What makes a story… a story?

I’ve spent a great deal of time wondering about the difference between “a story” and, “a sequence of events that happen to a character.” Those might appear to be synonyms, but they are not. A story — a good one, anyway — is more than just a slice of someone’s life. It does more for the reader: it comes together, it builds, it is ultimately satisfying. Each step in the story matters, and only together, do they create the outcome. A story is made up of a series of events, but not all series of events rise to the level of a story. I have a growing sense of this, and yet, I have a terribly hard time understanding how to separate the two. I often stare at my freshly-scribbled chapters unsure if I’ve just built onto my story… or if I’ve merely extended some lifeless “sequence of events.”

Context

A lot of my writing (more so earlier, I like to think) suffers from what you might call, “outline steering.” I’m sure there is an actual industry term for this, but I don’t know it. What I mean is: my characters undergo a specific journey because the plot demands it, even if the character does not.

This is mainly a consequence of being an inexperienced writer. My intuition for how much a character can and will change through certain events is not perfect, so I often expect to be ready for these scenes, only to find I’m not (or rather, the character is not).

The solution I’ve found is to let my characters take more of a driver’s seat. Trust their nature. If I reach a fork in the road that doesn’t make sense for them (and isn’t a small matter of revision in the chapters leading up), I’ll go with the character and shift the outline.

This is how I first came across the problem of defining a story. Without my outline in charge, I was doing more pantsing, inventing scenes and events to move things forward… and more and more I would find that the result seemed to be missing something. Did this scene really need to happen that way? Is this just a scene for the sake of the next scene, or does this advance the story?

So what makes a story… a story?

In case you are hoping for an answer at the end of this, I’m afraid there isn’t one coming. I don’t know what makes a story, and this post is more of a rant than a guide. In any case, I do have some ideas and I’ve spotted some patterns, but there is still a mystery to all this. Here are the things I can offer:

Change

Each chapter should act on the character in such a way that something has changed. In other words, you can step back and say, “I needed this chapter because it changed X,” where X is either the stakes or the character. One of those two needs movement.

Maybe new information has made the situation more dire; thus, we have greater stakes. Maybe a romance took a step forward; thus, a character has moved along their arc. Such changes can be small, forward, or backward, but they must be enough to leave the character in a different state than they began.

Moving a character from one town to another doesn’t do this, unless (for example) they learn something along the way. Solving one problem only to face another doesn’t do this, unless (for example) the stakes have also changed.

When you start comparing your character’s state of mind on the first page of your chapter to the last page of your chapter, it should become clear if something actually happened within them, as opposed to merely happening to them. I’ve found this a very useful guide.

I think the dichotomy between a story and a mere sequence of events comes down to that. If every chapter causes a change, building on the previous change, you end up with a sequence you can’t really break or substitute. You end up with a sequence that is also telling the story of a character’s changes. This helps to create the ending that ties it all together, instead of just adding words or scenes that didn’t carry their weight.

The Ending

Endings are an important aspect in this as well. A story has a climax and a conclusion, and those two need to reward the reader (in one way or another) for the effort they’ve dedicated to reading. Without something to tie together what came before, you may well find your exciting and action-packed chapters fizzle into nothing when considered as a whole.

I’ve identified three items that have a place in almost all good endings, each for intuitive reasons. I speak in absolute terms below for simplicity, but obviously, exceptions to each point readily exist.

Inevitability

The plot needs to reach a point of no return, one that forces the ramp up into the climax and the inevitable fallout after.

This makes sense. You don’t want your characters to be able to walk away. If they can, why don’t they? Something about their nature, or about the situation, ought to lock them on their course. You are telling a story about something, after all, and as you approach that key essence, you want the tension to escalate and the stakes to escalate in order to do it justice. How can you do that if the entire sequence was optional to the invested characters?

This ties back to the idea of every chapter making some change. The changes are working towards a goal, and after a while, there is no turning back from slamming into that goal for better or worse. If you haven’t reached that sense of “no return,” then maybe your chapters aren’t changing enough or else they aren’t converging.  Which leads to…..

Convergence

At some point, your character arcs need to align with the plot arc to converge on a common cause (or on various sides of that common cause). This is the essence of the climax, the “it all comes down to this” moment. More than that, all this work to build your characters was in order to deliver a payoff scene at the end where they succeed (or fail), learn (or don’t) and ultimately face those consequences at the end of their arc. If nothing in the character’s personal journey relates to the overall motion of the story, then instead of complimenting each other, the two arcs miss.

