Left-Brain, Right-Brain, or No-Brain At All

We’ve heard the phrase: it’s a no brainer.  Writing a story that works is the absolute opposite of that.

So let us attempt to put a fence around, if not quite sequential-ize or formula-ize, the nature of the successful storytelling process.

It all breaks down into three unique but dependent phases of story development.  The key word there is dependent… because they are, in the final analysis, sequential.  And thus, if you begin in the middle, the task is complicated by the process you’ve chosen.

Somewhere along this path – you get to decide where and when – the process evolves from three-by-five cards and yellow sticky notes and flowcharts… towards leaning into and finally becoming the act of drafting itself.

Which means if you start there, you need to know that you don’t get a free pass on the preceding development part, that you are creating the recipe while you are cooking the stew.

Not saying it doesn’t work, it does.  For some.  We all get to choose.  At the end of the day it’s all story development.

Either way… the process is both iterative and evolutionary.

Blank spaces in your flowchart (or in your head) become bullets which become phrases that turn into sentences that expand into paragraphs… that sometimes without realizing it, are suddenly full-blown scenes.  And then need to be blended into the whole, in context to the scenes that surround it.

Or you can do it backwards.  Scenes pop into your head, then you retrofit a mission and that all-important context.

Or not.  That being the source of a huge percentage of the rejection slips out there.

You can throw it all into a pot, stir it and heat it to boiling… or you can impart it all to a blueprint with the anal-retentive precision of a computer programmer under a deadline… or some combination in between… doesn’t matter, because the end-game is what it is, and that high bar is both blind to and oblivious to your chosen process.

The Three Realms

At any given moment in the storytelling process, you are either in:

1.  The conceptualization phase…

2.  The sequencing and execution phase…

3.   The revision and polishing phase.

Yes, we do bounce back and forth.  And it’s a good and normal thing to do.  But, like a triathlete who at any given moment is either swimming, biking or running, knowing the difference is fundamental to the game being played.

Conceptualization Phase

The conceptualization phase (which I’ve also dubbed the Search for Story phase)  is the creative dance between story idea, story concept and story premise (each being a different animal), leading toward a general story landscape and a compelling core dramatic question – where character and conflict collide – that can be pitched in a few lines in a manner that is compelling.  It’s what the story is about, without short-changing it.

In 99.9 percent of the cases in which the writer, when asked “what is your story about?” gives an incomplete or less than compelling DRAMATIC answer (like: “it’s about the effect of poverty on taxation…”), or says, “well, it’s kind of complicated…” this is a symptom of a writer still dwelling, perhaps swimming in, the initial story conceptualization phase, usually without realizing it.

Moving on, and then settling — executing a story that hasn’t fully experienced the Search for Story phase, lead to a killer core dramatic question — is seductive.  Yet, itt is the Great Killer of stories.

Let me repeat: until you’ve nailed your core dramatic question, or what that even means, you haven’t got a story.

Sequencing and Execution Phase

The story sequencing and execution phase is, literally, plotting it out in the order of narrative presentation, strategically setting up, exploring and resolving the core dramatic question through your characters.

This is when we identify the major story beats, in context to what we know from the initial conceptual phase planning (the search for story), and put them in the right spots, and then coming up with bridging story points that connect them.  It’s literally the identification of scene content, driven by (when done properly) the contextual mission of the story beat you’ve chosen for any given moment.

Consider this.  In fact, paste this on your monitor:

This is where dramatic arc and character arc become one in the same, and do so within the context to a fully developed conceptual story landscape.

If you want to break this down even further… the search for story includes finding the right sequence in which to tell it.  And when you’ve done that, via outline or draft, only then are you executing the story you’ve found.   Both of these are part of the second phase of story development.

You cannot search for story and execute the story at the same time.  Any more than you can hunt the goose and cook it at the same time.  Anybody who claims to do so – and they’re out there, some of them quite loudly – is really talking about revision and execution.

Read those last three paragraphs again.

Because right there is the 404-level understanding that many less experienced writers don’t get.  It’s one of the keys to writing publishable fiction, and it’s a loaded sentence.

