Tag Archives: Narrative structure

Lost in the story middle?

Once upon a time I was a pantser*, I had no problem coming up with great story ideas, interesting (I thought) characters, especially the antagonist, and was able to dive right into the first draft.

Alas, that inertia was like a ball rolled up an incline.  The ball rolled as far as my initial throw, but then part way up the slope, the ball would apex and start rolling backwards.  This happened to me on three consecutive novel projects.  My initial momentum slowed and then stopped, and then my first draft progress started backsliding as I began rethinking or reworking the first act of the story.  I was unable to move forward, feeling compelled to fix what I’d written before I could continue.

The problem of course was that I hadn’t thought through the entire story.  I wanted to discover the story as I went along.  I wanted to be both the writer and the first reader of the story.  I wanted to be surprised by what the characters did and what happened.  I didn’t want to write the story, I wanted the characters to write the story for me.  This is the way Stephen King does it, so why shouldn’t I emulate one of the masters?

Upon reflection and analysis–although I didn’t figure this out until much later–I discovered one main problem with this approach.  In essence, I didn’t really know the main characters well enough to know what they would do in the setting I created with the story premise/idea I had.  Where/when would they really become involved in the story problem?  What was their life like before the inciting incident?  How would they react to sudden changes?  What inner demons do they struggle with?  What goals would they put aside to solve the story problem?  And perhaps the biggest question, how would the inner and outer goals of all the main characters oppose each other and what conflict would result?

If the characters have the proper dimension and depth for the type and genre of story you intend to tell, the answers to most if not all of the questions above would be answered.  Knowing the characters is really the main way to maintain story inertia.  When you know the characters well enough, it’s easier to decide what they’ll do in each scene, how they’ll react to situations and the actions/reactions of other characters.

Of course, this is easier said than done.

So what are ways to better understand your characters, and thus the entire story?

First, I suggest getting over the hangup I had about trying to keep the unfolding events of the story a surprise to you the writer.  You are the writer, not the first reader.  Most of us simply cannot tell a proper story without knowing the entire story from beginning to end.  How else will you properly foreshadow, plant story seeds that bloom later, flashback or reveal mysteries, expand on motivations, introduce subplots and red herrings, and have a proper character arc for your protagonist if you don’t know the details of your plot?  If you can do this without any planning, stellar.  I cannot.

Second, know your characters better than you know anyone else.  The writer must know the characters’ deepest secrets, worst fears, fragile hopes, emotional scars, fervent desires, social needs, hidden and obvious talents, attitudes, biases, opinions, childhood traumas, moments of joy, and anything else that creates characters readers want to spend time with.  How you do this as a writer is up to you.  Interview the character, write a biography page or two, use a character profile sheet or tool, write a series of journal entries in first person from the character’s POV, or simply write down everything you know about yourself that would be needed in a story and change it all to match each main character.  By main characters, I mean the viewpoint characters, protagonist, antagonist, and any prominent character whose actions in the story drive change.  Secondary characters do not need as much depth, but you should know them at least as well as you know members of your family or your friends, so you can predict their behavior and attitudes in each scene.

Third, write an outline.  I’ve posted about this previously here and a follow-up here.  An outline is a roadmap for your story.  Use whatever level of detail you wish.  Some writers, write a single page to describe the main events of the story.  Others write a hundred page detailed scene by scene breakdown.  I’m still experimenting with my outline style, but suffice it to say, I use both synopsis style narrative outlines, spreadsheet style scene lists, and plot timeline charts.  An outline will help you know the full story, help you see the pace and rhythm of events, and will help you see where the characters are acting on the story problem and where they are reacting to the story problem or other characters.

Fourth, and this is a lesson I’ve learned this past month, don’t be a slave to either character profiles or your initial outline.  Treat these planning materials as first drafts.

These past two months, I’ve been stalled on my current novel project, The Order of X, Book One of my epic fantasy series.  I had used The Snowflake Method to design the story and characters.  Additionally, I completed five-page character profiles for each main character and abbreviated profiles for secondary characters.  I had more planning and preparation references that I’d ever used before, and STILL I got stuck at the end of the first act of the story, about 30,000 words in.

My initial characters ideas were flawed.  One viewpoint character was so unique and against type, she was unlikable.  The protagonist had no emotional depth and reaction to serious events in the story.  The initial obstacles were tough, but got too easy and predictable after they got through them.  I didn’t have enough suspense or conflict with the antagonist.

My story inertia had stalled and I could feel that ball hitting an apex and starting to roll backwards.  Rather than give up and switch projects, like I’ve done so often in the past, I went back to my character profiles, outline, and scene list and revisited it all, spending most of the past month making changes.  Predictably, I found several story gaps that require entire new scenes and chapters.

