How to Write a Story: The Creative Process… One Writer’s Take

A guest post by Mike Robinson

One small illusion has sold many books, seminars, writer’s retreats, and workshops: the illusion that the process of writing a book is like reading a book. (“If only I were good enough …” or “As soon as I buy one more thing …”)

We innocently assume that fiction isn’t like, say, a term paper, a dissertation, an important business presentation. We “simply expect” the story to flow out of our creative minds and onto the page, in the reverse of what happens at two o’clock in the morning when we just can’t turn out the light. We expect this, in part, because there are too-many writer’s books which encourage that myth.

And too-many workshops use that same illusion to fill the slow months of a fancy resort’s off-season.

Since you’re reading this, you know better.

As do I. The goal here is not just to dream about writing something, but to do it. We must do it with a pragmatic economy of effort. Ergo, “no illusions.”

But what should we expect?

First, the creative process is much more chaotic, more uncertain, more “constantly full of choices and choosing” – and yet more deliberate and purposeful – than we might suppose. We’re caught off-guard when our creative minds don’t hand us “au fait accompli.” We think that there must be something very wrong with us when our Muse bombards us with alternatives and then challenges us to choose, never giving us the straight-answers that we wish for. But this is what “a blank page” really means. You’re not taking dictation. Everything that you put on that page will be a choice, and it will never be the one-and-only choice that you could have made.

Your Gentle Reader doesn’t want a blank page, though. She wants a complete meal, tastefully prepared, original yet very familiar: spaghetti, hamburger, a taco. She wants it to conform to her expected story form, for the kind of story she likes and that she expects from you: romance, science fiction, thriller, vicarious sex. Even though she doesn’t consciously know or care what a story form is, her expectations are quite specific. (And so is @Larry, when he writes about it.)

This puts you, Gentle Writer, in the kitchen. You’re surrounded by choices, from which you must choose, and which you must then fashion into the perfect, delectable dish. Trouble is, none of those choices will present themselves with “choose me, I am the right choice.” Your choices will be “right” only because you caused them to be so. You will finish and deliver your project because you applied a process that is both pragmatic and efficient.

The creative process consists of three main steps, bouncing back-and-forth between them and making choices at nearly every turn. These three steps are: imagination, selection, and successive refinement.

Imagination is the most-obvious part: “somehow snatching ideas from somewhere.”

Who knows, really, just where ideas come from – and who really cares. Imagination is the source of every good idea, and of every bad one: the trash, the tropes, the tripe, and yes, the juicy million-dollar bits that you wish that you had written and that you someday maybe will.

When you are imagining, you should simply be dreaming-up everything you can think of, without choosing. When we watch “Star Trek” where “James T. Kirk,” “Spock,” “Bones,” and “Scotty” sail on the starship “Enterprise” to encounter a space-station stuffed with fuzzy but rapacious “tribbles,” it might not occur to you that all of the things in quotation-marks within this sentence were chosen from long typewritten lists of mostly-nonsense words, but it is so.

Of course, imagination must quickly lead to selection, and this needs story form to serve as the anchor and the frame. You are assembling a new contraption that will consist of elements that you choose, but it must fit the form.

A novel really isn’t all that “novel” in its structure and design. You know from the start that you’re to create one or more story lines, each of which will move in a series of “story beats” through a progression of “plot points” and “pinch points” as @Larry so clearly describes. You also know that you must be efficient: drawing out a large number of ideas, sifting through them many times, and setting them into places within the story form where they might work, without wasting time or locking yourself too early into the long-term consequences of any single decision.

Thus, successive refinement.

Initially, you don’t know what ideas will work best, nor have you yet chosen where exactly is the best place to put those that do. These are decisions that you will make as you move from a cloudy vision to a completed work.

Therefore, you need to make especially those initial decisions “very cheap.” A three-page outline of “story beats” is a great deal easier to change than a thirty-page document. A simple paragraph describing a potential scene is “good enough for now,” given that you might never actually write(!) that scene.

It is downright strange to be exploring completely-new territory without a map, while having literally the power to decide, “I’ll put ‘Kansas’ here” while also being obligated to decide what ‘Kansas’ ought to be. It feels like you’re groping in the dark because, in one sense, you are! A better way to look at it is: “what if I put such-and-such a state here, and by the way decided to call it ‘Kansas?’” You need a process that lets you pencil-in such a decision, and to choose and change quickly.

You must be efficient and pragmatic, because you’ll be making a lot of speculative, “what if?” decisions, especially at first. You’ll discard most of them while you revise the rest. Therefore, spend no more time capturing each decision than you have to. (And, when you decide not to use a particular idea, set it aside without ever actually discarding it.)

