Really, your story can only be great. But it all adds up to nothing.
In spite the obvious, shining promise of it, there comes a moment when you realize that the whisper that has been pestering you all along from the back of your mind is speaking the flat, awful truth: IT WON'T WORK.
An element is missing, that spark that brings to life in a real story, regardless of whether the history or the food is right.
Your story is emotionally dead, that's the crux of it.
The discovery is something soul-destroying, I tell you. It leaves you with an aching hunger.”
― Yann Martel
This week, I'm going to explore the relationship between idea (premise), plot, theme, setting, and character, and how to use one to fuel the others. I am big on plot—I can complicate the heck out of things. But what I am finding is that clarity and character are my weaknesses. I always think I know my character, but I am so busy focusing on what I think she has to learn, that I don't put enough thought into how to convey how and where she begins. The journey, especially a character's journey, is the distance between two points. In the case of character, that distance is a series of hurdles and gates and jumps, but it is nevertheless a straight line without digressions. That means theme must integrate tightly into plot and character, because otherwise there isn't room for it. And without theme, there is no meaning to the plot.
Theme = The covert point of the story
"Fiction is most effective when its themes are unspoken. An ideal fiction has a kind of thematic ghostliness, whereby the novel marks its meanings most strongly as it passes, as it disappears, rather as on a street snow gets dirtier, more marked, as it disappears.” James Wood
Often, the theme is the thing that makes us want to tell the story in the first place. But it's not what we should answer when someone asks us "What's your story about?" Lisa Cron likens theme to an iceberg, mostly beneath the surface. She also points out that "knowing the theme in advance helps, because it gives you a gauge by which to measure your characters' responses to the situations they find themselves in."
Ideally, there's a formula to how different elements in a story relate to each other.
Plot = CHARACTER dealing with OPPOSITION that forces her to confront DEEPEST FEAR OR MISCONCEPTION to illustrate THEME in a SETTING that creates obstacles and illustrates THEME.
Or according to Lisa Cron:
Plot = The gauntlet of challenge you construct for your protagonist by cherry-picking events
I suck at math. Seriously. My mother is a math teacher, my dad is a nuclear physicist, and I can barely add two plus two. Which is why I still have trouble applying all these wonderful, logical secrets of story that make sense when I think about them. But examining the above formula makes me realize I have haven't been looking at character deeply enough in the past.
As I've said before, I'm a closet pantser. I hate to hunker down and trudge through worksheets, but my brain works best when I write or type things out. In my past books, I've forced myself to do one pass at character, one pass at plot, then a discovery draft, and then endless, mostly non-productive tweaking and tweaking and enjoying all the joy of discovering the new things that pop in seemingly out of the blue.
The interesting thing is that with each new book, I have actually done more layers of planning. The more I have planned, the deeper I have gone into character, the more things I discovered about theme. And the more I discovered that the things that happen in the plot related to my theme in ways I hadn't planned.
Allowing Deeper Discovery
This time, as I am planning my NaNoWriMo novel, I am going even deeper. Last year, my process looked like this:
Idea >> One Sentence Premise >> Conflict Worksheet >> Character Worksheets for Protag, Co-Protag, Antag >> Backstory >> Emotional Turning Points >> Complications Worksheet >> Setting Worksheet >> Discovery Draft
My process this year is looking more like this:
Idea >> One Sentence Premise >> Conflict Worksheet >> Character Worksheets for Protag, Co-Protag, Antag >> Setting Worksheet >> Discovery Draft >> Backstory >> Emotional Turning Points >> Complications Worksheet >> One Sentence Premise >> Conflict >> Conflict Worksheet >> Character Worksheets for Protag, Co-Protag, Antag >> Backstory >> Emotional Turning Points >> Complications Worksheet >> Setting Worksheet >> One Sentence Premise >> >> Conflict Worksheet >> Character Worksheets for Protag, Co-Protag, Antag >> Backstory >> Emotional Turning Points >> Complications Worksheet >> One Sentence Premise >> >> Conflict Worksheet >> Character Worksheets for Protag, Co-Protag, Antag >> Backstory >> Emotional Turning Points >> Complications Worksheet >> One Sentence Premise >> Conflict >> Conflict Worksheet >> Character Worksheets for Protag, Co-Protag, Antag >> Backstory >> Emotional Turning Points >> Complications Worksheet >> One Sentence Premise >> >> Conflict Worksheet >> Character Worksheets for Protag, Co-Protag, Antag >> Backstory >> Emotional Turning Points >> Complications Worksheet >> Setting Worksheet >> One Sentence Premise >> First Real Draft
The first pass with each worksheet develops the framework. It lets me find, as Lisa Cron succinctly puts it, "the specific before that leads to the moment when everything is in flux." She also points out that the "before will yield information you'll then seed into the story you're telling so the reader understandds what the protagonist is changing from." "The before is the yardstick that allows the reader to measure the protagonist progress toward after." That is the framework of the story.
A discovery draft, outline, or long synopsis, tests that framework. The second pass with each worksheet incorporates all the active thinking and subconscious percolating of the things I didn't know, and gives me a mechanism to test my assumptions. It also creates my story bible.
So why the third worksheet pass?
To simplify. To distill.
"Anyone and everyone taking a writing class knows that the secret of good writing is to cut it back, pare it down, winnow, chop, hack, prune, and trim, remove every superfluous word, compress, compress, compress..." Nick Hornsby.
I overthink things. I overwrite. I overexplain. Um. I think you get the point.
Since we're breaking things down to formulas, I'm going to share another one:
Great writing = what is on the page + what isn't
"One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.” Jack Kerouac
More of a good thing isn't always better. Ultimately the reader doesn't want to work too hard. They want to be able to read and think about scene and character and action, the underlying meaning. They don't want to spend too much time thinking what sentences mean, or about symbols, or keeping track of things.
In other words, every good story has to have the basics.
Great story = solid writing + compelling, flawed character with real problem and deep wound + active plot + meaningful theme + fascinating setting + modern pacing
And one more:
The more complicated the story, the simpler we should tell it
I'm not so sure about this last one. I'm still fighting it. I hope that if I can distill enough distractions out, I can have room for the things I love as well as the story.
I'll be sharing my updated worksheets starting next week, but in the meantime, what do you think? Obviously not everyone works like I do. A lot of people can juggle all this in their heads. I wish I was one of them.
What defines a great story for you? How do you work? Have any formulas, worksheets, or tools you can share?
Who is doing NaNo?
Have a great week and happy writing!
About the Author
Martina Boone is the author of Compulsion and Persuasion, out now in the romantic Southern Gothic Heirs of Watson Island trilogy from Simon & Schuster, Simon Pulse. Illusion, the final book, will be out in October of 2016. Martina is also the founder of AdventuresInYAPublishing.com, a three-time Writer's Digest 101 Best Websites for Writers Site, and YASeriesInsiders.com, a site dedicated to encouraging literacy and reader engagement through a celebration of series literature. She's on the Board of the Literacy Council of Northern Virginia and runs the CompulsionForReading.com program to distribute books to underfunded schools and libraries.