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