“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” – Abraham Lincoln
I apologize, once again, for another large gap in time from my last article. I’d like to say it’s not a regular thing, but it looks to have become that way. Hopefully you’ve decided to stick around and are still learning. The next set of entries will take a closer look at beginnings, middles and ends, but before we go there, let’s zoom out a bit.
“A certain amount of organization is essential.”
Most of us write because we love getting our ideas onto the page, hoping to express them with the perfect words. We want to become Captain Nemos, taking readers for the ride of their life because we so admire the Captain Nemos that took us on their rides.
This desire can work on our patience, pressuring us to skip the whole idea of planning our journey and to just strip off our clothes because the water looks so damned inviting.
“Planning, schmanning! That’s just, like, killing my vibe, man.”
There’s always fun to be had in floating with the current, enjoying whatever exotic locales are presented to us. This can become a problem though, because we typically end up with Family Circus-like routes: Interesting to the writer because of all the cool things we discover along the way, but often annoying to the reader because of the lack of focus. What may capture our imagination will lead the reader to think we’re just meandering.
“Get to the point!” she says, or “What happened to that character I loved so much in chapter two?”
Before you accuse me of being a complete killjoy, let me say that I love a good meandering and I think it’s essential to coming up with thrilling stories. For Swain, the difference is that you should experience 90% of that meandering during the planning phase. Use most of your creative energy for crafting the story, as a whole, before you write it. That way, when you write, you can spend that same creative energy on finding the right words and phrasing to bring those genius ideas of yours to life.
Now, some people prefer to call this planning stage the “first draft” and they cut, add, refold, and stretch during further revisions. Though Swain makes no mention of this method in his book, I think that’s a perfectly fine way to go about it. To be honest, I think it’s mostly semantics in the end. Whether your “plan” is a basic outline, a narrative summary, or a full blown attempt at writing the book, as long as the end goal is to generate a “proper” story, have at it. You need to discover what works for you.
So let’s agree some form of planning is a good idea. How should we do it?
There are all sorts of devices for putting together a framework for your story (including the ones I mentioned above). James Scott Bell came up with the LOCK method, which I highly recommend and used for fleshing out the concept of my current work-in-progress. Dwight Swain’s method uses five elements that exist in every solid commercial story. There are more out there and they all focus on pretty much the same overall destination, but are just different vehicles for getting there. Here’s what Swain lays out:
- Character – A story needs someone the reader can identify with and through whose senses you experience their world.
- Situation – Focal characters don’t exist in a vacuum and they need a situation that forces them to act.
- Objective – You focal character needs an objective born out of their situation. They don’t necessarily need to achieve it, but must march toward it.
- Opponent – Someone or something needs to throw up roadblocks. Remember, danger breeds tension and tension is why most fiction readers read.
- Disaster – These same readers expect a climax and satisfying ending.
Many things not listed here also deserve attention during the planning phase – character arc and theme being two off the top of my head. But these five elements give you solid ground on which to build.
Swain recommends taking these elements and focusing on them with two very specific sentences. Extraneous and abstract words only blur the issue.
“Slickness and subtlety can come later.”
Sentence one should be a statement establishing character, situation and objective. Sentence two should be a question identifying the opponent and disaster. It should be able to be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no.’
What better way to illustrate than with a horrible example?
Jim Bob is abandoned by his wife of thirty years and now he seeks to find out where she went. Will the aliens who kidnapped her be able to stop him before they can ship her off to an intergalactic zoo?
We can break this down according to the five elements:
|Situation||is abandoned by his wife of thirty years|
|Objective||and now he seeks to find out where she went.|
|Opponent||Will the aliens who kidnapped her be able to stop him|
|Disaster||before they can ship her off to an intergalactic zoo?|
Remember, the planning phase is your opportunity to go wild. Don’t restrict yourself. Some of your best thoughts may be squeezed from the bottom of the toothpaste tube and when it comes time to actually writing your story, you’ll be glad you made note of every single “stupid” idea that came to you.
As always, thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule to read and comment. I hope you found this entry useful.