest of that stupid “Long Project” course is just suffering through workshops, getting feedback that makes you cry and drink, and ignoring half that feedback because it’s coming from other CWs who only skimmed your story anyway, and had to come up with something clever to say during workshop.

I’ve saved you a semester of tears and hangovers and egos. You can thank me later.

Gondolier is officially sticking it to the MAN by sharing her wealth of wordcraft knowledge with the likes of fandom. She demonstrates her tremendous skills with every chapter she posts of her wondrous story, Hydraulic Level 5.


  1. Absolutely fantastic! Thank you for this article. Oh, and definetly thank you for saving me the hangover..i have had 10 too many of those in my life *snort*

    ((that must've been a nightmare to re-write your thesis from a diff pov...glad it worked out))

    you are awesometastic!!!!! baby g is very lucky to have such a talented and sweet mama who sticks it to the man like no other ((hehe, that is very pervy indeed-y))

  2. Thanks! Yes, I hope baby G grows up to be just like me... then we can gang up on daddy, ha.

  3. Thanks so much for this article! I'm one of those first timers with an idea that hasn't started writing yet - still in the outlining process. I appreciate you're sharing the wealth (of knowledge!)

  4. This is Gold... I've just used it to plot my new story. Thank you so much!

  5. Gondolier, I cannot even begin to say how grateful I am for your work with this!

    I am currently editing my draft from my NaNoWriMo novel of last year, and this (along with the rest of your fabulous "Riting Skool") has been extremely useful to me. Discovering the efficiency of character sketches has truly taken my writing to a whole new level. This is exactly what my novel needed, and has just the right mix of information and humor. I am definitely going to use this as a guide for my future works as well.

    In short: You're awesome. Thank you so much.


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