Finding the story

I often recall Writer and Professor Jim Shepard telling our Sirenland workshop that you write your way into knowing what it is that you are writing, then use that as a foundation to write the next draft. Accepting the ‘shitty first draft’ thing seems pretty common, and the notion that the first draft is you telling yourself what the story is about. It’s after that it takes shape. Saying that, Jim Shepard also bangs on about not underestimating what our intuitive intelligence has put into that first draft, and to look out for those markers.

Lisa Cron

Lisa Cron has a great approach for finding that shape. Her writing advice helps to really look at the narrative drive, or the character-conflict that is driving the story forward and, provides the right questions to help see and understand this in your work.

Wired for Story is a great starting point if you already have a draft. For me, this book felt like it was giving me all the questions I had to be able to answer to anchor the story and give it depth. At the time I read it, around the third draft of writing my first novel-length manuscript, I did not find it easy to answer these questions, but doing so definitely helped ground the work.

This article, “A writers guide to hacking the readers brain” is a good starting point to her approach, and also for thinking about the work, asking

  • What is your point?
  • What’s your protagonist’s agenda: what does she enter wanting?
  • What longstanding misbelief will your protagonist have to confront and overcome to get what she wants?
  • What external plot problem will force your protagonist to go after what he wants?
  • What will your protagonist’s ultimate “aha” moment be?

Story Genius is Lisa Cron’s more recent book, which offers an interesting alternative to traditional plotting. Essentially, she is providing ways to think about the psyche of the character, relative to the story, before you start writing. As she asserts, far more useful than knowing their favourite colour and name of the first pet and other long-list style approaches to character break-downs.

In Story Genius, she also provides a “blueprint” framework to plotting. This did and didn’t work for me. Perhaps at the time I didn’t understand my story enough, so I felt a little bogged down by the process and ended up with a draft with too much “thinking” on the page. However, ultimately the character and story insight it forced for me helped me to develop a breakdown of the manuscript and help expose some of the holes in the work. So, while I did find it tedious, it was very useful in understanding the work.*  

Reflecting now, for me, I find it helpful to be able to answer the questions Lisa Cron poses, but then almost forget them (let them compost) and get back to a “Freefall” writing approach to let the character move through the scenes and show the answers to the dot-points.  I get very nervous of over-intellectualising and the architecture or thinking being visible on the page. I try to use the thinking to get to know the characters and some of the things they might get up to, but to then get out of their way and let them just deal with whatever is going on in their own way.   

*It is worth noting, that I have since also undertaken an excellent Editing and Pitching course with Curtis  Brown Creative that presents a similar format to breaking down the detail of your work to guide the editing process. For me, it was definitely more useful in an editing context than a planning process.