February 18, 2018
A guest post by regular contributor Stephanie Raffelock
A few years back I attended a writer’s workshop in Portland. One afternoon, a panel of authors sat on the stage and talked about process. I don’t recall who was on the panel, and it’s too bad because I heard something that day that continues to serve my writing. An author was talking about his work and he said this: “I never write a word of prose until I can tell the entire story from beginning to end without hesitation.”
The Magic Synopsis
Shortly after that workshop, I went to Larry Brooks for some help writing a synopsis of my novel. Like many of my early experiences with Larry, there was a lot of red ink involved. I wound up with a good synopsis and I wound up with a good agent, but the process was a real wake-up call for me, because I realized that I didn’t know my stories as well as I needed to.
How Well Do You Really Know Your Story?
Those back-to-back experiences taught me this: the better you know your story, the deeper you are able to sink into your plot. Under the plot rumbles the meaning of the story, stitched together by theme and the psychological transformation that is taking place in your characters lives. The paradox is this: solid plot and character development leads you to the nuances and the complexities of your story, while at the same time can inform you to how to tell your tale in less than a minute.
How Story Gets to Your Heart
The books and stories that I knew and loved as a child all had one thing in common: I knew the story by heart. It’s such a sweet and meaningful phrase, to know something so well that it’s embedded not just in your head, but in your heart. That’s the place where all the feeling tone and meaning of story is born. But, a writer cannot access that heart-filled story place unless they first know the plot.
I keep reading Larry’s books they keep teaching me the best way to do prep. I’ve taken a lot of crap about the amount of prep work that I do for my novels. Other writers have told me that I’m using the wrong side of my brain, or that I risk making it all formula, “formula” of course, being a pejorative. To know my story by heart, it first has to be engineered. You can’t put up drywall until you have a frame and trying to do so, or think that you can do so as you move along is a recipe for disaster–well, either that or rambling narrative.
Early Morning Dreams
Early this morning, somewhere between sleep and waking, I started telling myself the story that I’m writing. I got excited and it led me to the kitchen for my daily dose of caffeine. I got this. I know this story by heart. And as a result, I look forward to getting down on the page. I tell myself the story almost every morning.
The Bottom Line
A story is about a protagonist that wants something; the antagonist that stands in their way; and the journey that ensues as a result. That’s the basic. That’s where you start. I wish I could remember that author’s name from the writing workshop. I’ve held fast to his words for a number of years: tell the story to yourself beginning to end without hesitation before you put a single word on the page. You won’t be able to do that unless you first sketch out a plot that is so vivid with events and their tensions that it seeps into your pores and breathes into your lungs.
Dear Larry Brooks
Thanks for being a good teacher. Thanks for helping me with that first synopsis. Thanks for taking the mystery out of doing what I love and giving me the pushes I’ve needed to continue on this life-long endeavor of writing the stories that I know by heart.
Here’s to red ink and old friends.
And the Final Question
How much are you willing to invest to know your story by heart? Can you say what your novel is about a minute or less?