This process of imagination, selection, and successive refinement will flow back-and-forth like an Olympic ping-pong match, until finally you’ll come up with a very detailed “final cut” of your story, still in detailed-outline form. It will be one of several. It will be the one that you finally approved.

You’ll be reading through that outline “just one more time,” and … quite suddenly … a very magical thing will happen. There, right before your eyes, is “a new, original story.” Part of you of course understands everything about this story that there is to be known about it, while another part of you is reading it for the first time and enjoying what you read.

There’s still a lot of work left to do, oh yes, and one or possibly several drafts to write, but: “there it is.” The magic. Your magic. Your story. Through what had been a formless maze of imaginings, a story now leads. You did it. You can succeed. You can see it, now.

Treasure the moment. Tomorrow will be another writer’s work-day, with ever so much more work to do. But for now, it’s two o’clock in the morning. Turn out the light and get some sleep.

*****

Mike Robinson is a software professional who, upon digging into the principles of story architecture, quickly recognized the empathetic parallels between writing code that actually works and writing a story that does the same.  He’s a frequent contributor here at Storyfix under the moniker “Mike R,” and the originator (to my knowledge) of the term “gentle reader,” which is precisely how we should think of them. 

Even though we all know they’re anything but gentle, for the same reason. If you’ve ever had something reviewed on Amazon.com, you quickly learn how gentle they are not.

15 Comments

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15 Responses to How to Write a Story: The Creative Process… One Writer’s Take

  1. Great stuff, Mike!

    It is scary at first when inchoate forces of imagination burst up through the formless void. Will it be a volcano? A river? or a giant sinkhole threatening to suck you into the pits of doom?

    Those early decisions are critical.

  2. Jean Gogolin

    The original writer of “Gentle Reader”?? Hardly. Jane Austin and many others used it back in the 18th and 19th centuries.

  3. Dave Hallowell

    Great points – and well presented, Mike. I particularly like the notion of successive refinement, and the way you cautioned against locking-in too early on a decision and its consequences. That, with your ‘Kansas’ example underline for me the value in working, at first, at a higher level of abstraction..e.g. ‘a big disappointment’ — ‘a double-cross’ etc. without having to commit to the specifics at the early stages. Refraining from ‘inking’ anything pivotal in until the last responsible moment (another notion borrowed from the world of software development, of course) – makes good sense to me. Thanks.

  4. MikeR

    @Curt, @Dave –

    A key point that I was wanting to stress in the piece is the “Olympic ping-pong match,” this being a metaphor that I particularly enjoyed using. It does, indeed, “feel scary” when you realize that your story is anything(!) that you want it to be, and that there’s no one and nothing telling you what it should be.

    It’s frankly jarring to realize, “this is Normal.” But when you get the hang of it, it’s a very liberating way to work on a -lot- of things: “postponing commitment.” (Well, not so good on the dating scene, they tell me.)

    -Anything- that you dream up could become “final,” or not, and you don’t have to decide yet. That’s key. Therefore, you capture it, “minimally,” and you capture a lot. This lets you use: “What If?”

    What If … so-and-so dies in Act Three. What If … he gets shot, by a weapon we’ve seen before, therefore it must be someone we know. So, we’d need to plant the weapon. What if … we put it over the mantelpiece. (And, hey! That will solve the Santa problem in Act Four!) On the other hand, What If we used an exploding cell-phone, instead. Okay, another sheet of loose-leaf paper goes into the notebook under the “Act Three” page where we explore that possibility, without discarding the idea of the gun. None of it makes sense until, in a stroke of genius, you have the good-guy defeat the bad guy by handing him a phone and saying, “it’s for you.” (The New York Times Book Review loved that “stroke of genius,” and they acted it out at the Academy Awards … But I digress.™)

    And incidentally, this does bring up a movie-making concern: “continuity.” Making sure that, if you planted a gun, the actor doesn’t try to make a phone-call with it and so on. That, if the bad-guy snatches it from the sofa, someone put it there first, and that a cell-phone clatters to the floor. (You “planted” the cell-phone much later, at the same time that you ditched the potted-plant (“shrubbery!”) that at one time was going to have a (Holy …) hand grenade in it.) Oops, I’m starting to quote Monty Python, so it’s time to hit “Submit.”

