(Thanks to Bella for her title suggestion! I was truly stuck.)
NOTE: I initially published this back in January, but decided to tweak the style and post it again. This isn’t a guide for How To Write the Perfect Story; but the principles that have worked well for me. 😊
I once had no idea how to keep my stories focused. I had good ideas, but I had a lot of ideas and couldn’t discern which ones truly belonged in my work-in-progress. Was this phrase a better explanation of the theme?—or that paragraph a couple pages later?—or that note on my digital sticky notes? Cue the pile-up of 172 pages of notes. And I inevitably got overwhelmed. Even more frustrating, after I sorted through those notes and reworded ideas (again), the story pieces added up—to the wrong picture. Finally, through trial and error and through analyzing books and films, I created this list of points that help me build my story more easily and to keep it focused.
Articulate the Story Concept. Or the general idea behind the story. It could be a question to explore, such as “Where to draw the line in giving loyalty?” It could be a character or situation: “A girl who was never taught to discern properly,” or a simple plot: “A girl takes up multiple hobbies to find her passion and talent.” Or it could be a general theme, such as “different kinds of power (social, legal, abusive, and others) and what they can and cannot accomplish.”
Actually, I know the concept from the get-go; whenever I say, “Well, I have an idea for a story about…” that’s the concept. But it could be narrowed a little–a general idea can become many different stories (which cleverly disguise themselves as plot bunnies). So here’s a question that narrows the field: What draws me to this idea? What do I love about it? This not only helps keeps my story focused, it also explains what’s original about the idea, and it articulates my own passion for the subject.
As an example from my writing, one story idea is about two families whose children marry for mutual social and financial benefit. This is the general idea. The more specific idea is how these characters respond to the various social and familial expectations of them. And what I like about the idea is the mindsets, values, and relationships of the characters as they handle situations in which they do not have a lot of control. All very general, but it tells me at once that my idea about the fight between Enlightenment vs. Romanticism doesn’t belong in this story.
And then I tinker with the wording of the concept until it expresses exactly what I have in mind. My ultimate goal is to understand what story I’m telling. Not just the genre, but what I’m personally trying to say. (More on that later.)
Specify the Story Conflict. This definitely helps me discern which ideas (and subplots and side characters) belong in the plot. And when I fail to specify the conflict, my story becomes crowded and confusing. (*stares sadly at mountain of unfinished drafts*) So do other writers’ stories—I may offend people with this example, but the film God’s Not Dead had a plot thread completely separate from the main conflict. The conflict of the film is ultimately between skeptics attacking faith in the God of the Bible and Christians defending that faith. While this is going on, a liberal feminist news reporter learns that she has cancer, and she eventually gets saved. (Whoops, spoilers.) But she does not meet or influence any of the other characters. And since she gets saved near the end of the story, she doesn’t have time to contribute to the main point by defending her newfound faith.
I get why this plot was included: so that a character (and by extent the audience) could hear the Gospel. But that character and her story does not enhance or contribute to the ultimate conflict. That detour simply uses screen time that could have been spent on the main characters. And on that note, a better way to include the Gospel would be to have the ex-Muslim girl remember the Gospel to strengthen herself in the face of persecution or perhaps try to share the Gospel with her family. That would have contributed to the conflict, and it would have been an awesome addition. (Seriously, the writers should have explored that character and her situation further!)
So, defining the story’s conflict will thin down those plot bunnies. But here’s a catch: conflict often has two layers: surface conflict, and then what I call “root conflict.”
Surface conflict is a clash that fits the story’s concept, but that happens apart from—or because of—the root conflict. The root conflict is the ultimate battle of the story, the clash that explains what’s really at stake. It’s often internal conflict (but not always). A good example of these two layers is the film Inception. The “surface conflict” is the attempt to plant an idea in a man’s mind through his dreams. This is something that had never been successfully done—oh, and there’s a deadline for this attempt. But the root conflict is Cobb battling his own guilt and fear and grief. He cannot let go of the past, and at first refuses to confront his problems. His stubbornness and his burden endanger his goal and the safety of his team.
So I write down the obvious conflict in my story and then ask how that conflict came to be, which helps identify the root conflict. (Or vice-versa, and I think about what action might be prompted by the root conflict.)
Make the Setting Influence the Action or Affect the Characters. Years ago, I entered a short story contest with several guidelines: the required setting was the Titanic, and the contest theme was “Women and Children First.” I wrote the story of a couple who met on the ship; and though they weren’t close friends, the man stepped back so the woman could get into a lifeboat and escape. Measured by the contest guidelines, the story and setting worked. But when I looked at that story a few years later, I asked: how does the Titanic enhance the plot? Sure, the event is a classic example of chivalry, but without the contest parameters, my characters could do what they liked and could be moved to a different setting with no big change to the plot. Red flag that the setting was just painted scenery, and not a place with impact.
In my story Empty Clockwork, however, the setting is a late-Victorian world with strict social norms and tradition but with a steampunk twist: scientific dabbling is a popular hobby for the rich. And “secret” labs in the basement are an essential part of any grand house. This setting creates conflict for Lord Fredericks, a brilliant, self-taught scientist, who can’t capitalize on his skills because he is also an aristocrat and not supposed to do manual or tradesman’s work. The setting also affects Henry*, a doctor who is passionate for his work, but who can’t get the wealthy hobby scientists interested enough in his ideas to fund his experiments. The third character affected is Lennox, a young man who teaches classics at Cambridge and therefore can’t get anyone to take him seriously as a scientist. Because art and science don’t mix, y’know. And Susan, heiress and Lord Fredericks’ ward, can’t find an endeavor she thinks worthy to support with her money because of the complacent attitudes in society. The setting directly affects the main characters, creates conflict, and points to my theme (which I will not reveal here because spoilers).
