Starting Again

by Lynda Davies

 

I am in the throes of editing a manuscript I have been working with for some time now and as you can imagine I am comfortable with it, familiar with it, I know my characters, and I know where the story is going.

So the thought of: "what next?" and "starting again" was a little daunting. But that is what I want to write about today. How do we go about starting again? What have we learned from our editing experiences that we can apply to our next project?

Structures and Outlines: a prompt sheet

Looking at a blank piece of paper was both scary and invigorating. I divided it into three sections: Act I, Act II, Act III and then started populating it with prompts to guide my thinking about the new story. 

These prompts combine aspects that we've talked about before, and they're broad brush because we'll fill them in with more and more detail as the story develops its character. The important thing is that we start thinking structurally, or strategically, to answer the 'big questions' first. These structural questions will give our story direction and shape. Then we'll tighten the focus and start filling in the "how" and "what" of the outline.

Here's what my prompt sheet looks like.


STORY PLAN

Opening scene?

ACT I: Structure

Inciting Incident?

Text/subtext: What is happening on the surface? What is happening underneath?

What are the pressures being applied to the characters?

What is the conflict they are facing?

What is the turning point or climax to this sequence/Act?

What are the choices they face?

(NOTE: get to the turning point at the end of Act I reasonably quickly. The main part of the action is in Acts II and III. Don't make your readers wait too long for the moment when 'things change and begin to happen'.)


ACT I: Chapter (scene) Outlines

What is this chapter's job?

What are the key points occurring in this chapter? (think mud-map)

(NOTE: Remember to number your chapters Act I, Chapter .... to help remind you where you are in your structure and story arc.)


ACT II: Structure

Text/subtext: What is happening on the surface? What is happening underneath?

What are the pressures being applied to the characters?

What is the conflict they are facing?

What is the turning point or climax to this sequence/Act?

What are the choices they face?

(NOTE: the choices have to be getting harder in this Act and the turning point leads into the climax of the story. Bring together the threads from Acts I and II and set the stakes higher for the final Act.)


ACT II: Chapter (scene) Outlines

What is this chapter's job?

What are the key points occurring in this chapter? (think mud-map)

(NOTE: Remember to number your chapters Act II, Chapter .... to help remind you where you are in your structure and story arc.)


ACT III: Structure

Text/subtext: What is happening on the surface? What is happening underneath?

What are the pressures being applied to the characters?

What is the conflict they are facing?

What is the turning point or climax to this sequence/Act?

What are the choices they face?

(NOTE: What is the story climax? What has changed irrevocably for the characters since the inciting incident? Did the characters get what they wanted, or thought they wanted? Is this a satisfying ending?)


ACT III: Chapter (scene) Outlines

What is this chapter's job?

What are the key points occurring in this chapter? (think mud-map)

(NOTE: Remember to number your chapters Act III, Chapter .... to help remind you where you are in your structure and story arc.)

(NOTE: I have set the prompt sheets  up as two tables - one Structure Page per Act and a continuous Chapter Outline table per Act that puts the Act number, chapter number and title in the first column; the "what is this chapter's job?" prompt in the middle column; and the "Key Points" in the third column. If you like tables, this is an easy format to follow and up-date.)

Characters: where are they?

Looking over my prompt sheet, I am conscious that our characters are implicitly involved in the story's plan in terms of choices, conflicts, inciting incidents, and satisfying endings. We could make a big mistake, however, if we leave their development in this implicit state.

We need to draw our characters from the start, letting them take shape in our minds and grow as the story progresses. It is vital we don't forget them. I know this sounds bizarre since stories are about the characters we push into situations where they have to make choices and respond.

To enable them to behave credibly we need to get to know them. I was shocked a little while ago when one of my supervisors asked me what does the lead character in my novel read, what music does he listen to, and what are his favourite things to do? I had got to the final editing stage and didn't know. While those questions might sound a little superficial, the fact that I couldn't answer them immediately showed that I didn't really know my character as a well-rounded person. When I was forcing him to make choices, therefore, I wasn't necessarily getting the most out of him because I hadn't taken the time to think him through as deeply as I could have.  (I'm pleased to say that addressing this oversight has given the character much more 'edge' and 'depth' and his interactions with others have improved, too!)

To overcome this mistake I'll be using a character profile sheet (developed for that other novel I wrote last year with my son's class) as part of my prompt sheet planning process.


CHARACTER PROFILE

(NOTE: I set this up as a table and fill it in for each of my significant characters. It really helps when visualising and realising the character.)

Name

Meaning of Name

Age

Gender

Hair

Eyes

Height

Personality

Clothes

Skills/hobbies

Favourite things to do

Lives

School/work

Relationships in the novel

 

Using the Prompt Sheets and Character Profiles

You know that I like plans - yet I also recognise that we have to allow space for the spontaneous surprises that come our way as we write. What the prompt sheet and the character profiles will help us do, however, is to think about our story's purpose. What are sharing with our readers? Why are writing this? Let's not get to the end of our first draft and find that we've waffled our way to the end. That will make our editing job so much harder.

If we can structure our story from the start, if we can set out our goals and turning points explicitly, then hopefully we'll have a much tighter first draft.

Sure, things are going to change as we write - that's only natural as the story matures in our imagination. But if we have a desired outcome and a plan to achieve it, then when we're faced with those points of departure, we'll be able to make informed choices. We can decide where our story goes rather than just find ourselves at an unanticipated destination at the end simply because we didn't know which way to turn back on page 35, or 78, or 115.

We'll be able to decide what to keep, what to change, what to add and what to ditch in order to make 'room' in our story's development. In some ways, this first phase of planning is an organic selection of ideas, people and events and the prompt sheets are our recipe: setting out the ingredients and providing a method of combining and transforming them into a meal.

Until next time,

Lynda.

© Lynda Davies

 

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