Monday, October 08, 2007

Shaping the Story

Question of the week: How do you learn to do it? I realize this is a huge question, and that there are many books written on this subject, but I'd like some personal responses too. I just finished a beautiful book (Blue Diary, by Alice Hoffman) and it reinforces the fact that I have no idea how to do that -- how to shape and tell a story from so many angles, how to illustrate characters in such a way that they're living and breathing people. I have the basic outline of an idea, and I'm working at it, but I have no idea how to shape and mold it into something beautiful.

(Disclaimer: this was posted on one of my fiction forums, and I responded to the poster with my answer. A lot of people chimed in that my answer was really helpful, so the poster gave me permission to share both her question and my answer here.)

Very, very good question. I can only speak from my experience, which, I think, is different from a lot of other people's. I learned on the job. I didn't read any book on how to write, though I'm sure those would have been helpful, but frankly, I'm just not a "here's how you do something" reader. Self-help books have never appealed to me.

Instead, I wrote a book that, looking back on it now, wasn't particularly good. But it got me an agent who showed me how to revise it to make it better. One thing that we really worked on was showing, not telling, and I think that this is a huge trap that new fiction writers can fall into. Exposition is so easy to write...and SO boring to read. No one wants or needs to be inside of the head of your character all the time; what they want instead is to read about how your character's actions translate into what is going on inside of her head. Don't write an entire chapter about how she's so pissed off, and how's she's thinking about how she's so pissed off. Instead, show her going to the gym and blowing off steam or snapping at her significant other because she doesn't have another outlet for it. Or whatever. So...I trained myself to really be on the lookout for any instances in which I told, not showed. And every time I saw one of those moments, I edited them into actionable scenes, usually by putting in dialogue and drawing the reader in that way.

Another thing that I didn't realize I had to do, and thus the ms stagnated at times, was add more conflict and obstacles for my characters. Your characters need to be on a journey, and the only way that they can get from point A to point B is to deal with problems and difficulties. So you have to throw the book at them: relationship, work, family, emotional, etc, problems. If you sit down with your characters and do this, often times, plots can emerge because you have to figure out how to resolve these issues for your characters...and that becomes the story.

For example, in The Department, my heroine decides to take a look at the wreckage of her romantic life. Her boyfriend has just left her (problem) and she has no one to lean on while undergoing chemotherapy (problem) and is oddly attracted to her good friend's ex/OBYGN (problem). So, I sat down with my character and thought, "How would she come out of this with new knowledge that can make her a better person and partner, and thus allow her to potentially be in a thriving relationship at the end of the book?" And for me, what emerged was that my protagonist was going to retrace her romantic history by tracking down her former loves to see where things went wrong and what she might learn from that. So that was the story arc for that particular problem in her life. (Which, of course, also opened up other issues as she went along.) As I wrote the book, I wove in these scenes and the plot/story arc created itself.

Does that make sense? I hope that helps!

Oh, I should add that the manuscript that this agent took on never sold. And in hindsight, it shouldn't have. I reread it recently, and man, it sucked. Sometimes, you just have to write to improve your skills, and I look at that book as my minor league helped me get to the majors, even though the book itself lead nowhere.

So, writers and authors out there, how do you mold and shape an idea into a bigger story and concept?


Patti said...

just to clarify: did your agent take you on based on that first book?! and if so, how did that happen?

Allison Winn Scotch said...

Hey Patti,

Sorry, I should have been more clear. Actually, this was a different agent than my current one. My current one came on board with The Department.

Hope that helps!

Anonymous said...

Allison, I have been reading your posts in a reader for way too long. So hello!

Thank you for the generosity of this post. I often think that it's the basics that trip us up, and going back to the basics is one of the best exercises we can do for our writing. I'd like to add one other to the mix: Unintentional POV shifts.

Your first agent obviously saw something in your writing that transcended the mistakes you may have made, and that's a wonderful thing.

I LOVE reading your posts. You are such a great gift to all of us traveling the same path.

Carleen Brice said...

One of the things I've learned to do (and continue to learn to do) is to not close off my story. I have a tendency for a character to go from A to Z in a single scene, rather than let her go from A to E in one scene and E to L in one scene and so on. I think it comes from "writing short" as a journalist and PR person. I also still am seeing where I tell and not show, and strangely, also where I do the opposite. I'm NOT good at exposition so EVERYTHING becomes a scene and some things just don't need a scene. I mean really, the details of getting dressed and starting your car...who cares? :)