Writing stories — planning a route
Sometimes the hardest thing about writing a story isn’t coming up with a grand arc that challenges and changes your main character. Sometimes the devil is in those little details along the way — all of those myriad decisions you have to make that delivers your character to the climax. Let’s talk about that.
Plotting a story
Writing well is a skill that takes years and years to hone. And the path that each writer takes is unique. However, here are a few thoughts to help you out of that hole the next time you feel creatively sunk.
First, take the “well begun is half done” attitude in writing. Although we’ve all probably experienced the writing process of kicking off a storyline and then winging it to the end, we can all probably agree that this is not an optimal work habit.
Instead, make a rough outline of the steps your story will go through, from beginning through the end. Don’t worry about details! Instead, think about this as planning stops along a road trip. For example, if you have a typical “Call to Adventure” story, you might have the following steps:
- Introduce the hero
- The Call to Adventure is sounded!
- The journey begins
- The hero arrives — and is frustrated in their attempt to reach the goal
- The hero keeps trying and enters a final ordeal
- The hero achieves their goal (or learns an Important Lesson in losing)
These aren’t very descriptive — in fact, they could be applied to a wide variety of stories. But that’s not important right now. Let’s take that first section: Introducing the hero. There are a number of plot points that we may want to establish in this section. We need to establish who they are, first of all. We probably want the reader to feel emotionally connected to the hero as early as possible. So, we need to think of a way to do that. And, it’s a good idea to give this hero a force that drives them — something they want out of life. The more desperately they want it, the more compelling the story is likely to be. These are three steps. Your own story might have more.
Next, let’s move on to the second section: The call to adventure. We need to decide who delivers the call — and how it’s delivered. Does out hero answer the call immediately, or do they turn it down? If they are reluctant to join the adventure, what changes their mind? When do they commit to the adventure, and how do they cross the threshold into the adventure itself? In other words, when do they cross the Point of No Return?
After you do the same with the other major plot points, you’ll have a rough outline of how this story will develop — including an indication of how the climax will play out. If you’re lucky, you’ll see a few holes that develop later in the story that need to be addressed early in the story. You might even see possibilities form for surprising plot twists or heart-stopping reveals.
But… if you showed anyone this outline, they’d find it far from a compelling story. In fact, it would read very much like a to-do list. First the hero does this, then they do that, then this happens, then that happens… It’s nowhere near a story.
And now you’re ready to write. Because now you know what your story is going to be — even though you don’t know what it is yet. That’s because — and hear me out on this — all of the rest doesn’t matter. OK. OK. It matters, but not in the sense that you think.
Let’s knock off the first item in our list, introducing the hero. For the sake of illustration, our story outline requires out hero to choose a hat to wear. It doesn’t matter if it’s a blue hat or a red hat. Primarily, what matters is that the process of choosing that hat is done in a compelling, interesting way. Secondarily, this hat-choice must deliver the story to the next point in the outline. And thirdly, this hat choice must not cause repercussions that interfere with the overall plot described in the outline. Once you’ve written (and re-written and edited and re-written) the hat-choice section, you can move on to the next item on your outline.
And so on and so on.
Here’s the beauty of this approach to writing: It breaks writing — which can often be overwhelming and daunting — into small, easily managed, bite-sized chunks. Many writers are frightened at the prospect of writing a compelling adventure. But it’s hard to get intimidated by writing a scene about choosing a hat.
And — as long as you’ve put some thought into the overall outline of your story — you can simply concentrate on one scene at a time. You can simple work on progressing your character from one plot point to another, knowing that — as long as you follow the outline — you’re going to eventually end up where you’re supposed to.
Here’s a dirty little secret about writing: Once you’ve established all of the points your story is going to travel across, it doesn’t really matter how you connect those points as long as you’re doing it in an interesting way. Think of this as a road trip. You’re starting in Philadelphia and ending in Los Angeles. There are a billion paths you could take, and trying to weigh the merits of all of those paths would drive you crazy. So you decide on a few important stops along the way — Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Oklahoma City, and so on. Determining the most interesting way to get from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh is a much more manageable task! And — as long as your path is compelling and ends in Pittsburgh, your story will be fine. (And, now you can determine the best way to progress on to Indianapolis.)
Best case scenario, you’ll write the entire story before working on your comic. You’ll do a few rewrites. You’ll discover places later in the plot which could be set up gracefully with a few details earlier in the storyline. And you’ll edit. Heavens, you’ll edit and edit.
But, if push came to shove, once you have an established outline, you can start illustrating the first scene as soon as you’ve written it, and begin writing the second scene as you’re finishing inking the first. You’ll take risks, of course. You’ll see missed opportunities later on that will grind you. But that’s part of the learning process, too.
The important thing is that you’re not stuck anymore. You’re not overwhelmed. By establishing a guiding framework and breaking your story down into manageable chunks, you’re writing. And writing is the only way to become a good writer.