Principles of Building a Story
THE ESSENTIAL PROCESS OF LAYERING
In his book The House You Build: Making Real-World Choices to Get the Home You Want, architect Duo Dickinson suggests several crucial principles in successful planning and building, such as using standard materials creatively, not hurrying, preparing an on-spec budget, building in phases, and designing something you would want to own for a long period of time.
The process of planning and writing a book shares many of the same principles. When an author builds a story, he doesn't need fancy tools. He just needs to creatively use the tools he has to come up with his own unique design. He writes what he knows and feels. While a story will be written on its own timetable, this doesn't mean the author shouldn't be goal-oriented and disciplined. After all, just as a house that doesn't get built is never lived in, a book that doesn't get written will never be read. Additionally, building a story in phases, adding layer upon layer and making sure that the layers cohere, is the most productive, efficient way to complete a story. Certainly all writers want to offer a book that they're proud to call their own indefinitely.
When Building a House
Even the steps in building a house are similar to those in writing a story. When building a house, the designer (or the one who will be living in the house) comes up with ideas for his dream house, he makes very specific plans to lay the groundwork for the project, and only then will he break ground in order to lay the foundation. Framework is done inside and out, then electrical, plumbing, and ventilation systems can be installed.
The making (and breaking) of a house is based on the solidity of the foundation and framework. I remember when my husband and I were looking at houses in hope of purchasing our dream home. Our realtor showed us a house that had been decorated beautifully--the very best appliances, cabinets, carpeting, even a hot tub. But there was quite obviously something not right about the whole package. There were deep cracks running throughout the walls and ceiling, and the structure seemed to be slanting--not simply because it'd been built on a hill.
The realtor told us that the builder had been inexperienced, and, initially, cheap. When making the foundation, he poured a thin layer of concrete in a slab, the way it would be done for a sidewalk. What he should have done was dig footings below the frost line and then build the house on the solid foundation of those footings. Because he didn't, when the ground under the foundation froze in the winter, the water in the ground naturally froze, as well, and expanded, lifting the house in the places it froze. The frost heave caused violent cracks to form in the walls and ceiling. Other problems occurred, as direct or indirect results of the shoddy foundation, including pipes bursting (because the house lacked a properly heated basement in a climate where winter normally fell to frigid temperatures) and water damage. Additionally, there were major problems with the substandard-quality heating system installed on the main floor.
In order to sell the house, this builder attempted to go back and cover up the problems by filling the house with an irresistible selection of decorations, like expensive furnishings and appliances (that whirlpool bathtub turned my head more than once in the walk-through). Ultimately, for my husband and I, nothing could change the fact that this house wasn't solid enough to live in.
The builder had three options to fix what he'd done. The first wasn't truly a fix since it essentially meant tearing the house down and starting from scratch--this time with a solid plan, quality materials, and a strong foundation.
The builder could have opted to jack up the main house and go back under to build a solid foundation. This option would have eliminated future problems but nevertheless brought a lot of unpredictability. He must have surely realized that the lack of a good foundation was the crux of the house's problems--one that could never be fully corrected unless he went with the first and best option of starting from scratch and doing it right this time. But jacking up the house and making himself a good foundation wouldn't fix the issues the bad foundation had already caused. At this point, the house had become a money and time dump, considering how few people would want to live in something so flawed. I honestly don't know how the house passed inspection.
This builder didn't choose either of the first two options. Instead, he chose an option that shouldn't have even been an option. Out of cheapness (because he'd already poured so much cash into the house, trying to fix and cover up underlying problems), or maybe even sentimental reasons, he felt that the main level of the house was salvageable and he could sell it cheap as is. Hey, let someone else deal with the problems that'll plague this house for years, he may have thought. And then, of course, the guy got lucky and someone bought the sinkhole, which meant this builder probably thought he got away with not doing it right the first time, and he might not have learned his lesson for the next time he put a house up.
A quality builder stresses the importance of laying the groundwork right the first time. Only then can building begin with framework, the installation of drywall, cabinets, and interior trim. Decorating the house is the final step in the process. The layering steps must be done in the right order--and are ideally not done simultaneously--to complete a solid, pleasing home someone would want to live in for the rest of his life.
When Building a Story
When building a story, an author dreams up ideas through a process called brainstorming. When he has sufficient ideas to warrant actual physical work being done, he makes very specific plans to lay the groundwork for the project, and only then will he break ground in order to lay the foundation. Essentially, he creates a blueprint in some form--pre-writing or an outline--and this is the true solid foundation for any story. Only rarely will a job done right turn out wrong.
