March 21, 2008

Constructing a Story

Storytelling is about choices, and there are plenty of them. I just started a novel, and now I’m sitting in the ever-present ambiguity that is “creativity.” Every writer approaches these decisions differently, but the general question becomes: Are you a planner? Or do you just jump in?

For every writer that scrawling out extensive diagrams, there’s another that just grabs some paper and a pen before going to town. I fall somewhere in the middle. A framework helps me remember where I’m going and what the reader will find interesting.

In college, I read a book by Syd Field called The Screenwriter’s Workbook. It has been one of the most influential books in my collection. Every time I sit down to write a story, I go through the process Mr. Field discusses in this book. Yes, it is a screenwriting approach, but it supplies the principles of good storytelling, no matter the medium.

The basic element in this framework involves evenly dividing your story into four distinct pieces. Then, you interrupt those segments with three critical Plot Points. Each of the four segments develops a piece of the story, and the Plot Point reveals something that keeps the reader intrigued and interested.

It’s a pretty cool framework, and it works really well. Every now and again I revisit the book just to remind myself of how stories can be told effectively. I’ll discuss the concept more throughout the month, but in the meantime, how do you set yourself up to write? What methods do you use?


Anonymous said...

The Nathan Scheck Method™

Day 1: Think of an interesting concept.

Day 2: Flesh it out into a short story idea.

Day 3: Thank "yeah right", and go back to illustrating cute animals doing inadvisable things to each other with claymores.

Admittedly, that's probably because I wouldn't consider myself a writer, and anything that sounds like it would take more than eight pages to finish scares me...

Jean said...

When an idea hits me, I have an initial burst of writing. I write or type pages and pages without pause. Then I hit a brick wall in the middle of chapter 4 (It is always, inevitably chapter 4!) because I realize I don't know how the story will end. Then I spend a lot of time doing creative exercises to invent the rest of the story, and I make a flexible outline. Often I will write entire scenes that won't come until much later.
Once I complete the planning stage, I start back at the beginning. I draw on what I already wrote while adding plot points and things that lead to the newly discovered goal of the story. The story flows smoothly from there (that's not to say it doesn't take hard work, but the process continues uninterrupted).

In short, I write in three stages: the initial creativity dump, the uphill battle of planning, and the final trek through the scene forest until I reach the conclusion.

Leila Evans said...

I usually think of an idea, something like "raining stars." They're usually wierd, random, out of place, or cliched at first, but they help start me thinking about a story. After a few days, I get more ideas and write them down, usually on a stickie note of my mac computer. Then, after a few days, I'll just randomly start writing the beginning. I read the Stephen King usually starts with a character and goes from there. I'd say that's probably the most important part, too. If you have a great story line but flat, boring characters, you're not going to have a great story. You might not even have a good story.
At the very beginning of a story, I usually start with dialogue, but that's just personal preference.

J Sherer said...

The perspectives here are excellent. I, like Lis, generally get an idea, start writing, and then inevitably have to stop and go back to the drawing board (at which point I pull out Syd Field's paradigm and start working on Plot Points).

I think as writers we tend to think in terms of "scenes" or "sets of interaction." Those can be stories in an of themselves, but often times they're just a piece of something much bigger.

It's really fun to try and tackle it. Stephen King is also a great person to refer to when looking at structure.

Thanks for the comments!