Some writers have neither the temperament nor the inclination to spend months gathering information about their projects, clarifying minute details about their characters’ likes and dislikes. These are the pantsers of the writing world—their writing flows better when they write from the seat of their pants.
Yet, even they, I would argue, need to address five essential points prior to commencing their stories in order to avoid stalling later on.
“A blank slate may cause writer’s block in the pantser, interrupting the writing for weeks, months or even years. This can be avoided by understanding the basic connections—statements reduced to single sentences—that arise between the hero, plot and theme, in a new story.”
Jot down the answers to the following questions and keep them close at hand while writing of your story:
Describe the story in one or two sentences. The description should include a beginning, middle and end.
Explain why the hero is compelled to try and attain the goal.
Note the secret the hero is hiding from everyone, perhaps even himself. How is this secret related to the hero’s flaw or wound?
Show how the discovery/admission of his secret realigns his goal, turning his want into his need.
State the theme of the story.
These five questions are enough to give any pantser a great start and keep him from going astray when the light dims, the muse gets Covid 19, and the rocks loom up ahead.
Prepare for the writing of a new story by carefully considering five essential questions about your tale.
How much does your choice of place or location influence your story?
The short answer is—significantly. My advice, therefore, is to write about places you are familiar with in order to retain a sense of realism.
But this is not always possible. Your story might demand exotic locations you’ve never visited, or include character types you’ve never encountered. After all, not many of us have flown into outer space or tangled with aliens.
Thankfully, we have research and imagination to rescue us, because, make no mistake, location deeply influences plot and character. Without an understanding of the physics of acceleration on weightlessness, stories such as 2001 A Space Odyssey, Apollo 13, Space Cowboys, Interstellar, and countless of others, would not have been as convincing.
“The influence of location on your story should not be underestimated. Location shapes the narrative by placing unique temporal and spatial constraints upon it.”
In Before the Light, much of the plot taps into the challenges that space presents to the crew of the space station, Gravity. The story which unfolds in this inhospitable environment, coupled with a seemingly rogue quantum computer, would not be as effective if it took place on earth.
The Great Gatsby required an understanding of 1920’s America, including prohibition, in order to tap into the ambience and motivation of the plot and characters.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula would not work without the cavernous castle in the Carpathian mountains of Romania, or the English setting of the protagonist’s love interest.
In short, write about places and people you know. Failing that, conduct research by visiting the locations you intend to describe, watch documentaries on the subject, or conduct interviews with people who are familiar with it. Your writing will feel more authentic for it.
Since location does indeed influence the story, write about places and people you know. Fill in the gaps through imagination and meticulous research.
Here is an effective way to draw your readers into your stories—infuse your writing with strong emotions.
Strong emotions draw us into intimate situations, allowing us vicariously to experience the characters’ lives as our own. But this demands maturity on the part of the writer. Firstly, to recognise the intricate web of emotions resulting from one’s own life. Secondly, to tie these emotions into a theme or premise. It involves a high level of self-awareness and critical thinking.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once offered some advice in response to a short story sent to him by Francis Turnbull, a Radcliffe College student and family friend.
“… I’m afraid the price for doing professional work is a good deal higher than you are prepared to pay at the moment. You’ve got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that only touch you lightly … It was necessary for Dickens to put into Oliver Twist the child’s passionate resentment at being abused and starved that had haunted his whole childhood. Ernest Hemingway’s first stories ‘In Our Time’ went right down to the bottom of all he had ever felt and known. In ‘This Side of Paradise’ I wrote about a love affair that was still bleeding as fresh as the skin wound on a haemophile …”
”Strong emotions are the key to reader and audience engagement.”
What Fitzgerald is saying is that new writers have a better chance of engaging readers if they relate stories that contain heightened emotions based on personal experience. Characters and events can be adjusted to suit, but emotions should be drawn from strong, ‘lived’ experience. Fitzgerald believes this is the price of admission writers have to pay.
He continues, “the amateur, seeing how the professional having learnt all he’ll ever learn about writing, can take a trivial thing such as the most superficial reactions of three uncharacterized girls and make it witty and charming – the amateur thinks he can do the same.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s advice, then, is to use powerful, personal experience to evoke heightened emotion in readers and audiences, especially when first starting out. Mining smaller, more trivial details for subject matter takes time and maturity to pull off.
Search your life for big, wrenching emotions and distill them into your stories. It will make your characters more authentic and impactful.
One of the most important lessons I’ve learnt over the years is that successful stories are written from the inside out – plot through character. That is to say that action and plot are projected from the emotional, physical, moral, and spiritual perspective of the protagonist.
The external events of a story are, of course, of great importance—they are what draw readers and audiences into the story in the first place—but without a deep involvement with the protagonist’s obsessive desires, fears, foibles, successes and failures, the story falls flat.