If a writer opts to skip the solid foundation of pre-writing, he'll probably have trouble all through the project, especially at the end, when he has a massive stack of pages that somehow have to be fixed. An experienced writer may well be able to correct the crux of a story's problems without starting from scratch, but this won't necessarily make the problems caused by the initial, bad foundation go away. Without a doubt, the writer will dump a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into re-working and revising the manuscript, possibly many times.
No amount of decoration will fix a story that's seriously flawed. In Novelist's Essential Guide to Creating Plot, J. Madison Davis calls this kind of fixing "patching" the story. The writer relies on patching rather than a good design. The patch drops out of nowhere into a story and forces things to go where the author wants them to. The outcome is never convincing.
Rejection from agents and editors is inevitable when a story is fundamentally flawed. Luck-makes-a-bad-choice-worth-it scenario: The author sells the work to a publisher. Reviewers will then probably do what they always do--without mercy--and perhaps the author will see the wisdom of starting each future project with a solid foundation. For a published author with a supportive publisher, we can only hope that, if readers don't come back for more, the author doesn't give up, but instead endeavors from that point on to build soundly from the get-go.
It's never productive to plunge into a story and write endless pages that either get discarded or have to be laboriously re-shaped. If you know your story and conflicts before you start writing, you can focus on scenes that work and advance the plot. Knowing your story from start to finish before writing the first draft will allow you to convey the character's emotions more clearly through whatever he faces. Knowing your story gives you the edge to create tense scenes because you'll be aware of what's at stake in the end. Additionally, effective foreshadowing is done best when you know where the story is going from the first word written. You'll know your character so intimately, you'll have no doubt how he'll react to each obstacle you put in his path.
First, make certain you have a story foundation that can support the framework you build onto it afterwards. Don't move forward into writing the first draft until you have that.
Revising a story, like decorating a house, should be the final step in the process. These layering steps should done in the right order--never simultaneously--to complete a solid, pleasing novel that is fully realized and irresistible.
LAYERING TO GAIN COHESION
We've established, from comparing the process of building a house to the process of building a story, that there are three distinct layering steps. In building a house, these are:
Stage 1: Planning for and laying a foundation
Stage 2: Building
Stage 3: Decorating
In building a story, there are three distinct layering steps:
Stage 1: Planning for and laying a foundation
Stage 2: Writing
Stage 3: Revising
Each stage in building a house involves a variety of steps, such as picking out a plot to build on, working plans around the unique aspects of that plot, excavation, and a variety of installations. In writing, each of the three layering stages is distinct, and also consists of several steps. The first layer, planning and blueprinting, has four steps:
- Story blueprinting
- Setting the story blueprint aside
Writing, like framework in building a house, is the second layer, and also involves four steps:
- Building a cohesive story with a Story Plan Checklist
- Evaluating the blueprint
- Writing the first draft
- Creating a punch list
Finally, the third layer, revising, requires four distinct steps:
- Involving critique partners
- Setting the final draft aside
- Final editing and polishing
Then we get to Layer IV--which involves preparing your work for submission. This layer isn't about crafting your story, per se, but it's too important to ignore. Think of it as preparing to sell the house you worked so hard to build.
The Merits of Layering
Without layering, a story is one-dimensional, unbelievable, boring. But with proper layering, the characters will become so lifelike, readers may believe they're fully capable of stepping right off the pages into the room. Layering means strength in story-building just as it does in house-building: stronger plots, suspense, intrigue, emotions, motivations, stronger everything. More reason for editors to love you and for readers to come back again and again.
Layering has another component that writers should take into account. Layering a story produces cohesion between all of the story elements.
The word cohesive brings to mind many concepts. You might think of the cohesion of a symbiotic relationship. The symbiont becomes one with its host. Separating the two is difficult (if not impossible) and, in some instances, unwise, as both may lose something vital they can no longer live without. The elements of a story work together in symbiotic cohesion.
Some dictionary definitions that really show the perimeters of the wonderful word cohesive are: "logically connected, consistent; having a natural agreement of part, harmonious; the act or state of uniting and sticking together; the molecular force between particles within a body or substance that acts to unite them; of or pertaining to the molecular force within a body or substance acting to unite its parts."
