Fleshing Out Your Story

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So you’ve carved out a piece of time in your life to write, found a corner of your house to call your own. How do you get from that blinking cursor on the blank page to a story that makes sense?

There is a lot of discussion in writing circles about plotters and pantsers. That is: writers who plot their stories out before they write and those who write ‘by the seat of their pants’, discovering the story as they go. On the one hand, the plot is king, on the other hand it’s the narrative, as driven by the character that the writer has brought to life. Of course there is a whole spectrum here. Some writers plot ‘to the horizon’, writing to a certain point that may be only a few chapters ahead. Many pantser’s claim they cannot plot without losing all their inspiration.

Which way is the right way?

I once went to Robert McKee’s Story seminar when he was in town here in Brisbane, a lecture that closely follows McKee’s book of the same name (BTW: if you ever go see McKee, make sure you are not late. He roasts people who disturb his rhythm by coming in after he has started – and fines them money after threatening to walk out if they don’t pay up). I had just finished reading Stephen King’s book On Writing. If you had to pick two people with diametrically opposed approaches, it would be those two luminaries.

In King’s book, he places a lot on emphasis on getting to know the character. Establishing such an immersion that the narrative of the piece takes on a life of its own. If any of you have run into McKee before you would know he is an advocate of structure with a capital S.

When the opportunity arose, I stuck up my hand and asked McKee what was more important, Narrative or Plot. I mentioned that Stephen King, in his book On Writing, emphasised Narrative. McKee (who seemed to get positively annoyed at the mention of King), did not actually answer the question. All he said was ‘a plot is nothing more than a series of events’ then went on to another question. Gee, thanks Rob.

McKee’s response got me thinking, though. His simple statement of fact – that a plot was nothing more than a series of events – made me realise that regardless of the approach of the writer, all good stories have to end up in the same place – i.e. with a well worked out plot.

As a rule each species of writer will be prone to certain weaknesses. Those who plot excessively may be tempted to ‘fit’ their character’s action into predetermined boxes, with a loss of life and spontaneity in the story.

Good pantsers are masters of the hook, and will often have a story that draws in a reader off the mark – yet their stories often lose coherency as the book continues, and the worst examples have endings that leave book-sized impressions in the wall through lack of resolution, or just plain nonsense motivations and events.

But no matter what style of writer, the objective is a well-crafted story that has all the key elements that make a great book: a well-structured plot with integral conflict, good characterisation, a well presented setting and a satisfying ending.

Whichever way you do it, you need to flesh out your story.

If you are an organised thinker like me, you will probably do a ton of research up front and piece your story together until you have the whole thing in place before you start at page one. If you are a pantser, you will irresistibly want to tinker with bits and pieces of the story all over the place, and your plot will gradually coalesce out of a patchwork of scenes, many of which will need umpteen revisions. Either way, once you have that whole story in place, you will need to stand back and take a good look at it.

But more on plotting next week.

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