Monday, May 26, 2008

Components of a Good Story, Part Two

Last week, I took my brain, shook out everything I knew about what goes into a story, and scattered the pieces across the table - quite messy. This week, I want to assemble those pieces, then assess how "good" the finished product is.

So let's put this jigsaw puzzle together, shall we?

How is a story put together?
This, partly, depends on the author and her writing process. I plan out all the pieces ahead of time, assemble them, and then write the story. I usually have to make minor adjustments, but the big pieces remain pretty much the same. But a close friend of mine doesn't do this. She prefers to sit down with a general idea, write whatever pops into her head, then arrange all the pieces after she's done. But in both cases, the act of fitting the pieces together are the same.

First, you must create pieces that fit. For example, you wouldn't create a main character who has never left his hometown in the rural midwest, and then make him an acclaimed expert on dogsledding in the Arctic. Those pieces don't fit. But a rural midwesterner could easily be an expert on crops, specifically corn and soybeans, with a dream of dogsledding in the Artic.

Next, we lay out all the completed pieces and attempt to fit them together. Does the Setting fit the characters? The Theme fit the Plot? The Resolution tie up all loose ends? If you have no trouble answering "yes" to all these questions, then you're doing something right. If you answer "not exactly" or "yes, but..." then perhaps you need to rethink a few pieces.

Finally, we fine tune everything. Do scenes transition smoothly? Is the dialog effective? Is the main character's growth gradual? Do his/her choices make sense? Is that word exactly right for this sentence? If not, then figure out why and fix it.

We, as writers, have to think about the story as a whole, as well as the pieces used to put it together. If the pieces don't fit, get new ones. If one of them is missing, or if half of one is missing, then go on a hunt to find it. If it's elusive, look in places where you never thought to look before. Then lay it all out again and put it together. Lather, rinse, repeat.

How do these assembled pieces equal "Good?"
Well, what's the definition of good? Best-seller, award-winner, critically acclaimed, etc. Sounds right, doesn't it? Hmm, perhaps not. The problem is that all these definitions are subjective. They depend on the opinions of random people, of which you have no control.

The definition of good is much, much simpler. It means, something of high quality. So, who determines whether a story is of high quality?

Easy Answer: everyone. "Whoever reads my work will give an opinion - thumbs up or thumbs down. I have no control over this." Yes, that's true. However...

Difficult Answer: you. You are in control of what you write. You know your story better than anyone who will ever read it, so it is up to you to put it together in the best way possible. If you don't know how, learn. Read similar books and find out how those authors did it. Read books on the craft of writing. Attend writing classes and conferences. Talk to fellow writers. Read agent and editor blogs. Do research on the subject matter in your story. Then, sit down and write. And write. And write. Keep writing until you get it right, no matter how long it takes.

The key to all this is objectivity. Learn how to look at your work as if it's not your own. Honestly assess it, compare it to your favorite published books, and ask yourself if it's up to snuff. If it's not, then figure out where your story is lacking and fix it. If you can't do this on your own, then find a trusted reader who will be constructively honest with you. Once you have this, the writing process will get easier.

Notice I said "easier" and not "easy." Writing is never easy - you will probably want to tear out your hair or throw your computer across the room, on multiple occasions. But objectivity will at least move you forward so you don't make the same mistakes over and over again. :)

In any case, no one can predict if a book will become a bestseller, or a classic, or whatever. All we can do is write what's in our hearts and hope that other people enjoy it. That's my strategy at least, for good or ill. :)


WordWrangler said...

This is great stuff...and very timely for me. I'm working on my mid-grade (that used to be a chapter book) and wow -- what a difference.

I'm a mixture of the you and your friend...I plot some things and have a general idea of how they'll go. But then I sit down and let it flow. Sometimes I stick to the original plan (what little bit I had!) and other times it morphs into something totally different.

Great post!

Tabitha said...

I'm glad you enjoyed this post. :) I find it helpful for myself as well - it helps me keep all this stuff straight since I'm not trying to keep it all straight in my brain. :)

I don't get that many comments on posts like these, so I have no idea if people find them interesting. So glad to hear someone does! :)

C. Lee McKenzie said...

I like what you said about objectivity. And is that hard or what? I mean once you wrestle those words onto the page they become precious, right? I've found stepping away for a while helps; then I'm able to shred that paragraph or re-organize the chapter so it flows much better than the original.

Good post.


Tabitha said...

Yeah, I know how strongly I feel about my work, and it's SO hard to tear it apart and then rebuild it. Yet, it's what we as writers need to do. Again and again. *sigh* :)

I think objectivity is probably the most difficult aspect of writing. Hmm...I'm also thinking it deserves its own post.

beth said...

This is definitely timely for me--I'm struggling right now with my plot and am somewhere between half-outlining and half-winging it. Thanks for the insight!

Tabitha said...

Glad to hear it, Beth!

I've got an upcoming post this week about free-writing vs. outlining/planning. If you're trying to decide which you like better, then you might enjoy it. :)

Angela said...

I'm a mix as well--I know set pieces before I start, and the opening and the end. But how to reach the set pieces (scenes) is something I make up as I go along.

Before I start to draft, I brainstorm in a notebook about the characters, motivations, strengths. weaknesses, etc. I'll doa time line for the set pieces so I can see where the blanks are. In each story, I'll get to the point where I know it's time to write. If I brainstorm too much, I'll begin to work out everything before hand, and it takes something out of my free form creativity as I draft, which won't create as powerful of a story, IMO.

Oh, and thank you for your mention of our website for your SCWBI chapter! Awesomeness!

Tabitha said...

Wow, word travels fast - the new issue was just put up yesterday!