I particularly like that last part because it so perfectly describes what happens when all the elements of your story fit together. It's as if some elemental force draws each part of a story together and then fuses them until they become one and are unable to be separated.
The amazing part of this process is that it works uniquely for every single writer. In other words, if you gave the same basic idea to writers in every genre, each would come up with something different. In Breathing Life Into Your Characters, Rachel Ballon, says, "There is nobody else in the world exactly like you, and nobody but you can write the story you want to tell." We'll test that in the exercises included in Appendix D.
A builder knows the best supplies to use to produce a sound house, just as plumbers and electricians follow the guidelines and regulations of their professions. And a home decorator would never put together elements that are grossly at odds. His job is to create something that's both pleasing to the eye and perfectly suited to the individuals in the home.
In the same way, the three main story elements of character, plot, and setting must be cohesive and work together in such a way that taking away a single element would be impossible because all of the elements have seamlessly become a part of each other. They complement each other and work together to make the plot impenetrable and airtight.
The best reason I've heard for building cohesion into your story is from Debra Dixon in Goal, Motivation & Conflict (GMC): If characters, conflicts, goals and motivations don't intersect and collide, you're writing separate books in
the same manuscript. The process by which a writer builds cohesion is one of layering and building up and bringing together the strengths of all aspects within his story.
HOW TO USE THIS BOOK
The purpose of Cohesive Story Building is to show you the three distinctive layers of a story and how to build utterly solid, cohesive story elements. Cohesion needs to start immediately, even during the brainstorming phase, and it's crucial that it be maintained throughout the preliminary sketching and outlining of your story. Characters must blend in naturally with your setting, just as your plot must be an organic part of your character and setting. If a story doesn't work, it very likely because your story elements aren't cohesive. In this book, I'll show you how each element depends on the other two, and how to mix them until they fuse irrevocably.
This book is broken down into four main chapters, or layers, followed by six appendices.
Layer I focuses on planning for and laying the foundation of a book, and will give you a concise guideline to creating an outline that includes each scene of your book.
Layer II is actually divided into two separate parts: A and B. Part A explores the steps involved in building on the foundation with the development of a Story Plan Checklist, which essentially functions as the cohesive framework of your story. Then you'll evaluate this blueprint you've created to guide the writing of your book. In Part B, we'll discuss writing the first draft using the outline and Story Building Checklist, and, finally, creating a final list of work to be done with the revision.
Layer III covers the final layer of a story--specifically, revising, editing, and polishing.
Layer IV acts as a thorough walk-through of the three steps involved with preparing a proposal (and creating a synopsis based on your Story Plan Checklist).
The six appendices contain all the supplemental materials you'll need to work your way through the story-building process:
- Appendix A contains a glossary that includes key terms discussed within this book. If you ever get confused about what a term means, just consult the glossary.
- Appendix B contains crucial checklists to see you through the building phase (such as a Story Plan Checklist template).
- Appendix C contains Story Plan Checklist examples of several popular novels.
- Appendix D gives a Story Plan Checklist exercise to help build your cohesion skills.
- Appendix E gives a number of passages to help you to refine your editing and polishing skills.
- Appendix F contains submission package examples.
Using First Draft in 30 Days and Cohesive Story Building Together
Many who have read my writing reference on outlining, First Draft in 30 Days, published by Writer's Digest Books (as the first edition of this book originally was) will find Cohesive Story Building a perfect companion to that book. By default, an in-depth system for novel writing like the one in First Draft in 30 Days encourages and supports story consistency and cohesion.
In an ideal situation, a writer goes through the following twelve steps to get a finished book:
- Completing a Story Plan Checklist
- Setting aside the project
- Evaluating the outline
- Writing the first draft
- Setting aside the project
- Revising the first draft
- Setting aside the project
- Editing and polishing
- Creating a proposal
Cohesive Story Building will take you through every single one of these steps--without duplication what's already been covered in First Draft in 30 Days.
Layer I of Cohesive Story Building touches on some of the same processes examined in-depth in First Draft in 30 Days. In that book, I talked widely about the essential requirements of brainstorming, pre-writing and, yes, outlining to write a solid story. Why revisit that topic here? Because it's that important and it's an essential part of completing a first draft and a finished novel! An outline has the dual purpose of creating a firm foundation for a story as well as putting the hard work of writing where it belongs--at the beginning a project. If you work out the kinks in the story at the get-go (using whatever form of a guide you prefer to work with), you ensure that the writing and revising are the easy parts. Best of all, what you end up with is utterly solid, requiring only minor editing and polishing to make it publishable.