What, then, was the point of all that building? How does your climax pay the reader for the struggles the character has faced? How can you possibly tie things together and justify their common inclusion in your story if they don’t mesh in any way? Without some sense of payoff for these subplots, the ending won’t be very satisfying. Which leads to…..

Satisfaction

Just as a story needs to start at the right place and make the right stops along the way, it has to end at the right place as well. When it does, the result is satisfying. A story leaves you with something, and every part of the story contributed to that resonance. What makes an ending satisfying? This is a broad topic on its own, and one I don’t claim any qualifications to answer in a satisfying way (see what I did there?).

For starters, you need to address the promises you laid out in the book. Close your arcs, address your themes, and resolve your conflicts (as appropriate). I suspect the really satisfying endings feel that way BECAUSE of the above attributes. Chapters moved the characters, the climax was part of an inevitable spiral, and the arcs converged for payoffs after the climax. If each chapter was an indispensable part of the journey of changes that brought about the ending, I expect it will hit with a lot more punch.

Final thoughts

If only there was a simple formula to create compelling stories, but alas, there is not. This is a topic that continues to fascinate me as I experiment with situations, twists, and complexities, only to find out after the fact what worked and what did not. In any case, the above bullets are quite helpful to keep in mind while plotting and have helped me spot opportunities for convergence and moments of change. It remains to be seen if the end results of this effort will reach the lofty goal of “satisfying” but we’ll see. In the meantime, I intend to just keep swimming.

Course Correction

I think I just changed my ending. Quite unexpectedly, and in a big way.

I was thinking about one of the decisive conflicts in the story and I started writing it down, just to get the ideas on the page so I didn’t forget them. When I got to the essential moment of choice….. I chose the wrong thing.

Not sure why. Looking back on it now, I can impose some order on the deviation. There are a few small ways this might make the ending feel better for the reader, and in terms of character moments it is probably an equal impact but in different ways. I didn’t have these justifications in the moment, though, I just went the other way.

Such a strange thing, writing.

This won’t have much of an impact on the book itself, considering it only alters the very ending. Unfortunately it does break the larger trilogy arc in a bad way.

I guess when I get there for real, I’ll have to see which way it goes, but right now I have to admit the new one feels better for reasons I can’t really explain.

Alpha Readers

It took me a couple of months of spinning my wheels and not really making any progress, but I have finally broken free from my writers block and pushed myself to a good place.  I have about 25K words down on the page, and a pretty solid outline (minus a few specific-specifics) up to the ~75% mark in my story, then again from 90% until the end.

Now that the hair-pulling and self-pitying is safely behind me, I can spot a couple patterns in the debris field when I look over my shoulder. As the dozens of spiders / bots following this blog know, I’m in the early writing stage of my second-ever novel. This means I am still basically new to the whole process, and every slight variation I attempt becomes my first ever experiment with that variation. Some of these experiments work to my benefit, others to my detriment, but until I blunder ahead I don’t know the one from the other.

My first story came into being from within a bubble.

I was well past the 80% mark (with a clear outline of the finish) before I broke that isolation and shared a single word with alpha readers over on FWO. This wasn’t by grand design… I don’t know any writers in my personal life, and my wife does’t “get” fantasy, so that is just how it happened. In the course of workshopping that manuscript, I developed a great group of peers, and my writing capabilities certainly improved. I got all the way to the end of the manuscript with one particular partner, the mid point with another, and a couple others worked with me through the first third of the novel. By the time I got that much input, I’d learned so much that I was no longer excited by the story. It was a fun first attempt with some elements done well, many lacking, but it didn’t have the fundamentals woven in to make it a really great story. Fine, no big deal. On to book number 2!

Eager to keep a good thing going, I wasted no time connecting with some old faces, and some new, over at FWO, and I began posting my new words almost as soon as they hit my Scrivener document. I sprinted ahead, full of momentum, and the feedback started rolling in.

Then two bad things happened at the same time.

First, I discovered that the “gardener” method of writing wasn’t really for me… I need an outline. So I sat down and started outlining. It wasn’t hard — I love planning out the story and world-building the features, then finding clever ways for things to intersect. In any case, it is another crucial part of storytelling I need to keep practicing to get good.

This change of gears slowed my momentum, and as I was etching out character arcs, feedback continued to roll in. I was a couple chapters ahead of my alpha readers, so I continued to post while I worked in the background. Then the second bad thing happened.

Already weak on momentum, I was hit with the realization that my story was not manifesting the way I wanted it to. I had things planned later in the book, but the seeds weren’t planting, the character quirks weren’t coming through, too many things weren’t working for too many people! WHAT TO DO!?

