What — you do it first? I don’t, and there’s a reason for that. It’s not that I do things back to front, at least not from my perspective.
The start is the beat sheets, one for each character in the story, but the main two characters (usually the main character/protagonist and the antagonist) get the most definition. If I know who they are when I do the beat sheets. Most of my stories start with a paragraph or two that might be a scene or a snippet or a bit of dialogue, so it’s not a sharp and sure map toward idea, concept, premise. Just an mote that might lead to something.
So, the beat sheets. Then the setting. Then a few test runs and character interviews and discussions of motivations and life lessons (done or due). Most of this work is done the way I’ve laid it out here (it’s not pretty, but there’s a big ginger cat named Garfield who sent me his portrait with a few words underneath: creativity is not a pretty sight — now it’s my inspirational quote for every day. Anyway …). And then I put up the next stage, which is going deep, deeper and finding each action-reaction (some call it the MRU – motivation-reaction unit). This is where each event in the story is external, visible and requires a response. In between the Action and Reaction pieces in a scene can be the bit of thought that supports the following reaction (which is the action that causes the next reaction — see?). Backstory and longer internalisations don’t belong in a scene, they have their own structure (however, scenes and sequels aren’t a specified pattern of instructions and can be used flexibly to create the most compelling story, so take that ‘own structure’ advice with a touch of salt — but learn it, anyway).
Remember the Freeze-Fight-Flight syndrome? That’s what the Scene Outline and MRU (Action-Reaction, Chain of Events, etc.) help to flesh out.
And after that’s done, I do the synopsis.
If you’ve read the books on ‘how to tell a story’ they all say the synopsis is the opening gambit. Not for this little teal duck. I can’t do a synopsis until I’ve done all the steps to find the characters, the meaning, the lesson, the place, the time, the ebb and flow of events and done a few time-lines and collected pics and maps.
Only then can I do the synopsis. And a two-page synopsis, or a ten-page synopsis treatment flows from the keyboard like a tap full open. It gushes onto the page, it spreads meaning and tone and TELLS the story in the most direct way. I don’t usually include much of the sub-plots/stories (unless there’s only one or two and the intersection between them is a collision that causes a big change to the main story thread).
I know the end, I know how to open to imply a need, give something that forges a question that leads to ‘the end’ — which is where the story question is answered and there’s no reason to keep the character churning through the pages.
The big signposts that get from one stage to the next are clear and defined. I know, because I’ve done the scene outlines, the motivational responses to events by characters who have a reason to do everything they do, think, become. It’s as clear as an itinerary (see, Fandango, managed to put the FOWC in there).
The four parts of the story give me the synopsis shape (the open, the build up to the big change, the fight for right, the showdown). The plot archetype gives me the progression of the events. The character arcs give me the underlying purpose (theme, anyone?).
And then I can do the final (*wink*) logline.
Every story needs a logline to keep me on track with the main story thread.
This is what the story is about:
A night-shift nurse who owes a big favour to her neighbour needs to decide whether to call the authorities and have the old lady put into care, or to investigate the furries.
(remember that story about the storm and the fluffy monsters? I think I may have deleted it now, but it was where this new idea for a story emerged.)
Or maybe the logline is:
The only person who knows what comes with the storm is barricaded in with an old dog and an nonagenarian, and the final storm is brewing on the horizon.
Getting the logline right is important. I know a lot of people who do this as the first part of their process, but for me it comes after I’ve done the synopsis. Yes, I waste a lot of time on prep work (a lot of it while sleeping, or half-sleeping, but it’s hard work, I tell you without a lie). But I can write the first draft of the story in a few days once all this stuff is done. And it’s taken me years (not telling how many, but a LOT) to discover my process and why it works and how to make the most of it. And it’s improved my storytelling (yes, I still have a lot to learn, and probably will until the day I pass from this plane).
I hope my discussions with myself about the process for creating a story are of value to you, whoever you are, and that you get the story written by any process you find/reshape that works for you. I tried doing it the way others do it, and struggled at each level. Doing it this way (it’s not as painful as I’ve made it sound, but writing about a process is much harder than the actuality of doing it), doing it my way (isn’t that a song?), means I’m able to create stories that feel better, flow in the right direction, progress with logic and suspense, and get somewhere — the end. That’s all I want. And to make each story better than the previous one.
Once it’s done, the editing process (another process!) begins.
There are stages to editing. The first is checking that the story fits the logline, the synopsis, and whether there’s any important moment from the scene outline or beat sheet that should be there and isn’t, or is in there, but isn’t required. A top-level edit. The start to making the story as strong and resonant as it can be to the reader — who is, after all, what the story is all about.
It’s a tough gig, both writing and editing and publishing, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Would you?
And I hope you all had a good break for Christmas and holidays. Stay safe.
Next week, I’m back at a learning institution, so posts will be monthly until late August (assuming I pass, of course).
See you in the next year, a better year, the year of the Ox.