However, I do want to stress that Cohesive Story Building is not another outline book, like First Draft in 30 Days. This new book focuses on ensuring cohesion between character, setting and plot. The Story Plan Checklist, covered in Layer II, is the means in which you'll do that. Why is this checklist so essential? Because it's vitally important that you see the major points of your story in condensed form in order to gain cohesion of characters, settings and plot in your own work. This checklist connects all the dots and thereby guarantees cohesion. Used together, your outline and Story Plan Checklist will help you write a "final draft quality" first draft that really will be something amazing.
Following the Layer I preliminary sketching and outlining discussion, we'll move on to Layer II and start the story-building process with the Story Plan Checklist, which leads us to where, in many ways, First Draft in 30 Days left off--the writing of the book. Cohesive Story Building goes deeper than the natural cohesion that weaves together a story during outlining, completing the Story Plan Checklist, and writing.
The reason I've placed the elements of cohesion in Layer II of this book, instead of in the planning stage (Layer I), is because in completing a Story Plan Checklist you're really going to see the miracle of wonderfully intersecting character, setting, and plot. The checklist will complete both your outline and your first draft by confirming that you've connected every cohesive dot from start to finish.
If the First Draft in 30 Days method worked for you and you want to enhance your story-building, use both books together. While it's not necessary to actually merge your outline and Story Plan Checklist into the same document, I will give you an example later in this book of how to use the two together to write your first draft.
See the Story Plan Checklist Method in Action
Speaking of the Story Plan Checklist in Layer II, you'll get the chance to see it in action when I use a best-selling mystery novel to demonstrate each step in creating a checklist of your very own.
I do want to assure you that the Story Plan Checklist is versatile. I use a mystery novel as the main example in Layer II, but you can use the Story Plan Checklist for every single genre of fiction, no matter how short or long your work is. I've included example checklists in Appendix C for an action/adventure romantic suspense novel, a horror novel, a young adult fantasy novel, and a mainstream literary fiction novel.
Please note that all of the examples in this book contain major spoilers. If you haven't already read the books used and want to, do so before you go over the examples, as the checklist contains the entire plot of each book in consolidated form.
Whether You're Starting a New Project or Working on an Old One...
Though this book assumes you'll be using this method for a brand new project, you might be wondering if you can use the Story Plan Checklist with a book you've written one or more drafts of that needs more work. Yes! Those previous drafts are the basic "outline" you need. The checklist will then help you pinpoint the problem areas and/or a lack of cohesion that plagued previous drafts of your story.
Also, in an attempt to clear up any confusion that may be caused later, I want to point out that the Story Plan Checklists created in this book from bestselling novels are very detailed and long. The reason that is because these examples have to make sense of the stories presented and something much shorter might have confused readers. (Remember: Your Story Plan Checklist probably won't make much sense to anyone but you, at least not until you turn it into a synopsis, and we'll talk about that in Layer IV.) While you might get the impression from these that most checklists of this kind are detailed or long, the fact is that your own (if written in conjunction with your outline) will probably be very short, at maybe five page--ten at the absolute most. Compare that to a 35-50-page outline of a 75,000- to 100,000-word novel. The checklist hits the major points while the outline covers the book scene by scene. Used together, you'll absolutely eliminate the guesswork involved in writing your book.
If your character, setting, and plot are truly cohesive, writing your story will take your breath away. It'll fill your every waking thought, infuse you with constant inspiration and the desperate need to enter the irresistible world you've created to see what happens next. You won't want to leave it--who needs to sleep and eat? It will no doubt even affect your moods as you feel everything your characters do. You may find yourself muttering odd things that make sense only to you. Friends will comment on the faraway look in your eyes. Those who know you well will surely understand that you're off in writers' la-la land again--best not to disturb you until you're bursting to tell them what you've discovered. These things are what make writing both crazy and wonderful.
My hope is that Cohesive Story Building will give you a solid plan of action from start to finish through in-depth examples and exercises, and that the leave-no-stone-unturned checklists will help you take the plan into your own writing. This layering process sets up the stages necessary to complete a cohesive, irresistible dream-novel that is hauntingly unforgettable to everyone who reads it.
One final note: The checklists used in this book are available separately in an electronic, useable file. Click on the "Writing Reference" button on my Web site for more details about where to purchase this file: www.karenwiesner.com.