Finding The Bones of Your Story
(That’s my Milly, who loves finding bones of any sort)
Okay, we’ve battled the dark forces of procrastination and perfectionism (and for some of us the battle is won but the war continues) and we’ve started our story.
Do you plunge in with joy, or are you a prowl round the edges type, examining your idea from every angle before you start? People are always asking writers whether they’re a plotter or a pantser — I like to say I’m both. I don’t usually have the story worked out in advance (though I often wish I did) but I have a vague idea of where it’s headed, and I plot obsessively—all the time— while I’m writing.
I plot and replot, refining this thread, clarifying that conflict, pulling apart the opening so the story starts at a better angle, going back over a scene to give it a sharper edge, cutting out other scenes because while I thought I knew what the main conflict was when I started, I now know what it really is. And usually I write the final version of the start when I’ve finished the whole book — because then I know what my story is.
But every writer is different. And I don’t know about you, but my writing process is constantly evolving. I’m always up for trying new things and I love learning about how other writers work.
Some writers start with a situation. A “what- if.”
Ask yourself a question or a problem that isn’t easily solved or answered. Starting with a “what if” can really help you set up a strong premise for a story.
eg. What if a man who didn’t want to get married could only inherit a fortune if he got married? What are his options?
1) Pay a woman to marry him and plan to divorce later? That’d work in a contemporary story. Not so much in a historical, where divorce wasn’t easily obtained. But what if he thought he could get the marriage annulled? And was wrong. (I used this in Bride By Mistake)
2) Marry a dying woman? That’d work, too. But what if she didn’t die? (I used this one in a novella called The Mistletoe Bride, part of a Christmas anthology called Mischief and Mistletoe.)
3) In a temper, vow to marry the first eligible woman he sees. (I used this in The Laird’s Vow, and Georgette Heyer used it in Friday’s Child.)
Brainstorming further options for your “what-if” can give you a range of choices. Choose the one you think has the strongest and most emotional conflict potential.
Sometimes a “what-if” has become so popular that it has become a trope.
Some writers begin by deciding on the trope they’re going to explore— in romance a trope might be; convenient marriage, beauty and the beast, friends to lovers, amnesia, bad boy/good girl, etc. You get the idea. There are plenty more.
Tropes exist because they are hugely popular with readers. Each trope brings with it certain reader expectations, and understanding how and why the trope works, and why readers love a particular trope is important.
In some cases a trope can help you with your plot — for instance in a “secret baby” story there will be a scene where the hero first discovers he’s a father. Sometimes it’s when he first meets the child, in other cases, the first meeting of the child is another scene. For “pantsers” this can help you work out some of the scenes in your plot.
On the other hand, know that if you’re writing a “convenient marriage” story, your readers will have read many, many stories with that trope — so how can you make your story fresh, fun and different?
Try to work out a way of surprising the reader; a good surprise planted in the middle of a beloved plot is a delight.
Many writers start with characters. For me, a story only has legs once my characters are on the page, talking and interacting as if they have a life of their own.
Sometimes I’ve chosen a trope and a situation but the characters simply would not come at it. “I wouldn’t do that,” they’ll mutter. They’ll become wooden, sullen, lifeless. The solution—change the characters or change the plot.
Sometimes all that’s needed is a name change. Sounds bizarre, I know—I mean, a rose by any other name smells as sweet—right? Not in writing, at least not for me. A few chapters into an early draft of The Autumn Bride, I realised my heroine was a bit priggish and righteous. I hated her. I changed her name to Abby and a new heroine sprang to life, warm, courageous and loveable. The same thing happened in Tallie’s Knight — she was called Serena in an early draft, but she wasn’t a Serena, and when I changed her name to Tallie, she revealed herself as a quite different character and came alive on the page.
And then sometimes it’s just a gift from the muse. But more of that —the muse, and how to manage and encourage her — next time.
Until then, keep writing.