*inspired by Henry Jekyll from the 1994 concept album of Jekyll & Hyde. As such, I might eventually change his Christian name so as not to be sued by Frank Wildhorn, Leslie Bricusse, and the ghost of Robert Louis Stevenson.
Discover why the Story Matters to the Characters—and to Me. Goal, stakes, conflict…those can be found anywhere. A character could set the goal of opening his own business, with the stakes of providing for his family, and face obstacles in the lack of money and an affordable building to rent. But why doesn’t he go another route to provide for his family? Why does he choose this hill, the hill of the story, to fight and possibly die on?
This point is a cross between the character’s motivation and the stakes of the conflict–it’s why the goal matters to the character. Not just the external repercussions of failure, but the internal consequences. The more personal the story conflict and stakes, the more the readers will care about the characters and their struggles. For example, Inception deals with complex concepts: the actions of the subconscious, the unique nature of dreams, and how each can be manipulated. Truly engaging stuff—but the principles matter because of how personal they are to Cobb. If he can complete the inception attempt, he can go home to his kids—but ironically, experimenting with dream manipulation and inception is what tore him from his family in the first place and created the guilt that plagues him throughout the story.
The author also needs personal motivation, and a second question I ask is: why does this story matter so much to me? What are my own personal stakes? This is partly practical; I’m more likely to finish the story if I’m passionate about it. But understanding the personal stakes is another tool that narrows the focus of the story. Suppose a writer believes that it’s ridiculous for 18-year-olds to choose their life passions before college. They only just got out of school; they haven’t observed and experienced life to the degree that a 30-year-old has; how on earth can teens be expected to know what they want to do with their lives? With that question, that drive behind the story, the writer can quickly discern that his other story idea about how the elderly are ignored doesn’t fit in the plot of this story.
Work Backwards from the Conclusion. Articles and tutorials say “figure out your ending first. Write toward your ending.” I never understood this. Doesn’t the outcome depend on what the main characters choose? Won’t choice A create one outcome and choice B create another? Should I just make up events regardless of what the characters chose to do?
Not necessarily. The ending is more than the final dramatic events. It’s also the conclusion of what the story says. Which is an extension of what the author is trying to say.
Oh, please. There’s no need to ask “What am I trying to say?” Stories are just to entertain, right?
Right. And wrong, because every story, even the fluffiest, feel-good novel makes some statement. Even as untrue as “everything will turn out okay if you dream hard enough.” Or whatever. Continuing to offend people with my examples, The Battle of Five Armies film had no idea what it was ultimately saying. Fight Ye Olde Evil? All Gold is Evil? Something Vague About True Love? Reclaiming the Characters’ Ancestral Homes? Hobbits Are the Saviors of the World? (Epic fail on that last point, as Bilbo was demoted.)
By contrast, the Lord of the Rings (book and film) made a clear statement with its ending: sacrifice is the price of freedom. When Frodo leaves Middle Earth, it highlights the price that warriors and defenders pay so that others may live in their homes in peace. This theme is shown throughout the story. Didn’t Frodo leave the Shire in the first place to protect it? Didn’t Sam help Frodo no matter the cost to himself? Didn’t Aragorn conceal his lineage and walk in humility for years and protect the Shire unseen? Didn’t Tolkien lament the fallen defenders all through his story? Sacrifice is the conclusion—sacrifice for the land and peoples of Middle Earth.
Once I recognize what I’m saying with my story, it’s easier to work backwards from that and figure out what events and final conflicts would fit the story. (And I often have an inkling of how everything will turn out, even if it’s cliche and obvious.) Then I ask: where do the characters need to be, emotionally, physically, and mentally to drive the final events? Then I create conflict and events that push the characters to that stage of readiness.
What’s ultimately important is that I understand what story I want to tell. This means more than the genre. It’s the big picture: the concept of the story, the tone, the stakes, what I’m trying to say, and what I want the story to accomplish. Do I want it to be lighthearted or a cautionary tale? Is it just a practice project or something I’m passionate about? Do I want it to amuse or criticize or inspire? If I don’t know what story I want to tell, it will end up dissonant. It will read as though it tried to say one thing, but ended up saying something something very different. It has happened in the past–and I’ve seen it happen to too many other storytellers. The makers of the Hobbit films clearly did not know what kind of story they were telling. In a film trilogy called The Hobbit, Bilbo is almost a side character, and the story focuses on the other races of Middle Earth. The franchise tried to be dark and epic, but the slapstick humor and roller coaster chase-and-battle sequences undermined that tone (not to mention that when Smaug’s fire doesn’t burn rotting tapestries, tension vanishes anyway). The main plot was the quest to reclaim Lonely Mountain, but the subplots didn’t really enhance that—Thranduil’s white gems, for example, and the romance between Kili and Tauriel, and Tauriel as a character in the first place. *ducks volley of rotten avocados* The result is three films with some good aspects, but with so many conflicts, characters, and plot threads that the story feels stuffed. *ducks more flying vegetables* And the root problem is that screenwriters didn’t seem to know what story they wanted to tell.
Now, confession time: I don’t have every one of these points articulated for every one of my stories. Several are missing the ending. A couple are missing the general concept. One does not have specified conflict. And that’s okay. Stories take time to develop. Some take more time to grow than others. And these points are just general guidelines to help me build a strong foundation for my story.