Either way, whether it’s in an outline or a draft, when that happens you’re on to the third phase.

Revision and Polish Phase

Once on paper, you need to optimize what you have through revision and polish.  If your outline is solid, you won’t have as much challenge here as you will if you used drafting to get to this point.

In that latter case, the line between searching for your story and executing it is often a fuzzy one.  And it’s a line over which many writers get tripped up.

If you’ve outlined it, and you’re happy with the outline, it’s time to write the first draft, moving from search to execution.  If you’ve reached this point through drafting, it’s time to revise (as part of execution) and then polish it.

This is always true: the more you know about your story, and the more criteria you bring to it – however you get there – the closer to the finish line you will be.  Understanding where you are in these three phases of story development is the most empowering thing you can do to get there… safely.

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Click HERE to see where your story currently resides on this three-phase story development path.

10 Comments

Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

10 Responses to Left-Brain, Right-Brain, or No-Brain At All

  1. Matt

    Hi Larry – Got a question for those of us in the conceptualization phase that I’ve been pondering. As we nail down that Concept, should the underlying dramatic questions we are uncovering point to the First Plot Point and what has happened in the setup that will drive the story forward? Or is it more all-encompassing, pointing perhaps instead to the Second Plot Point, the overarching dramatic narrative, and questions that may not be answered or fully set in motion until we near that final quarter of the story?

    In other words, does Concept speak more to the diving board from which we leap, or the expansive pool of drama into which we jump?

  2. “But, like a marathoner who at any given moment is either swimming, biking or running, knowing the difference is fundamental to the game being played.”

    Coming from the perspective of a pantser, this foundational stuff which will free me from groping through rewrites in the dark is making a world of difference to my writing. Also, that’s a pretty funny line there.

  3. Sara Davies

    Spectacular post. Got my concept. Got my outline. Execution of the outline in drafting phase? FUBAR. Because what I thought made sense in summary format doesn’t make as much sense in a play-by-play, as I uncover what I don’t know about the subject matter. Will probably take multiple drafts to uncover the plot holes and inconsistencies, and to identify previously unasked questions. Coupled with a need for more research as questions come up. Questions I don’t even want to answer because they’re not part of the dramatic thread of the story, but are essential parts of the backdrop that still need to make sense. This is not the kind of story that lends itself to stream of consciousness development, a loose outline, or general goals. Better to write what you know, so you don’t get lost trying to do research while juggling the necessary ingredients. It’s like the recipe calls for tomatoes, but now I have to grow those tomatoes before I can use them. Don’t try this at home, kids.

  4. Robert Jones

    I’ve always tried to plan and work out some type of outline. I did that for the novel I’m reworking now. My problem became two-fold.

    1) My original outline only gave a basic idea of what happened in each scene, meaning a lot of details got pantsed along the way. I felt (like many), that some things had to happen spontaneously, organically–that great act of discovering along the way that seems to make writing magical. What I discovered is exactly what Larry has been saying all along. I was still in the discovery phase.

    What I discovered lead to problem #2) I ended up with nearly an entirely different story by the time I went through a couple of drafts. I ended up returning to the notion that the entire thing should actually be several stories, a trilogy, and I had to go back to squares and plan out bascically how these stories would support one another and make sense both seperately and together. Then, like George Lucas with a whopper of a story that encapsulated generations, like the Star Wars saga (well, maybe not that big), I had to pick the parts of the story that told the core drama.

    I have not left the planning stage yet. Why? Because it has already saved me a number of drafts. My concept ended up needing refinement. I had to seperate the core drama from the stage upon which it is played. Note: if you have a setting, either a totally fictional reality, or fiction based in a real town/city where problems, or corruption are the present rules that apply the standard of living, it is very easy to confuse setting and core drama.

    It was Larry’s deconstruction of Hunger Games that finally made me see this.