Well I did what any semi-panicked novice writer would, and immediately began rewriting what I already had, trying to “fix” things so that the story was setting up the grand impact I wanted it to have.  I couldn’t allow my alpha readers go read through the whole thing and be left scratching their heads and telling me, in the end, the story didn’t really have any punch to it!  Could I?

This began a very negative feedback loop, the escape from which took over two months.

Now that I am out, I’ve learned three very important things about myself.

Momentum is essential. I’ve heard this said by other authors as well, particularly Brandon Sanderson, so I had a hunch the same might be true for me. Well it is. Each time I had to second guess where I was going, or change gears for something technical/secondary, it became harder and harder to keep going forward.

Workshopping too early is bad. I made a concerted effort to file away my feedback into a folder, expecting to dive into it in earnest only when I finished the first draft. I read everything as it came in, of course, so I could make notes of things I should adjust on the fly. Something about a character wasn’t working? I can pivot as I went. A motivation didn’t come through? I better find a way to mention it again.

This turned out to be poison, and I just don’t have the personality to ignore what people are saying and what they think. I just have to start fixing things once I know there is an issue… which stops my forward movement, but leads me to bad solutions (e.g., why add another scene about motivation when I could just fix it in the first scene later during my revision?).

My writing is still novice, but that’s okay. This is a big one for me, and the one that will take the most self control to internalize. When I re-read my own writing, before sharing it with others, I generally hate it. I might like how it flows or what happens, but the prose itself… the descriptions, the sometimes clunky or confusing way I move around… it just irks me!  I CAN DO BETTER!

… well maybe I can, but the key is not to worry about doing it now. This ties back into #2, because I have a deep issue with sharing something that I am not proud of, which means before I can post anything for review I just have to give it a once- or twice- or three-time over before I can let it out into the wild. That energy drains directly away from my momentum, and it is poorly spent. I might bang out 10K words in a week, but 9K of them were rewrites to old material just so I could post it! And furthermore, when I still don’t land on prose that I really love, it just gets me down.

So back to the bubble I must go, at least for now.

This really upsets me. I enjoy the community I have at FWO, and I don’t want to lose connections with some of the people that I’ve been working with, but I have no choice. I need to be well ahead of the material I am posting so that I can be insulated from the feedback.  If I am just a chapter ahead (or less, as it was sometimes) the feedback has too direct a channel to influence my vector, to break my stride, or to otherwise get in my head. My plan now is to get to 60K words, and THEN start posting back on FWO.  I’ll do my best in the meantime to continue providing feedback to others, with the hope they will avail themselves to me when I am ready to try this again.

Well, with that — onward!

Walking in the dark

I’m continuing to make progress on the Lunhina Trilogy, discovering the plot as I advance. While I am enjoying the process, I find it a lot harder to break into a new chapter. Without a clear plan forward, my confidence holds me back as I second guess the best place to start, the best info to drop, and the best place to end.

I think the reason for this is I know I could write the same chapter a dozen different ways… so how do I pick out the best one? I don’t want to keep rewriting the same chapters with different directions just to see, so I am relying on intuition. I suppose like anything else, this is something that will strengthen as I go. I’ll lean on feedback from my writers group to help me focus.

The other interesting thing I am finding is when I do finally lay out the plan for a chapter, it ends up becoming two or three when written. It seems that I overestimate how much I can get done in just a couple thousand words.  I am curious to see how all this pans out as it goes out for feedback, as it could be a sign I am laying words with a heavy hand, or it might just mean the organic nature of the character’s movement requires more time to complete.

Final POV locked in

Status Report: Lunhina (d1) 14,075 words.

I finished writing the first scene with my fourth POV: Svaran. I am reasonably happy with all four voices, although a little concerned the “narrator” leaks through.  Really, I should change my style of description and even my vocabulary from POV to POV, to make them fully unique.  I am not sure I can pull that off, though. I’ll wait and see what alpha feedback I get, then decide if that is necessary.

I had fun with Svaran. I gave myself a challenge, one that originally stems from Brandon Sanderson’s online lectures, and it was this: write the scene with the character and don’t EVER mention (in inner monologue or in exposition) what the character is doing. See if you can write it so that the reader figures it out on their own.  This simple-sounding exercise was quite fun and really changed the way I approached the chapter.  In the past, I would write a scene in order to communicate a specific plot step to the reader. That works, but readers enjoy figuring things out, it is what humans do in life and in social situations, and we like it.  So with this exercise, I wrote the scene without any regard for the reader, instead I just planted myself in the character’s head, and watched her do her thing.  It was surprisingly natural.

