Today we continue our discussion on the creative writing process.
When we began our discussion on creative writing, we covered the basics, such as plotting story beats and breakdowns. This time, we’re going to get into the meat of the matter and do some serious writing! We’re going to be fleshing out the skeleton of a draft you have on your hands, by this point.
If your story seems to be flowing well, even before you put little details into it, then you’ll have an easier time of some of the things this blog post will cover than if you start writing and hope to pull it apart and re-align it, later. Short of that, however, you shouldn’t feel bad if a central theme or some of the deeper aspects of storytelling aren’t present just yet. We’ll be covering them, next time.
One thing you can do if you find your story doesn’t have the kind of flow you want it to, or if you think you would like it to be a bit more solid, is to break down your plot points. Most stories have at least an A and a B plot, and often, C, D, and E plots, too. Your A plot will be your central story – it involves the main tale which is being told. B through Z plots are all secondary, and it’s up to you to keep track of them alongside your A plot so the whole of the story can dovetail and make a great ending.
As a general rule, when it comes to content I often allocate 60% of my story to the A plot, then the remaining 40% to my B, C, D, etc. plots. None can be more important than the other in terms of the audience’s interest in its resolution, but the A plot should be more important in terms of what is being resolved, and especially if your story is one piece of a bigger continuity. For example, my A plot may involve my main character going on a journey to recover a hidden treasure, and my B plot could involve secondary characters staying behind and getting into trouble without the main character there to help them.
When you square away your A plot and its subplots, you can begin to do some long-form writing by following your breakdowns and story beats, and fleshing them out. If we talk about the writing process in the same way we'd talk about sculpting something, doing story breakdowns would be akin to setting up armature wire, and at this point we're ready to pile on some clay and begin to give our piece some shape. There are of course, many things to keep in mind as you write and they all go beyond the basics such as spelling and grammar.
Now is the time to decide if you’re going to be telling a plot-centric tale or a character-centric one. As I alluded to last time, sometimes you know which your story will be, right from the get-go. Sometimes it’ll take some feeling-out. Look at your outline and ask yourself if there’s more plot than character interaction, or vice-versa. If it’s even, then you may simply choose one or the other, or go with your strengths.
This should set you up to decide what narrative mode the story will be written in -- again, that is if you haven’t already figured that out. Third-person limited and first-person are often the most popular and I recommend them more than their omniscient counterparts to new writers. You may think these are terms for novel-writers only, but they are equally important for comic book writers to familiarize themselves with.
In my mind, omniscience is key and which person is in charge of it all is secondary. As a general rule, each chapter of a story should not go outside the boundaries of any one character’s point-of-view. In a third-person-limited story, for example, it is considered bad form to allow the audience insight into a character’s thoughts, and then into another’s without a means for doing so from the main character’s perspective. “Joe thought about a purple cow and Jane thought about a chicken.” would be better served as, “Joe thought about a purple cow and he could tell Jane was thinking about a chicken.” as it does not imply an omniscient point-of-view and clearly marks Joe as the important figure of the tale.
When you’re sitting down to your keyboard, and your first words are flowing, consider focusing on your characters to keep things natural. Ideally, characters and plot work simultaneously, but that’s not something we always see at this stage. Now is the time to get acquainted with the “feel” of a certain character, a setting and a world in general. There will be plenty of time for editing, and we’ll certainly be doing plenty of that, next time, so write to your heart's content!
Not worrying about what you’re keeping in and removing at this point is absolutely okay. You will write things that neither advance your story or do a particularly good job of defining character, and that’s also just fine. Do try to keep it in mind, but with the understanding that a little fluff won’t hurt you now, and in fact, may inspire you to jot down some really brilliant things as you go.
Writing dialogue is one of the most important tasks you’ll be tackling at this point. I’ll happily admit this: Dialogue or speech is sometimes a headache for yours truly. The golden rule is generally assumed to be this: Write your dialogue as if it didn’t require you defining whose mouth it came from. With practice, you should be able to write a line of speech and have your audience (and certainly yourself) immediately recognize who said it. And this is more than attributing accents or dialects – it gets right down to which words a character selects for their normal speech. As I said, it sometimes takes practice to not give a character lines which would be more akin to the ways you yourself speak, but it’s worth the time to commit to learning this very important skill (and you can indeed learn it)!
Try speaking your dialogue out loud. Does it sound funny to you, or does it sound like something you yourself would say? If you’ve got a good support network, get the opinion of a friend. People are quite valuable at this point in the writing process, if you have some good ones to lean on.
Of course, other people can also bring real headaches to your writing, especially if their critique is not what you were expecting. Go with your gut. If they point out something you yourself thought was wrong, then fix it. If someone has an issue with something you thought was great, then reevaluate it or get a second opinion before you erase it.
It’s always bad to write plot just for the sake of plot. If you go on for twenty, two-hundred or two thousand pages of an outline and get no deeper than, “this happens”, then you’ll bore everyone in your audience to tears. Far better you get used to writing “this happens so that this happens” and better still, “this happens, then this happens, so that this can happen”.
When moving your plot along, it’s also important to step into your protagonist’s shoes. How would you feel if the things happening to them, were instead happening to you? How can you best set up the plot around your character so that their experience becomes the reader’s? Set-ups are made this way: by the simple act of positioning a precursor to a conflict or other action. You may start out by showing a character getting ready for a big date, being nervous, and giving a sense that a lot rests on the outcome, before you show people a marriage proposal, as an example.
Naturally, this part of the writing process is going to take the longest, and you are certainly going to want to take breaks when you feel uninspired or when the dreaded writer's block hits. My best advice for combating writer's block, is this: don't ever waste a good idea. If you get a thought for a great plot twist or something that'll otherwise really grab your audience, don't wait to use it. See how it could fit your block, now, and use it right away if you can. I promise, another idea will come to you, later.
When you've finally finished your manuscript, you are ready to do some editing, which we'll cover in a blog post, next week! Stay creative until then!