If we don’t care about the characters’ hopes and fears, if we won’t share in his pleasure and pain, we won’t care about his involvement in the plot.
Characters respond to life-threatening challenges in unique ways because they have a sense of ‘felt life’—they have a backstory, a personality, a set of hopes, fears and obsessions. It is these treasures that make a story compelling.
“Plot through character refers to a technique whereby the writer filters the protagonist’s action through her inner life—her hopes, fears, flaws and obsessions.”
In William Golding’s outstanding novel, The Spire, Jocelin, the Dean of the cathedral, is a man consumed by the desire to extend the cathedral’s magnificence by building a spire at the top of the existing structure. He ignores the advice of his master builder that the cathedral’s foundation won’t support the extension. He brushes aside all objections, puts up with the inconvenience to the congregation of turning a place of worship into a building site, with catastrophic consequences. Events are related through Jocelin’s emotional and psychological sensibility, making his experience our experience, while simultaneously showcasing his folly.
In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, Benjamin Vlahos is a theoretical physicist obsessed with solving an intractable mathematical problem that could allow for time travel into the past in order to undo an event that cost his wife her life. This obsession prevents him from living the meaningful life his wife would have wished for him. It takes a cataclysmic cyclone to force him to recognise the deeply buried truth about his past—a truth that has the potential to set him free. Or kill him. This climactic event can’t be dealt with externally, at least not initially. It has to be dealt with from within. The process of laying Benjamin’s inner conflict bare, written in the first person present tense, draws us into his world and keeps us immersed in his story.
Filter your plot through your protagonist’s inner life. It will make your story more believable and engaging.
In my introductory classes on storytelling I often ask budding writers, why do you want to write?
The answers vary – a love for storytelling, a love for reading and movies, the need to make money, the belief that ‘I think I’d be good at it’, and the like.
The next question I ask is: What do you want to write about?
The answer is not as forthcoming, especially for new writers who have not yet found their niche. Some write in certain genres because of their popularity. But strict adherence to genre can often constrain the imagination. A western utilises must-have items such as guns, horses, cowboys, saloons, and the like, although such stories can be made more flexible through genre-mixing. For example, Wild, Wild West, blends science-fiction and the western, expanding the canvas.
“Budding writers, on their way to finding their unique style, would do well to identify the themes that they feel passionate about and make them their hallmark.”
There are also writers who prefer to avoid sticking to specific genres, dwelling instead on the ethereal spaces between genres—writing in what they consider to be a more literary style. Their stories tend to distinguish themselves not through the spectacle of explosive events but through a unique style, imaginative language, and an unwavering focus on detail.
Ursula K. Le Guin once remarked that she finds inspiration everywhere—that people make up their own stories about life and the world, according to their taste or chance encounters.
Others use more deliberate methods.
Ransom Riggs collected old photographs as a child because he was fascinated by photography. It wasn’t long before he noticed patterns in these photos. The patterns inspired an idea for a factual book. Prompted by his editor, however, he repurposed the idea as fiction, something he had never written before. The result? Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.
But the distinction between literature and entertainment is not always a useful one. After all, literary stories also entertain, and there may be literary moments in genre fiction.
For me the answer is to write about the themes I care most about. After all, it is the theme that determines whether a story is facile or profound. Is the theme a cliché meant merely to entertain us or does it enrich us by making us recognise something we have failed to understand before?
Before the Light, a science-fiction novella, for example, is a tale about a quantum computer conflicted over revealing what it has learnt about the origins of the universe because it fears the effect this will have on a divided humanity on the brink of war.
The Nostalgia of Time Travel, by contrast, is a more literary story. The narrative resonates with emotions that we recognise from our own lives, no matter what our particular circumstances. You’d think that the two novels are very different. And in terms of style and pace, you’d be right.
But under the surface, both novels deal with isolation, sacrifice, but most of all, they deal with the wonder and excitement of scientific and personal discovery.
My advice to emerging writers then is to write about recurring themes as an aid to developing their unique voice.
Budding writers should develop the themes they are most passionate about, even as they seek to develop their own distinctive voice.
Story magic is conjured through the spell of structure.
Structure shapes narrative events by regulating the flow of information through a series of well-placed twists and turns, counterbalancing suspense with surprise, lighter moments with darker ones, while simultaneously showcasing character.
But how closely must one focus on the nuts and bolts of structure while engaged in the process of writing itself? Surely it’s difficult to be creative while entertaining such distractions?
“Seeking to conjure story magic without a wand is a hit and miss affair. You could have it in you, but you probably don’t.”
The point is that the magic of the story is forged inside the cauldron of structure. So, while it may seem that scenes flow spontaneously from our brains, for most of us, such scenes, spring from a deep knowledge of the craft. We should study story structure at every opportunity.