I think I got it down and I am excited to share it with my informal writing group to see how early on they can tell me what Svaran’s “deal” is.  Or if they get to the end, and can’t, well then I dropped the ball.

Anyway, it is one of a few POV/voice exercises I am working on to try and get my character voices stronger and more story-driving.

Well, that was unexpected!

Lunhina: 10.8% Draft 1

I had my first genuine “wow, I didn’t expect that” moment while writing today.  It was quite extraordinary… something I have read in other authors, but did not quite believe.  How can a character really tell you, the author, what is going to happen?

Well, turns out they can. Without an outline, you really become the character as you write, and you live with them in the moment, documenting what occurs. I was doing this in a Kinius scene, and I arrived near the end of the scene where he is injured on a boat, understaffed, and running for home.

I knew I couldn’t end the scene there… something more needed to happen, something interesting or character building at least. It seemed to me the enemy needed to find them before I could close the chapter.

BUT, I don’t want them dead! I need these characters still. How can a Galley of a hundred men catch a longboat of five, and the five come out alive (more or less)?

I stared at the page for a while on that one, and then stalled a bit by writing Kinius as he squirms and thinks.  And then— BOOM. Idea. It came from his mind as I was playing it out, not my authorial-outlining mind.  I went with it, cleaned it a bit, and I like it!  This was not in my outline at all, but it worked great.

Discovering Discovery Writing

Lunhina: 9.8% Draft 1

For the Lunhina Trilogy, I am dipping my feet into discovery writing for the first time. It is refreshing and exhilarating and makes me feel like a blind man with no idea which way is up.

To be fair, this is not a total discovery project. Every character has a start and a finish point in my outline, as well as one or two major scenes along the way. I also have a general start and end for the book, and for the next two books.  So in that sense, this is still outlined, but compared to what I did for Spawn, it is a whole different ballgame.

Right now, I have no idea what to do in each chapter, where it has to go, or how it has to get where it is going.  All I know is “eventually” I need to reach certain things, but that is really it! I finally understand what writers mean when they say that characters show them things as they write. I get it. You just write what makes sense while you are in the character’s head, throw in a twist, and roll with it.  None of it was choreographed, none of it was outlined. It is real!  But it is also meandering and random sometimes. This will take some work to get right.

In any case, I am so far enjoying the process. I suspect I will hammer in a few more details on my outline as I work into the characters, to try and find a good balance between discovery and architecting, and we’ll see how it goes!

RIP Spawn

Well, it is official.  After many weeks of considering the pros and cons, and breaking my way into my next project, I have finally decided the fate of Spawn.

I always knew going into this project that it would be primarily a learning experience, and maybe also something publishable.  I am busy revising the last 8 chapters from draft 1 to draft 2.5, and I have finally come to accept that I am fully comfortable with Spawn becoming a testament to my maiden voyage into writing, and never giving it to the light of day.  It is hard to explain how much the process taught me, but the truth is it is only one of many stories I want to tell, and not even a particularly well organized one.

I will continue my revisions to version 2.5 through the ending, and I will continue workshopping until chapter 32, then I am putting it on the shelf as a commemoration of the work that got me started.  Maybe, in a few months, I’ll come back and incorporate all the beta feedback, but most likely I’ll just let it die quietly, and steal any bits I liked for other works.

The primary factor in the decision has been my explosive excitement around the new project, the Lunhina Trilogy. Worldbuilding, character development, and outlining for this project went from 0% to 100% in a matter of days, and I have already planted the first 5700 bricks towards the project. I have no doubt alpha readers will bring me off cloud 9, but if I do say so myself, this is going fantastically compared to Spawn. It feels more alive, the characters feel more real, and the story is more organic.  I am not fully surprised by the different, considering how much I learned in the first round, but I am surprised by the momentum.  In a matter of days, I fell fully behind Lunhina and lost almost all interest in Spawn.  Some of that is just excitement at a new project, but it is deeper than that.  Spawn has served its purpose, and done so admirably, paving the way for a much better project.

Once I get all chapters to d2.5 and workshopped to 32 (of 41), I’m turning it in, and calling it a day.  Lunhina is a different kind of story. This one I would like to sell and publish… that is the point. Last time that would have been an added benefit, but the point was to learn. The stakes are higher now, and I’m aiming for the outfield.

Lunhina Tranist
Phase:Writing
Due:4 hours ago
5.7%