    Each discovery along the route of planning is still magical–if you love what you are doing. There are days I’ve yearned to leap into draft and just start banging away at the keyboard because that’s what has been ingrained in all of our heads that writing is at its heart. It takes discipline to rewire that thinking. Habits are not easily broken. But from my experience in attempting to fix and rework things in draft form, this is not the path of least resistence.

    What happens at the end of drafting, what you end up with, is a basic story told over several hundred pages you need to read through and sort or which scenes are relevant. And on top of having the required discipline it takes to reoranize those scenes into something workable, you’ve aadded the additional requirment of having to edit. You need to have both knowledge, and courage, to cut those scenes that turned out so beautifully that you wrote on those days you seemed to be tuned into the muse, but now have zero effect on where the story is going in the next draft.

    Few can be planner and editor at the same time. Most of us just create more resistence for ourselves as we try to replot the next phase around those killer scenes we love and show our writing at its absolute best–even when the killer is murdering our story. Which only means a trip to the emergency room where more drafting and planning will ensue.

    My advise: resist the urge to press forward if the pieces aren’t fitting right. Stay with planning until you have a clear picture, not a jigsaw puzzle with holes to be filled. You aren’t wasting time by doing this, you are actually saving time…and possibly even saving your story.

  5. MikeR

    Speaking as one of those “anal-retentive computer programmers” 😉 …

    I find myself at this (early) point cycling between “conceptualization” and “sequencing,” which I actually would separate from “execution” at this point, because I’m as green-horn at doing this sort of thing as anyone could be and I know it. I’m not attempting “execution” of anything.

    I know, from years of experience at designing computer programs, that my subconscious now-and-then WILL pop up with an idea … for a scene, for an algorithm, for a solution, for whatever. Uh huh, I’m guilty of staring into space at the dinner table. I’ve also learned the value of “spilling my thoughts” into a word-processor document and then saving that document and re-reading it later. For this new project of mine, various scene-fragments come to my mind (sometimes at very odd times…) and I try to snag them as they come flittering past. I try to spend no more time than is necessary to capture the essence of it, as well as any “hints” of how such a scene “might” fit into a bigger picture – what it would reveal, what it would assume, and so on. It all goes into a bucket – a folder. (And it gets locked: nothing’s thrown away.)

    Even though I’ve never attempted this sort of thing before, I do know that the final work will be the product of a great many fairly-arbitrary (and, totally inexperienced …) decisions. No one’s standing off-stage waiting to grade me to see if I came up with “the right” answers. These choices can’t be made individually – they must, finally, interlock as a whole. And, greenhorn that I am, I haven’t dreamed-up all those choices yet. 🙂

    So far, I’ve thought of several reasons why the guy who gets bumped-off in the bathroom got on that train in Cincinnati. I’ve thought of several more reasons why someone saw fit to kill him instead of, y’know, just letting him go home to wherever-it-was he came from. I’ve even thought about why (above and beyond the obvious biological reasons) he winds up in the bathroom, and pondered whether-or-not my main character should see him getting killed – or, should be the one who did it. All of them are good reasons. Only one of them will be “it.”

    Okay, I guess I’m brainstorming. And, being as I am “an utter neophyte,” I am for now perfectly happy (at this point) to be grabbing ahold of as many “conceptualizations” as I can dream-up, and seeing how they -might- fit into a “sequence.” After all, I am most-decidedly not “on a deadline.”

  6. Robert Jones

    @MikeR–I’ve got a notebook for everything and every story, even one for potential story ideas. I sometimes write out a part of a scene, or dialogue, other times I write the basic idea, or scene, in brief. As I go along, I realize some of those scenes will never make it into the story. It’s a lot easier to edit out a few lines, or paragraph about a scene than a fully written one that has found it’s way into a draft.

    But the scenes I did cut from my drafting end up in a file. And the discarded ones in my notebook are still there. I would hate to get to some point and have to back-peddle only to discover I needed that scene later. Or maybe at some point some of it will get used in a different story in an altered form.

    The murder question of “Why?” is quite common. But is it a question of needing a solid reason for the character to be murdered, or is it more along the lines of your needing a body to get on with the rest of your plot?