After all, I know the characters better now that before I started the draft.  I also know what story path follows the least resistance and therefore is the least interesting.

For me, the way to get unstuck was to be willing to change my initial planning documents to get to a better, fuller, more complete story, and I’m much happier with the story now.

I wrote the first new scene in over a month last night.

I’m now unstuck and the ball is again rolling uphill.  This time, however, I’ll stay with the ball and keep nudging it so it maintains momentum until the story is concluded and I can write “The End.”

What strategies have you used to navigate the vast maze of the middle of a story?

* a writer who writes by the seat of their pants, just winging the story by pure inspiration and/or force of will with little or no planning or preparation.


How to Make a Scene

Often as writers we get lost navigating the forest of our stories because once we enter the woods, we don’t know which direction to go or we have our eye so firmly focused on the distant exit that we can’t see the trees right in front of us.

Yes, this is tired metaphor, but let’s compare these trees to scenes in a story.  The ideal and most interesting path from the beginning of the forest to the end will be lined with trees.  Just like the ideal story will be composed from beginning to end with the appropriate and most interesting scenes.

Sure the forest is full of many other trees that could be followed, but they will lead you away from the ideal story road onto diverse paths that may seem intriguing, but ultimately lead to dead ends.

So, how does one stay on the proper story path?  How do you know which scene trees to follow?

At its most basic, a story is a series of connected scenes, like pearls on a string or trees along a path.  Each scene is a self-contained unit of action that advances the plot, reveals character, creates questions or provides answers, and layers in theme.  A good scene offers one of more of these traits.  A great scene offers all four.

Like the overall story, a scene should have a beginning, middle, and end.

The beginning of the scene should establish the setting (time and place), introduce the characters involved (especially the viewpoint character), and identify a problem, conflict, or question that must be faced.

The middle of the scene should show the characters attempting to resolve the problem, conflict, or question.  They should make progress, have setbacks, move forward, slide backwards, and ultimately things seem to get worse, or at least more complicated.  The characters are tested and stressed in a way that fits the genre, theme and story arc.  Often the middle ends with a dark moment, or crux, where the situation presented at the beginning of the scene has gotten so bad it seems impossible to resolve.

The end of the scene is the resolution.  The characters find a course of action using their unique talents, skills, experiences, or via cooperation to either solve the problem, or fail to solve it.  They either discover something new, or the answer eludes them.  Either way, the building suspense of the scene problem is over as the action concludes.

Obviously, a scene is more complex than simply thinking in terms of beginning, middle, and end.  However, by structuring a scene in such a way and building transitions between scenes to connect them, you create a continuous story that flows naturally from beginning to end.

And what more do readers want than a great story that compels them to keep reading to the satisfying conclusion?

I recommend a great book that opened my eyes to the importance of writing complete and effective scenes.  Check out Make A Scene by Jordan Rosenfeld.  Click the image for a link to Amazon.

When you know which scene trees to follow along the forest path, you’ll arrive at the end of a satisfying story journey.

What tricks have you learned about scene writing?


Outlines are still for Wimps

Back in January, I wrote about how outlines were for wimps, and how I finally had the courage to become a wimp. If you missed the original post, you can read it here.

The courage has paid off and although I didn’t finish the outline process in January as planned (I finished March 31, actually) I am very pleased with the process. I expect the next time I outline it will go much faster.

How did a discovery writer, like me, even attempt an outline when my only previous attempts at outlining were for college essays? A co-worker—who also happens to be a published writer—introduced me to a writing guru named Randy Ingermanson. His fiction writing web site is here.

Randy advocates his “Snowflake Method” of story design, or in other words, a method for outlining. So, I read the free article on his site. You can read it here.

The short version of the process is simple. You start with a single sentence description of your story and build on it in deliberate steps until you have a four-page story synopsis, a full scene and chapter list, and full-page character synopsis/description for each major character and a ½-page synopsis for secondary characters.

This process can take a month or more, and for me it took two. However, the results were worth it, because I now have well-defined characters, core story, and a plot that flows consistently and builds gradually from beginning to end. I even tamed the typically vast wasteland of the middle of the book by a careful outline detailing the scenes and goals for the characters in that section of the story.

Now that I’ve invested energy up front in what amounts to story planning, I expect the process of writing the first draft will be smoother and more consistent than for my previous works. I don’t expect to be stuck anywhere along the way wondering how I painted my characters and myself into the proverbial corner. There are no corners at this point, only smooth curves ahead.

What about the siren’s song of discovery writing? What of the joy some writers derive from experiencing the story as it unfolds along with the characters? Well, I had that satisfaction while I developed the outline. I conjured the important high level events and determined the path and obstacles the characters would face.

