Building a Story
An example of how to begin a new story when your Muse has taken a vacation.
A friend of mine—I’ll call her Judy—had written a novel and was in the process of sending it out to literary agents seeking representation. She and I knew that first-time authors typically needed to have two or more completed manuscripts in hand. Publishers do not make large profits on an unknown writer’s first book but on subsequent publications. Money is spent on publicity for the first book, to establish a reputation for an author and build readership. With these aspects already established, on subsequent books, larger profits are realized. Too, publishers were more apt to believe that a writer was capable of turning out numbers of books if they did so of their own volition.
So, Judy needed to write another story, and fast. She had just completed the rigors of editing and deep polishing the first manuscript and felt burned out. I suggested she take a breather for a week or two; maybe even get away for a vacation. She is not one to shy away from responsibility, so she pleaded with me to help her find a way to conjure another plot because her Muse had taken the vacation for her.
I never thought about how to start a new story. My stories just rolled out whenever I allowed myself to think. Then I remembered a few techniques I used in establishing characters in my first novel and passed those steps along to her. The one presented here is the procedure that worked for her. She took more than a month conjuring characters and, not surprisingly, the story unfolded as she went along. By the end of three months, she had completed the first draft.
But something happened along the way. Her Muse evidently decided she liked the excitement of the new story and returned promptly from vacation. In following the steps given below, Judy came up with an idea for a sequel to her newly finished story and then decided to make it a serial.
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Imagine an image of a person you’d like to have in one of your stories. From that mental image, build a character. She or he will probably be your protagonist. This may change, so beyond recording the character’s physical attributes, do not think further into the story.
If you have written short stories and have a favorite protagonist, you can use that character to help flesh out another one. The technique presented here works best if you start fresh with a character about which you know nothing. Then you’re less likely to follow the plot line of the other story already written. Just have a sort of feel for a person and start simply by listing physical attributes: age, color of eyes, skin tone, hair color and any other details you feel you wish the person to have.
At this point, do not list anything like the fact that the lady changes hair color frequently, or has a nail biting neurosis. This has little to do with establishing the basics of physical image. If something “extra” does come up in creating the character, then your Muse is beginning to feed you details of a story you have yet to consciously realize. How exciting is that? If this extra information may to be pertinent later in your story, then you can add it. Be simple in the primary description and make a separate list of added details as something you may include later.
Next, give the person just enough of a life so that you know what makes your character unique.
~ What does she or he do for a living?
~ How many other family members?
~ What are her or his best personality attributes, and worst ones?
~What other relatives share this character’s life and how does your character interact with them?
~ What SECRETS does your character hide?
Another example: If you give your character habits like a facial tic, or mail biting, try to conjure why she or he has it? Is it the result of some repressed emotion? Is it from some shock long ago? How does this unnerving habit affect people presently in the character’s life? What crisis from her past does she have to work through to eliminate the tic? Who’s involved? If nothing like this comes to mind for your character, don’t worry. Something else is on the way!
I like the part about the secrets most. Most people have things they wouldn’t want the world to know. If you were to draw it out of them, you’d probably find some shocking information, juicy tidbits around which to build your plot, around which to motivate your character.
See where this is going? By the time you’ve got the first character established, you will have introduced us to other people in her life.
Next, choose one of those secondary people and build another character sketch. It doesn’t have to be a love-interest either. The next character can be a public figure she or he is trying to emulate, or someone who has been stalking her or a neighbor, or….
For the next character, you do not have to use any particular person included with the sketch of your main character. You can start fresh again and build a whole new person. Later, something in that creation will tell you how to bring this person together with your main character and the others.
Finally, your characters will tell you a story as you create them. Begin to write about how these people interact. By the time you get this far, you will know where your story is going. You will know your plot!
Trust the process. You will have conjured something important to say about these people, their lives and their impact on one another and the outcome.
Write without editing. Let your mind wander from the rational to the absurd. As you write, you’ll find yourself choosing which path you wish the story to follow.
In the end, you may not use most of the information you pack into your character sketches. However, because you have taken the time to build your characters, you will know how they react in all the circumstances presented in your plot. A morally upstanding person reacts one way to a certain occurrence; a frivolous person reacts a completely different way to the same situation. You will know these people because in building character sketches you unknowingly create their morals, ethics and motivations, which will surely spice up your plot.
Please visit Mary Deal’s website for more wonderful articles like this one: Write Any Genre.