    I’ve learned that as writers, who want everything to be a part of the whole, we often misjudge circumstances for plot, or “How” for “Why.”

    It’s like that conversation we were having about villains being too arbitrary, but sometimes we can take that too far in terms of reasoning every detail of every event. The more important, or large an event, or role, the more detail and characterization. Less, obviously, gets less. Example: If the plot revolves around catching the murderer, then the murderer is a character in the story. He needs his reasons. The reader needs to see him doing his deed in a way that makes them want the murderer caught. On the other hand, if the story is about the repercussions (or aftermath) of finding the body, then the murder could be one of a hundred reasons from racial, to accidental. It won’t matter as much to the whole in terms of reason.

    I’m assuming if you can’t find a reason, the killing is arbitrary and doesn’t play a big part in the scheme of things. Sorry, I can’t recall if you mentioned whether the circumstances of the death needed to relate to the story in an important way or not. I’ve had a lot going on and haven’t mentally retained that info. But I would almost say that if your story is a big messy aftermath of finding the corpse, then the more seemingly meaningless, or random, the death that brings about such circumstances, the better. It adds a touch of irony, or annoyance, if the reader sees much ado because of something petty, or thoughtless–even accidental. Much ado about nothing=irony, even empathy if someone innocent gets accused.

  7. MikeR

    @Robert:

    In my story, as I thus-far have envisioned it, “the murder” is of course a major event in the plot, but “finding the murderer” isn’t the point. I have two or three possible ideas in mind as to who did it and why, and one of the possible outcomes is that the body is unceremoniously dumped into the Tennessee River and no one investigates it and no one ever will. (When you have the right connections, you can arrange that sort of thing … or, someone can cause something to happen “on your watch,” knowing that others know you had the capacity to do it, and thereby pin you with a “hit” that you didn’t do and didn’t want done. Especially people in far-away cities, like Cincinnati, who are already concerned where “the shipment” went. The plot thickens … maybe.)

    I’m brainstorming now. I’m grabbing “scene-lets” as they drift by, putting enough notes about them to allow me to know how they =might= fit in somewhere. And I’m also considering what I want “the big-picture scenario” to be. My current thoughts (severely over-simplified) is that the lead-character has been engaged in smuggling, and a “shipment” has gone wrong, and our victim is sent down to find out why, and he gets bumped but it’s a surprise to our lead character. Meanwhile, the (not first-person …) point-of-view character is an old WW1-veteran who’s a washroom attendant. The murder is a major event in the overall story line, because you can’t un-murder someone, but it’s not what lit the match. (It IS part of what ensures that the match can’t be put-out. Part of.)

    As the omniscient author-god, I have to know the whole thing, because I have to =choose= what will be “the whole thing.” I need to make those omniscient choices, so that I can properly arrange the curtains. 🙂 Right now, I’m striving to keep an open and attentive mind with which to speculate, “well, what if I made this happen, instead?” It’s fun. Great fun to be a god. But also a unique challenge when you try to do a quality job of something you’ve never attempted to do before.

    I’ve also got several story-lines running through my current ideas for the piece. I don’t want the characters to be thin, and I don’t want the one-and-only thing in their lives to be this overall story conundrum. So, I’m dreaming up stories for each of the main characters, and tossing those into the idea-bucket as well. Once again, as a god, I have to know. To choose. How much of this will the Gentle Reader actually see – or think he sees – and in what order? Don’t know, don’t know, don’t know. Yet.

    But, that’s the point that’s really been hammered-home to me in Larry’s book(s!) and is certainly being borne out as I attempt this thing: “you choose.” Experience teaches you how to choose faster, but I have no experience. Yet. But, you “choose” anyway, and then you set the pieces out on the table and “consider” how to arrange them for maximum effect.

    A very interesting thing happened, just last night. In my dreams, I was watching a stage play – a dark thriller in a grimy city. (Chattanooga was where the Clean Air Act was inspired.) Suddenly, I recognized it. It startled me so much that I woke up. (Darn.) But it’s got to be a very good sign.

