Questionable: Thinking in Story

Kelly wrote:

I have a question – how do [you] learn to think in story? . . . . So far, I’ve started a dozen stories that have fizzled out from lack of creative fuel. Any advice for learning to invent and develop characters and stories? Thank you!

Some people are natural storytellers. (Hi, Krissie.) Some people are not. (That would be me.) Those of you who are natural storytellers should go somewhere else now because the stuff in this post is just going to screw you up. For the rest of us, here are some coping strategies:

1. Your first draft is your don’t-look-down Good Parts draft. That is, you write all the fun stuff without worrying about whether it makes sense. It doesn’t have to be in chronological order. Names can change. You can write sex scenes that would make a hooker blush or just write “sex scene here” and move on. You can do anything you want, as long as it’s your people doing things on the page. They do have to keep moving, they can’t just sit and think or do too much sittin’ and talkin’, keep those bodies in motion because character is action.

2. At some point you will start to panic because your draft is all over the place. Telling yourself that it’s okay, that it’s a first draft, that it’s supposed to be all over the place, will only work for so long. So that’s when you start building yourself a net. And the basis of the net is

Protagonist (goal) vs. Antagonist (goal)

or if you prefer your plot stated as a question:

Will the protagonist defeat the antagonist and get his or her goal?

If you’re like me, you’ll be able to identify your protagonist. The rest is a mystery. So you move onto . . .

3. Look at what you have written and figure out what the protagonist wants. This has to be a positive, concrete goal. It can’t be world peace or inner peace or love or revenge, it has to be defusing the bomb, or building a temple, or having a big wedding, or filling somebody’s car with shrimp. It has to be something that the protagonist will have to move her body to get. If the goal is that she doesn’t want to love again because she’s been hurt before, you’re screwed because that’s a negative goal. A positive goal is something she wants, not something she’s saying no to. A positive goal is something she’ll move out of her comfort zone to get, cross personal boundaries to achieve, kill to possess. A positive goal keeps a protagonist saying, “Yes” and moving fast; a negative goal keeps a protagonist saying, “No,” and freezes her in place (boring and annoying). Figure out what the protagonist’s positive goal is, and you’re halfway home.

4. Okay, you have a protagonist and a goal. Now why can’t she get it? What and, more importantly, who is standing in her way? That character is the antagonist, and once you have him or her identified, then you do the same goal hunt that you did for the protagonist. The antagonist’s goal can be the same as the protagonist’s–they both want the Ark of the Covenant–or they can be completely different, the only things that are necessary is that the characters MUST have these goals or they’ll die (physically or emotionally) and these goals must bring them into direct conflict: only one can win and the other will then be defeated utterly and destroyed. (The conflict box is a BIG help here.)

5. Now go back and rewrite what you have to shape your narrative so that it’s a battle between your protagonist and antagonist, raising the stakes as they both cross boundaries, and speeding up the pacing as they race toward their final battle. Then keep writing the new scenes you need and revising and writing and revising and writing and revising . . .

That’s basic, classic linear structure. There are a million other structures you can use so this one may not be yours, but the vast majority of print and film stories are linear.

After that it’s just a long, hard slog through a million revisions, holding onto that central story idea. Good luck!

12 thoughts on “Questionable: Thinking in Story

  1. The goal can be a moving target, can’t it? Sometimes I mentally kick around ideas for follow-up stories to Cinderella or Beauty and the Beast. The next parts of their stories start with the goal of getting married and proceeding to live happily ever after – and then reality sets in. Their new lives will be very strange to them, with new obstacles and opportunities popping up all over the place, so I would think their goals would shift as they learn their ways around. Or can/should one simply make “learn to deal in new circumstances” the goal? Sounds almost as nebulous as world peace or inner happiness.

  2. Thank you for this, Jenny! I’m saving, printing, highlighting, and possibly framing your advice. It amazes me that you don’t consider yourself to be a natural storyteller… to me, you are the Holy High Priestess of Fiction. It’s really generous and awesome of you to share your insights about writing. If I’m ever lucky enough to meet you at a conference, drinks are on me. 🙂

  3. Thanks Jenny! I’m trying to work myself back into this, and I keep forgetting the DLD rule.

  4. So how does a writer know if they are a natural storyteller or not? Maybe it doesn’t matter? It would probably help if I had less doubt about my own instincts. I’m striving to be a better writer, but I feel like the technical stuff is taking all the juice out of the stories. For me, I think I have to get that first draft done and revised at least once before I start asking questions – other wise the fun never gets put in there. And what if the parts that delight me aren’t the parts that move the story forward? No one needs to answer these questions, I’m really just trying to figure out what makes writing worth while for me, how do I get back to it. I want to, but not enough to turn off Orphan Black and just write. I’m a little contrary but I’ll get it worked out.

  5. I agree with everything Jenny has said and I do all of that once I start writing.
    However, I think when you run out of fuel, it’s because you’ve started writing too soon. I just keep it all in my head and play with names and how the characters might look and kind of where I think the story might go. But things are very fluid and subject to change. I think you have to live with the characters and whatever story idea you have and then you have to allow yourself to daydream. A lot. I always move furniture and clean my house from top to bottom when I’m in that stage, but the whole time I’m thinking and creating. Your characters have to seem like real people, neighbors, cousins, people you’ve met somewhere and have had conversations with. When I start dreaming of them at night that’s when I’m ready to begin the writing, because I know that I’ve become completely immersed in their world.

  6. I needed this post. It makes it clear in my mind what is wrong with the story I’m working on, why I can’t see its resolution. It’s because I don’t know what the protagonist wants. She doesn’t know herself. Does she want to reconcile with her estranged husband or does she want to chuck him off like old socks and move on? He insulted her (but he kinda had a reason). I have the beginning of the story, the exciting incident, but I still don’t know where the story goes. I really need a writing group to launder such stories. Sometimes, a flitting suggestion, a humorous comment could lead to a solution.

  7. I had a friggin ball writing while in DLD gear. Once I let myself whack away at the keys of my laptop like a loon, I found myself discovering my story. Did I get too verbiose with describing unnecessary details? Yep. Did I butcher grammar and forget what complete sentences are, run on, ramble and misspell monosyllabic words? You betcha.
    DLD helped my imagination dance to a slowjam with my reasoning and the next thing I knew everything was falling into place.

  8. Thank you for this, Jenny! I know you’ve said it all before but I needed to read it again just now so I can breathe. I can’t wait for that writing book you mentioned a little while back. Publish it and I’ll have it in my downloads so fast it’ll have skid marks on the cover.


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