The Snowflake Method has a built-in revision process so that after each of the ten steps are achieved, you go back and update earlier design elements so that everything is in harmony. For example, you have written a one page story synopsis which describes the beginning middle and end of the story with key events and outcomes. In the next step, you do a more detailed character description and you discover that your character would do things a little differently than you first thought and so the outcome of one event would be different. You like the new idea better so you update the earlier story synopsis to match.

This is part of why this process talks a little longer because you are evolving the story/plot in parallel with the characters and cross-pollinating ideas and revising both to stay in sync. When I finished, in essence, the scene list combined with the four page story synopsis (and major character synopses) became a mini first draft and I see the whole story now with all its core elements. The discovery part that remains is how the characters will navigate this path. How will they react? What will they say and do? Will they decide to veer of course and cause me to change my outline? It may. I have already given myself permission now to change the outline. It is, after all, my outline and as the writer, I should not hold myself to any structure that gets in the way of telling the story in the best possible way.

To me, discovery writing is like riding a raw wave of creativity. It is exciting while it lasts, but eventually the tide turns and you are left with still waters.

Creativity in a raw form is also like a bare light bulb shining in all directions, bright and diffuse and illuminating everything. However, we can’t look at everything at once. Our binocular field of vision is ~140 degrees. So, by focusing that creativity via planning or outlining, we are in effect putting that light bulb into a cylinder with a lens and a reflector. Now we have a means to focus and aim that light to help us find the best path forward. A focused light also helps us see further down the path than we could otherwise see with an unfocused exposed light.

Creativity needs focus to produce results. Outlining provides focus for writers.

This may not work for everyone, but if you find yourself struggling with the middle of stories or novels, or sustaining a plot through the full length of your WIP, you may find that investing some bandwidth in story design is a possible solution.

The process so far has been successful for me. I am very pleased with the results. I’ll revisit this topic down the road to see if I still feel the same about the value of outlines when I’m deep in the middle of The Lost Tower first draft.

Has anyone else had any outlining success stories or learned any new tips or tricks since the beginning of the year?


Outlines are for wimps

I have never liked outlines.  Thinking through a story and crafting a narrative skeleton only to start at the beginning again to flesh out the details.  Lather, rinse, and repeat.  These cycles can take a hours, days, or weeks as you are writing, but not really writing. Only when the story structure, acts, chapters and scenes are designed can you begin the actual task of writing the first sentence of the story.

So, I never used an outline.  I believed that writing a story was an act of discovery for me, the writer, and I did not want to know how the story ended any more than I wanted to know the ending of a book I read.  How much more fluid and spontaneous would my narrative be if I didn’t know what was going to happen next?  How much more could my characters ad lib and pursue tangents and tell me, the writer, what they really wanted to do?  How could I justify putting a script in my characters’ hands and telling them to only say this and do this?

After all, this is how Stephen King writes.  Hasn’t he published forty plus books and sold millions?  He doesn’t use outlines and if we are supposed to emulate the most successful people, why wouldn’t I emulate one of the top sellers of all time?

Two unfinished novels totaling over five hundred pages later, I had my answer.

I didn’t have the skill or experience to write a story with the natural rhythms of structure and plot pouring out of my mind and onto my computer in a first draft.  I wrote myself into a dead end in each novel by not planning out how to get from the beginning of the story to the end.  I had a great concept, great characters, settings I either developed or knew well, and I had compelling opening scenes and conflicts to launch the action.

But somewhere along the way, all that untamed creative energy buzzing around in the recess of my mind dissipated and I was left with an empty reservoir of momentum.  I had no plan to move the story forward beyond the vast expanse of the middle of the story.  And so like many aspiring authors, I relied solely on creativity and inertia and when both were spent, I had a story that could go nowhere like a car with no fuel.  I was stranded on the side of the road to completion.

So, this year, with my new prequel novel I am writing an outline first.  A story plan, structure plan, character plan, and everything else plan so that when I’m six months into the first draft, I don’t stop and wonder what is going on with the story and why it isn’t working.  I intend to avoid writing myself into the proverbial corner.

The month on January is my outline month.  February 1, I will begin writing the first draft.  With this plan, I except to spend less time along the way on detour and subplot tangents and more type craft the best story I can write.

When I finish the first draft, I will then know that it was the outline that made the difference.

If that makes me a wimp, to use an outline, then so be it.  I take that title all the way to publication.

–Mark


Scott's Grimoire

MY SPOT OF INK: my ramblings on the ups and downs of writing a fantasy novel (or anything else that grabs my interest - books, food, movies, life)

The Undiscovered Author

A Day in the Life of aspiring Fantasy Author Stephen A. Watkins

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The thoughts and passions of a hopeful future author.