  5. @Jean — before we get too huffy here, it was ME who didn’t know the origin of that phrase (“gentle reader”), Mike didn’t lay claim to it, just used it cleverly in his writing. The academics are surfacing in a feeding frenzy (a “how dare you get something WRONG, you swine), so let me clear this up: ten lashes to me, not Mike. Larry

  6. Deja

    I LOVE this piece, Mike! I’m a newbie to novel writing and have spent a lot of necessary time researching structure. I felt like I found the Holy Grail when I came upon Larry’s books. However, I struggle so much with the initial brainstorming, what-do-I-keep vs throw away beginning, that I often falter with my ideas, assume they suck, and search for some other “Ah Ha” idea. Which begins that fruitless circle over again. I definitely put too much stress/commitment into the initial planning stages and get stifled or overwhelmed.
    There are plenty of ‘idea generators’ out there, or books and seminars to supposedly teach one how to start a story, but they all sound much too gimmicky.
    Your piece is an excellent ‘gentle writer’ semi-guide/nudge in the right direction. So many of us are so used to being told what to do, used to following directions, we forget how much fun and fancy free it is to be the decider. For me, I think it brings up a lot of my own fears. “My decisions won’t be good enough”, etc. But your gentle reminder that each idea and decision is not set in stone, and that it takes time and deliberation, repeatedly, to come to great ideas and decisions (for most of us), it’s very freeing. SO, thank you. Many of us can use constructive nudges and reminders for some of the most basic things in life.

  7. KenB

    Mike, thanks for an instructive post that a fiction writer of any level can find useful. One they need to slowly unpack and stuff in their writer’s bag of tools. I will point some writer friends to this post as their entry to Storyfix.com.

    You are so right about why waste more than a paragraph on a scene that you may never write. I’ve deleted a sentence or paragraph scene from my scene list many times when I had a better idea or it just didn’t work out.

    The idea of “exploring completely-new territory without a map” is exactly what we’re trying to create—a map. Well said. How do we get from say, the dead body to the detective to the killer? Or not as you read a book, from the killer to the detective to the dead body, as some authors construct their books. Maybe from the middle out.

    Then take a view from 30,000 feet before zooming back down to the milestones and physics of your story map.

  8. @Ken – your comment triggered something you might like: my friend James Scott Bell has a new writing book out, “Write Your Novel From The Middle: A New Approach for Plotters, Pantsers and Everyone in Between.” It’s terrific, I’ll be reviewing it soon here. Here’s the Amazon link:

    http://www.amazon.com/Write-Your-Novel-Middle-Approach-ebook/dp/B00IMIXI6U/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1402174506&sr=1-3&keywords=james+scott+bell

  9. MikeR

    @Deja – That’s exactly why one of my key-points was, “don’t throw anything away.” Instead of struggling to find “the best thing to put here,” and thereby to completely stall in analysys-paralysis … keep everything, and keep going.

    Dismiss the voice that says “this idea sucks,” because, well, how could you possibly know? You haven’t finished the story yet. You don’t have to make that editorial decision yet … so, don’t. (And when you finally do, let there be many ideas to choose from.) And should this particular idea never “make the cut” (for this story, at least), who knows when you might fetch it out of the archives and decide that it’s perfect for “my new story?” Ideas are much too valuable a thing ever to discard.

    @Ken – “The dead body,” “the detective,” and “the killer,” and the manner of the murder, =all= could well have been … selections. Each with many alternatives that you dreamed-up along the way.

    It’s only when the winning selections are all brought together in a particular “final” story that the process of making that story seems intuitive and genius, and that’s only because the process of selection and brainstorming is invisible to everyone else but you. (Sssshhhh, don’t tell ’em.) Arm yourself with plenty of alternatives to choose from. Don’t turn a single idea away, but don’t initially pour huge amounts of effort into any one of them, either. Trust the process.

  10. MikeR

    @Ken – When you said, “I’ve deleted a … because I had a better idea or it just didn’t work out,” I do hope that you meant that figuratively.

    “Deleted” should merely mean that you lightly drew a penciled “X” across the page before filing it away. Or that you lightly crossed-out an idea in your scene list … before creating a new =version= =of= that scene-list, and filing-away the previous version of that list.

    In the computer software world, we rely on things called “version-control systems.” The whole purpose of these systems is to keep a complete history of everything, including deletions. Nothing ever actually, completely, irrevocably “goes away.” The changes that lead from one version to another can be compared, and multiple versions can be maintained in parallel. Whether you literally use such tools in your creative process (and, some geeky writers do!), the principle and the discipline is the same. Not everything is fully-developed, most things don’t wind up in the final version, but, nothing is truly discarded. If you’ve “rewritten that scene fifty times,” so to speak, you’ve got … fifty-one versions of it, now. If a flash of inspiration shows a potential use for an idea that you “discarded” weeks ago … it’s still here.

    “Priceless.™”

  11. MikeR

    @All – One final thought to close the thread: “You really ARE making all this stuff up.”

