Archive for May 4th, 2010

Story Construction

Tuesday, May 4th, 2010

This material is taken from Chapter 2 of my book on fiction writing advice: Build a Better Story.

Plotting and story construction are very closely linked. While they are related, they are quite different. Both have to be done to get a finished story.

How-to-books sometimes allude to this subject, but they don’t emphasize a very important fact about story construction: a skill in story construction is completely independent from good writing skills and is at least as important if not more important. Why? It is easy to find published novels and short stories that not well written, but you’ll be hard pressed to find one that is badly constructed. Editors buy solid stories (i.e stories that have a superior construction). Editors do not buy stories that are written well. If the solid story they buy is also well-written, that is a bonus.BABS cover

My belief is that writers have to resist the urge to start a new story draft as soon as they get an idea because the process of constructing a story involves a great deal of work that must be done before writing the manuscript. Writing a first draft is on the order of ten to fifteen percent of the total effort involved in constructing a story. However, writing the initial draft is the last step in the process, not the first. Think of the manuscript as the roof on a new building. The builder can’t start the roof until the foundation and walls are in place. Similarly, a writer shouldn’t start the manuscript until all the elements — plot, character descriptions, scene outlines, etc. — of the story are finished.

While I’m struggling to find the ending, I work on building my characters, thinking up settings, such as a golf course or a tavern, where some of the action can take place. Once I know the ending and have developed a plot, I can start developing scenes. For a short story, I’ll need six to twelve scenes. For a novel, why over a hundred. For each scene I’ll write a short paragraph or two outlining the action that takes place in that scene. I’ll also add a list of characters and where the scene takes place. Sometimes, it is important to add when the scene takes place. An alternative to this scene development is to write a storyline. This is a one page (maximum!) synopsis of the story. Previously, I wrote storylines, but migrated to scene development instead. Use whatever seems more natural to you. Both methods accomplish the same thing.

This subject is explored in more thoroughly in Build a Better Story. In it, I detail the steps I go through to construct the story. It also has the forms I have developed to assist me. These forms are for plot development and character development. One copy of the form is annotated to explain how I use it. A second copy is blank. It can be printed and used by others. Other copies are taken from my stories and are filled out so you can see how I use them.

Any comments or questions?