Imagine the brutal gray clouds and black specs of indeterminable debris that make up the body of a hurricane, all circling around a calm and blue skied center: the eye of the storm. These elements of the storm define the eye by outlining it. The eye is the negative space; the part of the storm that is not storm.
The elements of story do the same, circling around a common theme yet never making direct contact. Like a powerful storm, a powerful story enforces and reinforces itself by moving around this central point in conjunction with all of the other elements. Character, plot, sub-plot–everything must echo this central theme, working through it, playing with it. Eroding it and distilling it into simple human truth.
The “I” of the Story?
Examining my own stories, the eye is often a clear reflection of my life at the time of writing. Who I am, what I want, what I’m dealing with. It’s interesting how this subconsciously worms its way into our work. A form of therapy quite related to the analysis of dreams.
Working/production/joke title “Muromai and Kielle Forever” is about a boy and girl, lost far from home, fantasizing about getting back one day, not truly knowing what home really is. They cross the country only to find that it isn’t so much a place but a carefully cultivated feeling. This is something I’ve been dealing with for about two years now, having moved from family and friends in California to Indiana with my partner as she ventured into graduate school. I only just made the connection this morning waking from a dream.
What stories are you telling, and what sits at the eye? Is it you?
World building is exactly what it sounds like. It’s sitting down and writing a creation story or drawing maps; creating character sheets, inventing languages and cultures, magic systems and weather patterns.World building can be a lot of fun, but it can also be a serious momentum killer. It’s important not to be consumed by it.
Usually my work falls under one of two categories: a story for a video game I’m working on, or novelized fiction. But for the longest time, the stories that I intended to be played (experienced by a player) were easier to write, and more exciting to me. This is because, unknowingly, I was applying the principles of Scenes and Sequels
to my game projects but not to my novels.
If you are unfamiliar with Scenes and Sequels, or as I like to call them, action scenes and reaction scenes, the link above is a great introduction. But I can give you a quick rundown.
I wrote a novella last year without understanding its universe at all. It was an experiment. I wrote it blind, without doing any plotting, world building, or character sketching. I let it fall from my brain like a sky diver without a parachute. I’d taken no precautions, I had no idea how I was going to land.
That said, I did land, and I landed in a really cool place. Such a cool place, in fact, that I decided to stop living in the vague world I’d created, step through the fog to see what existed outside of the novella’s narrow path. The world grew very large very quickly. New characters sprouted up in familiar and unfamiliar countries, with their own stories to tell, all of them connected in some way. And thus I took a hard look at the old novella and decided it wasn’t good enough, it needed an overhaul. Ugh.
The Hero's Journey, with great examples!
I recently posted an entry that practically said, “Hey, I just wrote a story without doing any planning and it was awesome!” and now I’m here to say, “Hey, I’m planning like crazy and it’s awesome! (And also, there’s no one way to do a thing, try different stuff!)”
I tend to get carried away when outlining, I’ll go off on a tangent or into too much detail, and subsequently lose steam and scratch the whole thing, but I’ve recently found a way to stay on track, and thought I’d share my experiences and thoughts. This isn’t a how-to post; despite the silly heading, you won’t find the twelve steps listed here (though you will find a link to them).
I don’t particularly like the idea of writing to a formula, but I’ve been using Christopher Vogler’s version of The Hero’s Journey (the twelve steps are there!), and Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth (seventeen steps are there!), as a basic blueprint for the outline of my latest novel. This has provided much inspiration, and freed up some of my brainpower for problem solving rather than blank-slate plot generation.
A writer friend recently confessed to me that she had all of these great protagonists, but had trouble coming up with things for them to do, and one of my favorite pieces of writerly advice popped vaguely to mind: YOU are the antagonist. If you don’t torture your protagonist, who will?
#20 – Torture Your Protagonist. It’s not enough for him to be stuck up a tree. You must throw rocks at him while he figures out how to get down. – Allen Guthrie, Hunting Down the Pleonasms.
I couldn’t recall the above quote at the time, so instead I told my writer friend that she should punch her characters in the stomach and see how they react. While this can certainly come in the form of a literal punch, the point is actually to take the character out of their comfort zone, to shake up their lives and see how they react. The punch is the catalyst that kick-starts the story, and the reaction/pre-action to the punch generates plot. By bullying our characters, we explore what we love about them by watching the way they cope with trauma.
The writing process for my latest novel started as an exercise: One short scene told in present tense, third-person objective (wacky challenge woeeohooo!).
The concept came like a painting, hanging in my imagination: I saw a boy humming a tune to himself on a river’s edge, the stars shining overhead, with a girl watching from the shadows of the far bank. I wrote the scene effortlessly, letting my imagination do whatever it wanted; and what it wanted was for a minotaur to come out of the forest to berate the children for being out so late at night.
I had never written in present tense before, and I thought it worked in the piece better than expected, drawing me in over the characters’ shoulders. But a few weeks later, when I reread the story, the story itself drew me in, and led right into another scene. I continued the story in the same experimental way, writing without plotting, world building as little as possible along the way (which is completely out of character for me! I am a world builder at heart!). The writing process had decidedly been to let the story tell itself. I did not understand how the magic in my world worked, and I did not understand what the world was like beyond its dystopian borders. I did not know my characters’ parents until I met them. I wrote more scenes, and then chapters. The project was a completed novella about two months later.