    And: “You can’t predict the future.”

    So, when you stare at that blank-page and wonder why the perfect story isn’t just popping out, remind yourself: “this is an unrealistic expectation.” That’s just not how it actually works. Any finished story that you see is a combination of: inspiration, choice, story form, refinement, editing, and in general, process.

    Of which nothing remains except the finished book itself. That’s why you can admire a beautiful sculpture and never see marble chips on the floor.

    “Writing seems like magic” because you’re actually not seeing “writing” at all: you’re merely seeing what has been written. A vital distinction.

  12. Adrian Hilder

    Mike, fascinated by your comment “software professional who, upon digging into the principles of story architecture, quickly recognized the empathetic parallels between writing code that actually works and writing a story that does the same”.
    I’m originally a self taught programmer who couldn’t imagine how to architect an IT system until experiencing an “epiphany” when studying Software Engineering. An industry I’ve been in professionally for 22 years now.
    Larry’s Story Engineering ebook is the most exciting thing I’ve ever read because it gave me the same kind of epiphany moment for engineering a story and allowed me to start creating my story that’s been buzzing around in my head for years and years. Nearly half way having been at it for 6 months able to spend about 12 hours a week on it and it all seems to be working out perfectly.

  13. MikeR

    @Adrian –
    My experience with @Larry’s books has of course been much the same as many others’. He is a gifted teacher – it is both rare and difficult to explain something clearly. The framing of the writing process, first as “Engineering” then in terms of “Physics,” isn’t just marketing-schtick: it’s appropriate. When you undertake a major writing project, you need to clearly understand the form (“Engineering”), and the acceptance criteria (“Physics”), whether you or the reader actually know these things as-such. A mere structural analysis, of any finished work, tells you zero about the process that caused it to be made. Warm, fuzzy books about “the writing life” are marvelous vicarious experiences, but not instructive. I can write computer software at this point without thinking about it too much – but putting together a full semester community-college course on the same subject was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

    The technique that I wrote-about here is one that I have used before in other creative projects, fiction-writing and otherwise, and I first encountered it in books on the making of the “Star Trek” series and the “Trouble With Tribbles” episode. They talked about “story treatments,” which had to be accepted by one of the Two Genes (Roddenberry or Coon) before you were even permitted to pitch an outline, let alone a script – even if your name was Harlan Ellison. They printed some of those lists-of-words, too. The principle of making an archive of everything you do, and of valuing that archive, largely comes from this. These come from a business that, at that time, survived on being able to produce one original, shootable screenplay for every week. (Today, it’s more.) “Bing!!” That’s the little light going on.

    Other articles talked about, for example, J K Rowling’s editor at Scholastic – did you know she had an editor? and a continuity person? – did you know they marked-up her manuscripts “like a rainbow,” and that JKR willingly and quickly made all the changes? Neither did I. The “genius stealing nappies and working in a coffee-shop that was warmer than her flat” story, while technically true, glossed-over many aspects of the process of actually achieving and publishing the work, which -was- “ass-kicking work(!), by many(!) people, spanning more than seven years,” even if one made a billion dollars doing it.

  14. Bill Cory

    Great ideas, @MikeR! This principle, of keeping everything, whether it’s immediately useful or not, wasn’t a conscious thought of mine. But I was apparently using it when I kept an unconvincing 95K-word first draft, and a 77K-word complete rewrite. (I’m an inveterate ‘keeper’ of stuff.) The second version wasn’t (IMHO) badly written, but didn’t have the tension needed. Now that I’ve found the “Brooks Method,” I’ve injected the needed plot- and pinch-points and just completed an outline that will work. I was able to use many scenes and snips from the first two attempts. Third time’s the charm! (Fingers crossed.) Many thanks to you and @Larry!

  15. MikeR

    @Bill – Thanks for the great words. Now, one of the ideas that I think that should be brought-forward here is that … “you really don’t want to invest 95,000 words, nor 77,000 words,” into an idea, until you’re fairly-certain that it will actually work. It’s strictly a matter of economy-of-effort, and mind you I don’t want to be the smartypants to imply that you can actually always achieve that economy … because you can’t entirely expect that. However, when you say that for your third effort you’ve just completed “an outline” that will work … that’s probably the pragmatic step forward that your success most-urgently needs.

    However, both of the two drafts that you have thus far produced are very valuable resources, because they contain “completely-developed scenes,” and probably two different versions of the same scenes. Both of these documents probably DO contain a lot of material that will wind up in the final, approved-by-you “this is it!” version. Even though you might seek to be more labor-efficient going forward, everything that you’ve done up to this point is a resource to be tapped, not a mistake to be abandoned.