We all have different ways of accessing this knowledge. Some writers glance at key words and phrases such as ‘inciting incident’ and ‘first turning point’ on bits of paper stuck to the walls and desk; others allow their minds to range over past exemplars to glean how other writers have navigated similar terrain.
A screenplay such as Gladiator did not spring fully formed from the minds of Ridley Scott, David Franzoni, John Logan, and William Nicholson. The story was inspired by Daniel P. Mannix’s 1958 book, Those About to Die. The film script itself was first written by Franzoni, but was bought by DreamWorks, and Ridley Scott was signed on to direct the film. Its solid structure, a collective effort, is so deeply embedded in the story that it remains largely invisible to the audience—no doubt one of the contributing factors of the film’s success.
I have previously noted that my own awareness of structure manifests in a series of inner bumps and twists, or in an awareness of their absence—a lack of rhythm, which tells me I may have missed a structural beat, that I may need to change the direction and magnitude of specific actions in my story.
In the biggest confrontational scene of The Nostalgia of Time Travel, I felt that I lacked an additional twist, an injection of kinetic energy, in order to push the story to its true climax. Interestingly, this feeling came not from the drama, but from the mechanics of structure, although it did force me to ferret out a powerful revelation, buried in the backstory, that had a huge impact on the drama itself.
Running through the scenes of a story in my imagination, I often jut out an elbow, or thrust out a hip as I try to predict changes in narrative direction. Consequently, I often experience writing as a kind of dance, a kind of free flowing stream that bestows shape through bends, turns—through changes in direction.
Peculiar as this form of kinetic writing may be, it points to a deeper truth—that writers have to develop their own intuition of story structure, accessed on the go, in a way that does not break the spell.
Story magic is conjured through a deep awareness of story structure. Structure shapes the tale but remains invisible to readers and audiences.
How many characters do you include in your story? Are they friends or enemies of the hero? Do they pop into your head, demanding to be heard? Should you listen?
It all seems like a hit and miss affair, but not if you understand that a character’s function is to argue for or against the theme of the tale.
Here’s what I mean:
Lady Macbeth, for example, sees her husband as deserving of the throne. Claiming it through violence is acceptable to her. The three witches, too, see Macbeth’s ascent as inevitable. From the point of view of such characters the theme might be: Unbridled ambition leads to action that procures the throne.
Banquo and Macduff on the other hand offer a different perspective. Their angle on the theme might be: Usurping the throne through the murder of the rightful king leads to guilt, chaos and death. Macbeth himself, vacillates between perspectives, now recognising that murder is wrong, now seeing his ascent as a kind of birth right, until the final conflict, which finally proves the theme. Shakespeare explores the essence of his story by juxtaposing different opinions from a moral or pragmatic perspective.
“The characters’ primary function at the level of structure is to offer different perspectives on the theme of the story.”
Characters earn their place in the story by offering different takes on the theme, until the final battle ‘proves’ one side right over another. Determining how many characters you need to stage this debate, then, will tell you how many characters you need to include in your story.
Include as many characters as are necessary to fully explore the different perspectives of the theme. Do they support or oppose the hero?
So, you have a finalised manuscript. But do you really?
Hemingway believed, “The first draft of anything is shit,” and “The only kind of writing is rewriting.” He reportedlyrewrote portions of The Old Man and the Sea over two hundred times before he had it published.
“Deciding what constitutes a finalised manuscript can be agonising. There are so many potential tweaks and changes that can be effected. A good check-list can make the task a little easier.”
But how do you know when what you’ve written is a finalised manuscript ready to be pushed out into the world? Other than that warm, fuzzy feeling in your stomach, which could be the result of that last glass of Merlot?
Margret Geraghty’s, The Novelist’s Guide, offers some suggestions:
Does your story start in the right place? Not too soon or too late?
Is your first chapter or scene riveting and compelling?
Does each scene have structure and purpose?
Do most of your scenes or chapters end on a hook?
Are your flashbacks absolutely necessary?
Have you prepared the reader or audience for surprises through foreshadowing?
Are your characters authentic and compelling?
Does your protagonist have difficult problems to overcome, leading to the final solution?
Does your protagonist solve the ultimate problem by realising something about herself she was unaware of before?
Are your characters’ names right for them?
Do your characters have their own unique voice – idiom, speech pattern?
Are the settings interesting?
Do you invoke the senses in your scenes.
Is your ending surprising but inevitable?
Does it yield the theme you intended?
If you’ve answered no or maybe to any of these questions, return to your manuscript, revise and repeat. If yes, you are ready to publish your story and start on the next one.
A finalised manuscript is one where the fundamentals of theme, character and plot have been identified and revised.