Focus on the Story

I have a confession to make.

When I was in high school and a teacher would give us an assignment to write an outline for a story we would then be charged to create, I’d write the story first. Then I’d go back and write the outline, just so I’d have something to turn in.

Even as a teenager I thought outlining was counter-intuitive to the writing process. But outlining is still taught as if it’s “the right way” to shape a story. You’ll even hear the importance of plotting out your story trumpeted at writing conferences.

I’ve always been one of those seat-of-the-pants writers and, over the last decade, as I’ve published five novels and two collections of short stories, I’ve found when I advise people to stop outlining and develop a more personalized, organic writing process like mine, I get strange looks and comments, as if my suggestion goes against some rule.

Well, if that’s the case, I invite you to the rebellion. Throw away your outline and uncover your story word-by-word.

Regardless of how many acts or scenes your story has, there are several things it needs to be complete. It needs an orientation to the world of the characters, conflict, an escalation of tension, a moment at which everything seems lost, and a satisfying conclusion which reveals a character or situational transformation.

Readers need to know what your character wants, but can’t get, and what he’s doing about it. Stories build through escalating tension.

So, forget what you’ve learned about stories building through “rising action,” as many popular plot graphs would have you believe. Simply making more things happen won’t ensure readers will remain interested.

Focus your attention at the heart of your story, and you’ll begin to intuitively understand what needs to happen to drive the tale forward. By letting your story develop organically, you’re delving deeper into the essence of what storytelling is all about.

You should think of your story as a contract with your readers, an agreement that you will entertain, surprise and satisfy.

Give yourself the freedom to explore the terrain of your story. Wander through your ideas and unreservedly embrace the adventure, because, without serendipitous discoveries, your story runs the risk of feeling artificial and prepackaged.

Every choice your characters make has an implication. Every promise made needs to be fulfilled. The more promises you break, the less readers will trust you and, often, when readers put a book down, that’s exactly why. They’ve stopped trusting you’re going to fulfill the promises you’ve made.

Organic writers are well-equipped to make big promises and then keep them. We’re never directionless because, as the story takes shape, we can always work on scenes that fulfill promises made earlier.

In good storytelling, you cannot know where a story needs to go until you know where it’s been, but you cannot know where it needs to be until you know where it’s going.

I know…it’s a paradox.

And that’s part of the fun.

I love Stephen King’s analogy in his book On Writing, comparing stories to fossils we, the storytellers, are uncovering. His analogy helps me stop thinking of a story as something I create as much as it is something I uncover, by asking the right questions.

The biggest problem with writing an outline is you’ll be tempted to use it. By that I mean you’ll get to a certain place and stop digging, even though there might be a lot more of that dinosaur left to uncover.

Continually ask yourself, “What are readers wondering about, hoping for, and expecting at this moment in the story?”

Then give it to them.

Draft the scene that would naturally come next. Go back and rework earlier scenes as needed.

What you write organically will often have implications on the story you’ve already written. If you find yourself at a loss for what to write next, come up with a way to make things worse, and let the characters respond naturally to what’s happening.

When you understand the principles of good storytelling, you always have a place to start.

Move into and out of the story, focusing one day on the forest and the next day on the trees. Follow your ideas, and stories will unfold before you. So, leave the outlining to English teachers.

Sit down and write, and let the rebellion begin.

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Gentle Readers, my books have all garnered some terrific reviews. You can see all of them by using the Amazon link below. Check them out. Better yet, buy one and read it. You just might like it.

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You’re invited to visit my author’s website, BROKEN GLASS to hear the remarkable radio interview about my novel “Blood Lake” on The Authors Show, or see my three local television interviews. You can also like my Book of Face page, find me on Goodreads, or follow my shorter ramblings on The Twitter.

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Comments posted below will be read, greatly appreciated and perhaps even answered.

4 Responses to “Focus on the Story”

  1. Bob Wonnacott Says:

    Great interview about “Blood Lake”. Really enjoyed it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ron Herron Says:

    Thanks, Anca.

    Like

  3. Anca Vlasopolos Says:

    Congratulations, Ron! And I hope you’re doing well healthwise.

    Liked by 1 person

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