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Inherent to the process of writing a story is answering a certain set of critical questions. Many are intuitive – like, whodunit?… or, will they or won’t they? – but unless you address the less obvious ones directly they can easily be overlooked or underplayed as you grow your story from an initial idea to a fully realized piece of work.
And when that happens, you’ll have to revise your story accordingly. Or more accurately, extensively.
The best questions become a guide that illuminates story architecture. For instance, there are certain questions posed at the opening of your story and a different set of questions that apply to each milestone and segment that follows.
And yes, there are specific milestones and segments along the way. So a great question here is: are you in command of what they are, where they go, and what they need to accomplish within the story?
Lost yet? That’s good, you’re about to learn something that may – perhaps for the first time – give you some semblance of a roadmap for the telling of a great story.
First, there are the big picture questions.
Why are you even writing this thing? Is it because you’re searching for a project, in much the same way you show up at the tennis court by yourself looking for a match? Or are you wrestling with a story that demands to be told and won’t let you alone? A story that burns and nags and haunts?
There’s a huge difference, and the latter is the stuff of bestsellers. If such a story isn’t haunting you, perhaps consider waiting until one does. Or, try working on your story until it takes on that kind of weight in your life. Because if it doesn’t fully possess you, it doesn’t stand a chance of impacting your readers.
Do you know the basic sequence of how your story will unfold? No? Okay, you could just start writing it to find out. But know that if you do, you’re destined for a series of major rewrites as the elements descend upon you enroute.
Any process – be it extensive pre-draft blueprinting or multi-draft narrative evolution – drives toward the exact same thing: the discovery and sequencing of story elements delivered with characterized nuance and poignant exposition.
You get to say how. The what has been cast in stone.
Do you have a thematic landscape or message that this story will convey? No? That’s okay, one will come to you if the story proves itself worthy of your time.
Do you know how the story ends? Not much of what you write will be ideally suited to pacing, foreshadowing, character arc and dramatic tension until you do. (One word for organic drafters: rewrite.) Once you’ve landed on an ending that works, everything you write needs to be in context to it.
At the end of the day each part of a novel or screenplay – every sentence, every chapter – is connected to every other part.
Have you realized what the stakes are in your story? For the characters, and for your readers? Stakes are a make-it or break-it proposition, and the more you know about them – and the sooner you know it – the better your drafts will be.
Once the big picture is in hand, even tougher questions kick in.
Do you know what your key scenes are? How your story will open? The first major plot point? The mid-point context shift? Several pinch points that smack the reader upside their head with tension and drama? The final major plot point?
Do you know how to introduce and set up your hero and the impending arrival of an antagonistic force in the first quarter of the story? Do you know how and when to bring that element in after subtly foreshadowing it beforehand? After implanting stakes at the root of the character’s motivations that make us feel what she or he feels as they square off with the darkness or the opportunity at hand?
Do you know how that moment (the first plot point) changes your story? How it alters, launches and defines the hero’s quest and need? How it irreversibly propels her or him down the story’s arduous path?
Do you know what inner demons the hero must conquer in order to face and eventually conquer the antagonistic force you’ve throw at her or him? Do you know where that particular personal darkness or handicap came from? How it manifests and affects others? How it must change as the story moves forward?
Have you planned for the evolution of your character as she or he moves out of the set-up phase to become a responder to the newly introduced need or goal? How that response-mode evolves into full-blown attack mode in the middle of your story? How that proactive and heroic attack must face and conquer even newer and stronger antagonism before it can emerge as victorious?
Are you in command of how your evolved (character arc) hero will become the primary catalyst and architect of the story’s denouement? This is an essential element to the success of your story.
Do you, at any moment in the story, understand what the reader will be rooting for or against? What the level of empathy and tension may be, not only for the story at large, but within each individual scene you write?
What is the vicarious experience, the ride, that you are taking the reader on?
Can you sense how your ending will pay all this off, emotionally and intellectually – but most of all emotionally – for the reader? Will they cry? Will they cheer? Will they be angry or happy or confused or bewitched? Will they be changed?
Will they, at the end of the day, be entertained?
Are you, as the author, prepared to be in full command of why that gamut of emotions will be there for your reader?
One question at a time.
Just as a tennis player arrives courtside with a bag full of skills, and then must assess the opponent and create a game strategy accordingly, the writer begins each story with two hierarchical realms of Q&A already in play.
There is what you know – the basics of story architecture, characterization and thematically-driven writing power…
… and how you apply what you know — the specific creative decisions you must make and infuse into your story, sentence by sentence, scene by scene, in context to the former.
And you thought this might be easy.
But it can still be fun, especially when you get your head around all this stuff. The better your story works, the more reward it will bring – both in process and with the end-product.
Whether you plan it all out ahead of time or you use multiple drafts to search out these answers, the result will be the same. Shortcut any of these questions and your story will suffer for it
Nail them, and do it with a high level of art, wit, style, grace and a keen eye for life, and you just might see your name in lights someday.