Fiction Writing – Story Construction

To illustrate the process, let’s suppose I get this great (and unoriginal) idea for a story: Brutal aliens invade Earth. I first start an electronic file to hold notes on the story. Inevitably, a new idea produces a blizzard of ideas on opening scene, the characters, settings, scenes, plots, snippets of dialog, possible confrontations. All I do at this point is enter them into the file. Once I judge I have enough material, I begin work on the story but I do so in a fashion that is the opposite of the practice of writing the draft as the first step. My initial priority is to determine an acceptable ending.

By acceptable, I mean one that is believable to me, the writer, as well as to a reader. I often come up with endings that, to my mind, won’t satisfy a reader who has agreed to suspend belief for the course of the story. While struggling for this ending, I’ll think up more bits of plots or dialog or scene settings but there is no guarantee any of these bits will be in the manuscript because I don’t yet know the ending. Consequently, I can’t tell if this material is appropriate for the story.

Why is the ending so important? As Robert McKee tells us in his book Story, much of the story construction is backward, working from the climax to the beginning. This ensures that the dialog, the scenes and the conflict move the reader from the opening of the story to the final action. It also guarantees that all the plot way-points will be consistent and without detours. This illustrates the main problem in trying to write a story before knowing the ending: an author can’t point the reader towards the conclusion of the story. It doesn’t exist yet! This will result in a vast amount of rewriting once the ending is finally discovered, since much of the initial writing will no longer be germane to the story.

For our hypothetical story, once I come up with the ending, I summarize the story in a single sentence: Character X outwits brutal alien invaders and saves the world only to discover his maternal grandmother was an alien infiltrator. The importance of this sentence is that it channels the characters’ activities as they move to the climax of the story. For instance, Character X – the protagonist – has to outwit the invaders, therefore killing them all in an explosion will violate the summary. The ending and story summarization may also effect the character sketches I have made. If I have previously thought of X as a muscle man, I now know he will need more brain than brawn to stay within the parameters of the story.

If I haven’t already done it, my next step is to fill in the cast of characters so I develop Character Y as X’s sidekick and Z as the alien commander who will be the antagonist.

With these characters in place, I need a plot problem for Z and Z to fight over. In this case, it’s quite obvious that the plot problem is to get the aliens to leave Earth and, in most instances, grasping the plot problem is easy once you have discovered the ending.

Now I can develop a plot that has X trying to defeat Z, only to fail. Several times. Finally, in desperation, X tries once again and succeeds (or not!). As the plot unfolds, I ensure that it moves the story towards the preconceived ending. Any encounters or action that don’t satisfy this requirement are removed because they are wordy distractions.

By now, I have a great sense of the story, the characters and the ending and I use all these to write a story synopsis. This is a four to eight paragraph summary of the story as I see it. In effect, this is a road map for telling the story and reaching the climax. It also serves a check on the story itself. If the summary doesn’t satisfy me as a writer and a reader, then the story construction needs more work. As a preview of the story, I ask myself if someone would want to read this? If I can’t honestly answer ‘yes’, then it’s back to the construction process. This underscores the big advantage to the process. If the summary shows the need for more work, I have only invested a few hundred words on it rather than thousands on a completed short story. For instance, in a story I’m now working on, the story summary showed the ending to be dull but it had a rousing action scene in the middle of the story. Since the climax has to be the best part of the story, I lifted the middle scene, rewrote it and put it at the end. This change required less than five minutes of work. If I didn’t see this problem until after I completed the manuscript, it would have required a lengthy revision to accomplish the same change.

I must emphasize that the story summary is a critically important step because if the summary doesn’t sing, neither will the story.

The final step is to develop the scenes in the story. The story synopsis provides a guide to determine how many scenes will be required. Some stories will need only one or two and others may require six or seven scenes to tell the complete short story. This is where I also decide how to space the description of the characters, allocating material to the different scenes so the descriptions don’t come in a clump that stops the action. Ideally, each scene will take place in a different location so setting ideas have to be developed and sketched out here as well.

Finally, I’m ready to write the first draft that threatens to burst out of me and the writing sessions are fun. Most often I can get a complete draft of four to five thousand words written in three sessions. After that comes the pain of editing and revision. Followed by the agony of marketing.

Since no two writers are alike there can be no single process that will be right for everyone. This is the process that works best for me and I’ve developed it over several years of trial and error. Some writers will see merits in parts of it and can adapt those aspects that will work for them. The process works equally well for short stories or for novels. With novels, I repeat the process for each main plot and each subplot.

At the present, I have notes and character sketches for over a dozen potential stories. None of these stories has an ending (yet!) and consequently, I haven’t written a single word of the manuscript (yet!). A recent story I completed involved a character and a situation I developed over two years ago. During that time, I could never find a fitting climax nor could I come up with the character’s motivation. Earlier this year, I reviewed my notes once again and the ending and the motivation popped into my head. Then and only then, did I move into the next steps of story construction. Not all stories take this long. Frequently, the time from initial concept to finished draft of a short story takes place rather quickly.

Some authors may object to this process on the grounds that it reduces writing a story to a series of chores; simply fill in the forms. On the surface, it may seem this way, but this process doesn’t replace creativity, it guides it so it is concentrated on developing the necessary story elements. This method will seem restrictive to other writers who want to listen to their characters and follow their lead, but it really isn’t. What this process does is channel these characters so they don’t wander away from the story and take the writer on an unnecessary journey. I find there is plenty of room for the characters to roam around, but their rambles will be confined to the story that I constructed. This effectively prevents the characters from moving onto a different story. After all, who is on charge of telling the story? The author or the characters? In my stories, I am.

Original Article by Hank Quense