Some stories start right at the beginning, and run clear to the end, as if there is another hand writing a little ahead of mine, leaving a trail of invisible ink that my hand, my pen, will unknowingly follow.
More often, being I’m the kind of writer who starts off with one line in mind, hoping this will turn out to be a story, i'll come to a breathless finish halfway through.
Even when a story writes easily for ten pages or twenty or thirty, I have a stopping point at which I take a breather, and ask myself, what have I got here? Often that stopping point comes as a place where I can’t think what happens next. Or maybe I feel my energy ebbing, and I need a day off from producing, I just need to be grateful for what I’ve got so far. But, knowing that tomorrow is another day, and it will surely come. . .
I make a list of the characters and their apparent roles in the story. Not just a name, age, and family position kind of role, but an archetype. Are they my hero(ine)? Who or what is he in conflict with?
Is there a hero’s ally? Are they the kind of ally who carry bad news and good ideas, and offer them up just before or after the hero steps into a deep hole? Or are they the kind who appear at first to be an antagonist? The kind who changes life for the worst before it becomes amazingly better? Who might even be there at the end, saving the day?
Who is the mentor in this story? What kind of role do other frequent players take on? Are parents part of the central story, and if not, who takes their place in a kid’s life?
Once I’m finished, I wonder if there are any two characters doing the same thing, thinking or saying the same things. A good time to merge them into one more effective character is now, before I have too much rewriting to do.
I think about the kind of roles this individual story probably needs, the kind of secondary character my main character probably needs to help him through the hard parts--the kind of decision I’m going to base on stories I’ve read before, whether or not they share subject matter or any other similarities. It’s possible one more character can spice things up.
I look at what appears to be my emerging plot. What conflicts are in play? What events or characters are driving the plot forward? Is it a simple plan, something that allows me to show characters in the deep true nature of their relationships, Can I say anything about the human condition and how we might improve it? Can I offer the reader an emotional range that keeps her turning pages?
Or has the plot become a convoluted game of chess that distracts me from the reason I write in the first place? Not that some people can’t do both, keep us on the edge of our seats with question marks front and back, and still give us a character we’ll remember for a long long long long long LONG time. But I know my personal plotting limits. I look at the character flailing around in the midst of this story and ask myself (with a mean little grin): What could make their lives worse? And I make it happen!
That’s when I begin to think about the themes I’m working with. Theme is tied to the characters, of course. Who is helping, who is hindering, what does it all mean? Why are these people acting this way? What are their motives, and what fears and failures have shaped them? What are their goals and aspirations? I try to think about them in a bigger picture way. What kind of impact does each character have on another, how might that impact play out in this story. Is there an easy label to put on any of these characters: underdog, pretty but sly, shy but sneaky—like that. I think of ways I can use that label, maybe turn it upside down to surprise the reader or make them laugh.
Theme also shows up in the environment of the story, weather or landmarks, contrasting values, and maybe whatever shortages of something valued has already become part of the story. What repeated symbols, remarks, ideas, motifs, or contrasts show up repeatedly, seemingly without my having intended it? If it doesn’t quite make sense to me, I ask other people what those things mean to them. I can get so close to a story, I can’t be the one who knows what it means. But once I’ve got a good sense of where the story is headed, I can add passages, or strengthen what is already there, to make it clearer to the reader.
Best of all, this period of getting to know my story from the outside in, rather than the inside out, helps me plan where it's going.
Audrey Couloumbis is the Newbery Honor-winning author of Getting Near to Baby. She sometimes writes sad stories with a happy ending, and she's published by St.Martin's Press, G.P. Putnam, and Random House. Look for her books at your favorite bookstore.
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