  8. Robert Jones

    @MikeR–I’ve dreamed pieces of various stories. Sometimes I’m working on them in a dream, and it’ll seem like I found something great. Then the next morning I won’t remember. Even when I do remember, it won’t always make sense. Frustrating.

    I remember the washroom attendent. Seems like you’ve gone a bit further with other details than I recall. As Usual, I find myself liking what I’m hearing.

    I’ve gone a long way with writing histories for all my major players. Some could be stories all on their own. And where I was lacking a bit in the villain previously, I now have an abundance of history and need to figure how much of it to show. I’ve narrowed it down to five mini sequences scattered throughout the book that relate all the most important things and gives a pretty well-rounded view of the character’s life. I’m even wondering if that’s too much.

    If the author knows these things, then certainly that informs everything that the character does within the context of the story. Some people believe that all FBs are bad and as long as the author knows, that’s enough. I prefer stories that have a balance between past and present. Showing at least enough parallels so we understand why a character is acting a certain way. I’m keeping track of how much of the villain’s past some of the better books I’ve read goes into this to try to get a comparison. So far, it doesn’t seem like I’m overdoing it, but that may all be subjective.

  9. MikeR

    @Robert:

    Yes, the story is evolving nicely.

    As the omniscient “ook story-god,” I know that I need to understand the full overall story. I’ve also got to know the story of the various players. They’ve got to have plausible things to do – and, things that will increase drama – even though none of them (yet) knows as much as I do. I want to have an idea of what they’re like when they’re not on my stage, not at work, or what they were doing at significant-to-story moments in their past. I’m looking for things, also, that will reinforce the milieu of “you’re really there, really at that time.” If my story could play unchanged if transplanted to the year 2013, or if you could read it without feeling that you’re in a Southern industrial city in 1957, I haven’t found my story yet.

    What will I do with that? No idea. How will (or will I?) reveal it to the reader? No idea. I’ve done very little “sequencing” yet.

    As for flashbacks, I have mixed feelings. If I really need to know a piece of information that can’t be told in the present in order to grok the main-line of a story, a flashback’s great. But it can also be a hack. (Sometimes it’s a very short distance between a flashback and the Bridges of Madison (yeech) County.) We’ve all read scenes in a book that leaves us sayin’, yeah, “this is a really cool scene, but ‘so what?'” Or, we hear a character refer to something that happened in his past, in such a way that conjures up a notion … and then the author jerks us aside to show us his-or-her personal version of the same scene. Major let-down. If you can leave a scene on the cutting-room floor, do it. (Will somebody PLEASE tell that to George Lucas?)

  10. Robert Jones

    @MikeR–Agreed on the FBs needing to have a good reason–which is why I’m trying to weigh mine carefully before I go ahead with them. Probably my favorite use of FBs would be similar to what was done in the TV show Lost, where the past and present added layers, almost different stories to cut back and forth between, but both illuminated the character in the present. Love or hate the show, the cuts and sequences were something to learn from. Having studied narrative art and storyboard sequencing, someone knew what they were doing there. And that can be applied to architectural suspense in a novel as well.

    But my story isn’t going to be back and forth constantly. Just a way to illuminate the villain’s POV before the final confrontation with the hero so hopefully both sides of the argument are standing strong by that time. If it can be made to do the same thing without the FBs, that would be fine. But since both hero and chief antagonist have developed from a childhood poisoned by fear and tragedy, some type of explanation is needed. Opting for FBs done correctly, I think is a more visible way to “show” the reader in this circumstance over just having such things talked about (or hinted at) in the present. Hence my trying to minimize everything as much as possible.

    I thought about trying to go about it by attaching shorter scenes (snippets) of the past to follow each present scene that was from the hero and villain’s POV. Currently I’m going to try working in the sequencing I’ve mentioned in just the five places in the novel. If it looks like it might bog down things by running too long, I can always try breaking things up differently, try to cut down more, whatever. I haven’t got it all put together to my satisfaction on several levels yet, but I’ll know when it clicks.