Friday, July 5, 2019

Pre-Writing: The Story Before the Words

When people ask me about what it took for me to write my first novel, The Book of Cain, I actually hear two questions. Obviously there's the curiosity about writing 75,000+ words full of characters, plots and events. However, I also hear a part of them asking how I came up with a lengthy story that was worth writing in full. That's the more interesting process, in my opinion. That part of the process is called pre-writing, and goes in a lot of directions.

We all know someone (possibly including yourself) who says, "I have a story all put together; I just need to write it." That's so adorable - as if writing is just like putting on the paint after building a house. Nope. Someone who has the idea all in their head is in the first part of pre-writing: Forming ideas. There are a lot of different steps and stages for pre-writing, and everyone uses some version that works for them. This post lays out the bare bones, and the very core of that skeleton is forming an idea.

We all have ideas for stories, but often they are little more than core ideas, and don't have that added part that makes it eligible to be a story. Here's a simple list of ideas:
  • The emergence of the first superhero
  • A pediatrician fighting an opioid addiction
  • Extraterrestrials arrive on Earth
  • Someone realizes their past was a lie

These are all interesting ideas, but not enough for a story on their own. When we pre-write, we try to take this to the next step. Those ideas are momentary snapshots - forming the idea means adding something that puts the idea into motion. Look at the first idea. We need to throw some clauses at the end to give them motion, such as:
  • ...and facing resistance from people that consider him a threat
  • ...with powers that start to bring out his more selfish desires
  • ...and how he learns the responsibilities that come with such power

Now we're getting somewhere. The idea goes into motion. When we pre-write, we should jot down an idea and then write ten different directions it can go as it becomes a story. At that point, we need to pick one or two that really inspire us, and start to build it out.

Building it out puts all the other bones on the skeleton. We ask ourselves a series of questions about the basic story structure: What puts the character into action? What is their journey/goal? What will the obstacles be? Are they external, internal, or both? Does their goal change during the story? What does the character learn during this story and how do they change between the first page and the last? Before we write a story, we should answer these questions. They can change during the creation process, but if a story does not address these questions, it will have an emptiness that the reader will feel.

One part of the build-out process that will make a story really resonate with readers is an underlying message. A well-written story is always enjoyable, but think of that one story where it was the message that stuck with you the most. With those books, the author knew that message before they wrote the first word. When you understand the message you want the reader to walk away with, you know how to present every scene, every conflict.

The last part worth mentioning is focus. When we flesh out the skeleton, we want to isolate on a few points that work well together. Many of the people I talk to who have the story "all written in my head" can tell me about all these ideas but there's no focus. They don't have one story, they have pieces of ten stories. That, however, does not add up to one story. Once that person focuses on the one thing they want to discuss, the one plot thread to explore, then the story shows up. A sub-plot can handle another arc, but a story without focus is a story not many people will want to read.

So when people ask me about writing my first book, I tell them about the pre-writing process. I explain why the character intrigued me, what I wanted the message to be and how the character would come to this realization. I tell them about how certain characters were needed to challenge the protagonist, to aid him, and to present opinions that guide the reader along.

Then I tell them that once I did all this stuff and understood the story, writing it was the easy part.

2 comments:

  1. So did you feel that "A pediatrician fighting an opioid addiction" did not need "some clauses at the end to give them motion?" Or did you feel that "...and facing resistance from people that consider him a threat" covered that scenario too?

    I appreciate this post's information.

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    1. I felt that the examples of the pediatrician, the extraterrestrial arrival, and the life was a lie examples all needed the additional clause to turn them from an event or situation into a story. The three clauses I added in the second section were all just ways to follow through on the first example of superheros. I am sure each initial example can have tons of follow-through clauses.

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