When one starts on a story, it is usually birthed from a kernel of an idea; a scene, a bit of dialogue, an interesting character, a world concept. But by the end of the first draft, that seed has sprouted. It might be easy to say it has grown into a tree, but you may find yourself in a forest, wondering lost without a path, unable to see the forest for the trees.
I’ve mentioned critique groups and beta readers and how helpful they are. Turning to them to get perspective when you are lost, seems a natural choice. The issue with this in regards to critique groups is their vision is narrowed to about a chapter at a time, with gaps in between readings. And while they can certainly tell if the moment is ringing true for the scene, they may not be able to tell me if it is doing so for the story. And while beta readers may be able to give you general feedback, they may not be able to pinpoint those specific elements of the story that aren’t working, let alone give you suggestions how to fix them. The truth is, no matter who you try to get help from, whose opinion you seek, there may be limitations to what they can do for you, because, after all, this is your story. Your vision. But then again, isn’t that the problem?
Sometimes you’re so close to your story, you can’t get an accurate look at it. So, how can you make sure all the dots are connected. How do you check that the puzzle pieces are fitting neatly into each other. How do you pull back far enough to be able to see your story for what it is. How indeed.
Visual Organizing with Story-Boarding
Perhaps you need to see everything laid out in front of you before you can sort it. Story boarding with index cards might work for you. Index cards are great because they force you to condense the concept of a scene into that small space, but also allows for notes to be made. Write out your story, one scene per index card, and lay them out in order on the floor or on a wall. Now you can evaluate the effectiveness of your story. You might find that certain chapters need to be rearranged. Perhaps you might need to introduce a character earlier in the story. Maybe the middle lags because there’s not enough tension. Plot holes, inconsistencies, structure issues should be clearer from this view.
Don’t have sufficient wall or floor space? Scrivener has a virtual cork board that allows you all the benefits to laying your cards out, without worrying that someone’s going to come along and kick them out of order. Another great piece of software is yWriter, a free writing program that allows you to make notes about your scenes and move them around with ease. Though it doesn’t offer the cork board feature, it still is great for keeping track of all the moving parts that is a novel. Either way, whether on paper or the screen, condensing your scenes, is one way to get a handle on the big picture.
Elevate your View with Mapping
Mind maps are ways to visually represent ideas and concepts and their connectivity. It can help to wrangle all aspects of your story into a picture that you can easily view. With it you can track, check and test the way your novel is ‘mapping’ out. You can do it by hand, but there is software that can help with this – again, just google it. By creating a diagram of your story, made up of the plot, its characters, and any other key elements, you can see how they all interact. This birds-eye view offers the opportunity to tell if the parts are supporting the story.
A Guided Outlook with Spreadsheets
Weather you call them spreadsheets, checklist or tables, organizing your story and the elements of your story into this format allows you to make sure you are accomplishing what you want in each scene. There are many you can find online – just google scene tracker or plot spreadsheets or create your own template. Essentially, your plot is laid out in outline form and you assess its efficiency using certain values, deeply probing how your scene functions in the grand scheme of your story. The simplest approach you might take is the ‘yes, but / no, and’ technique which Brandon Sanderson discusses at about the fifty minute mark [but seriously you should just watch the whole lecture because really who are you kidding – it’s Brandon Sanderson] or the ‘and so’ method which is a take on the cause and effect approach to plotting. And while these are plotting techniques, they can also be used to make sure your story is still on track.
If you’ve been reading my blog, you’ll know I’m a big fan of The Story Grid. Editor Shawn Coyne uses a tool called the Story Grid Spreadsheet to help analyze the effectiveness of your scenes. In his own words, your spreadsheet will pinpoint exactly where you nailed your best moments and where you need to do more work. Not only where to do the work, but how to do it. If you are curious, check out the spreadsheet for The Silence of the Lambs. As you can see this spreadsheet is quite extensive, really challenging you to dig deep into a scene. But whether you start complex or simple you are looking for something that can offer you a big picture view while seeing the inner workings. And what is that big picture?
Theme as Your Guiding Light.
Gaining perspective can be the hardest part of creative endeavours. You know the old writers ode – kill your darlings. When I first heard this I didn’t know what that meant. In subsequent years, I have found many interpretations. Delete any passages that sound too authorial because you aren’t being true to the voice of the story. Condense characters; if they’re too similar, do you really need them all. Lose the scene: it may work on its own, but is it pushing the story forward. Still, it’s hard to pull back far enough to see which passages, which character and which scenes are the ones to stay, and which are the ones to go. I find that keeping my theme in mind helps to view these two key issues at the same time; the story as a whole and the parts that it is made up of. So the question becomes, is this scene doing all the things it should to further the plot, engage the reader and the like but also, in some way shining a light on the theme.
By testing the elements of your story against your theme, you might be able to nurture the root of your idea, cultivate all the branches that support the plot and produce a great story. Your story.