Today starts a series of entries on one of my favorite subjects: creative writing. I’ve written on this topic in the past within other blogs, but I figured the Digital Storyteller audience could benefit from a solid, step-by-step system outlining my writing process.
This series will happen in three parts – one today on finding inspiration, one next week on story beats and breakdowns, and a final chapter on time-lining and themes. I hope you stick around and get a little something out of it. Please note that my methods aren’t what I would consider universally good practices, and are simply ways which I myself like to write. You may be different, and you may even think I’m crazy at points, but that doesn’t mean you have to employ my methodology. In writing, as with any artsy thing, there are a million ways to do it right.
So! Where to begin?
Let’s take the question of “where to begin?” to start. If you are asking yourself this without having at least a tiny piece of an idea for a story, you should probably hold off on writing and first consider why you want to write at all. Here are some common reasons cited by people who say they want to become writers:
- Writers make a bunch of money and I want a bunch of money.
- I want to write so people think I’m smart.
- I don’t like my day job and want a different one.
- The idea of being a writer is sexy to me.
Yikes. You’d think I was kidding, but unfortunately I’m not. If any of the above are primary reasons you find yourself wanting to write, then now may be a good time to put the pen down and call your therapist. You need counseling and a life coach – not writing.
Now, if you instead said you wanted to become a writer for any of these reasons…
- I have a great story itching to be told.
- I read a newspaper article that made me think of an idea for a book.
- My nephew makes me think of a character I’d like to write a story around.
…then you’re in much better shape than the therapy crowd and may just have the chops to do some writing! The key truly is to know that you have a desire to tell a story, no matter how much of it you’ve planned out already.
So, once you have a story in mind, where do you take it? You might find it best to return to the thing that inspired your original idea to do an in-depth analysis of why the story is appealing to you. Perhaps you read a book and thought about a story of your own set in a similar universe or written in a similar style – go ahead and read it again. If it was a friend or family member who inspired you, then you should hang out with that person a little bit and take mental notes. Whatever it is, now is not the time to lose your inspiration, but to build it up.
Once you have your inspiration covered, it’s time to immerse yourself in the world you’re building. Notice situations in your own life which could translate well into your story. Perhaps people in your life could become the basis for characters, and perhaps things you see in your daily life could be situations they find themselves in.
Start figuring out what your story will be about by defining where and/or when it will take place, who the main cast will be, and what conflicts will arise to challenge them. Sometimes, this’ll be clear as day to you. Other times, it’ll take you days, weeks or months to decide. Writing is often like decorating a house. Sometimes you buy a whole set of furniture, knowing it’s all going to come together to be something you love, and sometimes you buy one thing and slowly hand-pick items to go around it.
As I’ve alluded to in previous entries, I myself usually start by writing (and drawing) character breakdowns as my muse starts speaking to me. When you get to this stage, try to define things beyond your characters’ physical appearance, such as their wants and fears, but feel free to leave them vague until you hit a solid hook for any given character, which would make them interesting to your audience and to you as a writer — and likely affect your plot.
Speaking of your plot, it’s a good idea to start considering it as soon as possible, too. If your story is character-centric, then you may have an easier time forming a plot as you develop your characters, who will be doing most of the “driving” in your story. If your story is plot-centric, then you need to consider a truckload of elements beyond your cast, such as major events, actions, and other outside factors which will push your story along. It may even be that you won’t know if you have a character-centric or plot-centric story at this point, and that too is okay.
One of the best ways to define your story at the very beginning is to see if you can break its plot down into a single sentence. “A boy falls in love with a girl who has secretly come from the future because she knows he is the key to saving her world” is a good example.
One other way you might write your plot’s first draft involves working backwards, starting with your ending. Too, some writers find it easiest to work in a formula, defining the basics of the beginning, middle, and end of the story.
It’s important to note that you needn’t, and shouldn’t, finalize things in one sitting. Invariably, you’re going to get a better idea the minute you walk away from your desk, and you’re going to want to use it. Don’t be afraid of swapping your ideas, especially at the start. Inspiration is your friend and you should never fall in love with your first draft.
On the other end of the coin, if you find yourself having trouble coming up with ideas, you might take a break for a while. I often take months to fully develop my first story ideas before moving into the breakdown phase, which we’ll cover in the next entry. Don’t be afraid to relax and take in ideas until you get something really great.
I consider myself done with the first phase of story-planning when I have these elements defined:
- Setting: The wheres and whens of the story — its backdrop
- Characters: The whos and whats of the story, not just limited to living beings but also important things and locations
- Conflict: What is the main challenge that must be overcome, how is it resolved and what is the outcome?
- Plot Synopsis: When I can tell my story in one sentence, then I know I’m ready to expand on it
You may choose to do more at this point, and you may even choose to do less. Some writers like to plot out their stories with outlines and others simply like to sit down and write, seeing where their whims take them as they go. Don’t feel pressured to do one or the other – as I’ve already said, they are both correct.
We’ll be covering breakdowns in our installment next week. Stay tuned!