Story Structure: Are you Plotting or just Plodding?

“The story is going nowhere. The blank screen is still blank.”

How do your stories develop structure?

Hiking Kaibab trail

Photo courtesy of artist Moyan Brenn

The cursor on your screen is blinking, glued to one spot. Is the hockey game on television  beginning to look more important by the moment? You may be cursing your cursor, but what you are really angry with is your lack of progress. After all, you’re a writer. You know how to write stories; you know how to spin a good yarn.

Reality sets in.  Perhaps you have just discovered brain freeze or writer’s block. That blinking cursor has chased your Muse away with a vengeance. How was that story going to go again?   What, you haven’t decided yet?

Sometimes I can sit and stare at the screen all day without writing a word. How do your stories develop structure? Have you ever really thought carefully about it? Some people create and write fiction more easily than others, but why?

Can the best writing be equated to hidden skills such as imagination, clever planning, eureka moments, the willful and careful planting of seeds–or are story lines just a result of plodding along, waiting for the inevitable action by your characters to take place? Sit, watch, wait and see? Where was it all going? What’s the plan? Have you been plotting, or just plodding along?

I think story structure can and does happen both ways.

Let’s face it, fiction is of the mind. Fiction is what you make it. You are the creator, the voice, the power behind the imaginary life in the story you are writing. You direct it. Drive it. Manipulate it. Observe. Deduce, record. Stay open-minded and write.

Outlining and rigid planning of a storyline can be problematic.

Sit down and write. Outline. It’s exciting as hell. You have the idea, a plan, sketch, or crib notes. Perhaps it started out just fine, but after the first few pages you find yourself staring at the screen. Again. The excitement and discovery of the ‘best first chapter’ disappears; the excitement is gone. Evaporated.

Where is your story going to turn, twist, or expand? Have you left room for expansion, or have you written yourself into a corner? Was the outline too limited? Did you even use an outline?  At times it’s better not to impose restrictions on the creative mind.

“The story is going nowhere; the blank screen is still blank.”

That’s a common complaint.  “Let’s see what happens?” Can we afford to “wait and see”?

Book Jacket The Fires of Waterland

photo courtesy of Redmund Pro website

In my novel The Fires of Waterland  that became the real question. Something had to happen, and it did. My solution was to have the characters themselves make it happen.

The fact is, in fiction as in real life, nothing is going to happen until you “make it so” -to quote a famous Star Trek captain. “Get us out of here…” also comes to mind. Put the shoulder to the wheel and push. Plan carefully, ensure the premise is solid, but also plant seeds that can grow and mature within the structure of the story for that unique outcome and voice that is your own. Put the characters to work planting seeds.

What is the premise?

Let’s look at the premise. It is often said there is nothing new under the sun. Is your idea strong, creative, new and unique? Or is it an adapted formula, an old hack, including something you hope is a new, personal twist?

To be realistic, if it’s old, tired and rehashed, if you’re plodding along with the same old-same old, it may be more productive to go for a walk in the park instead. Feed the ducks. Imagine that. What a great idea!

What you really need to do is feed your readers instead.

Fire their imaginations.  In The Fires of Waterland  I solved the whole problem by using intense character thought-streaming techniques.  Character development and interaction helped create heat and drive both imaginations and the temperature up to raging passion in my novel.

What are your characters going to do? Will you reveal their innermost weaknesses, hopes, desires and evil plans?  Will they be forced to jump through hoops, go through progressive stages of character improvement as you challenge them? Can you hone their characters to perfection, polishing as you develop them, or will you declare them rusty surplus, relics of times past and kill them off?  In The Fires of Waterland, my characters were compelled to act  – with good reason.

Well, how about it?  How are you going to structure your story?

Is the story is still going nowhere, the screen still blank?  How are you going to tell your story–so it remains chronologically intact, so the characters remain true to the necessary parameters which you have injected in that best first chapter– carefully laid, neat– as in perfect, but with a dearth of information that can be added?  Which seeds need to be carefully planted? It’s all critical stuff.

In The Fires of Waterland the seeds were carefully planted for later use, but not all necessarily allowed to sprout. I think that’s a handy technique because it allows both options within the story line and an escape route–out of the proverbial corners we tend to paint ourselves into.

Okay, so let us Plan a Story Line instead.

You know the story. Plan it, draw a blueprint. Let the characters know when to wake up, interact with strangers, get married, kill or be killed. We can start with a premise and add detail as we go, or we might alternatively plant seeds and allow some to grow, changing direction elegantly and naturally as they become taller, larger, deeper in color and richer in detail. Characters should drive other characters to greater heights.  Keep these in mind:

Fiction is the stuff great stories are made of.

Plots decide who the bad guy is–and equally, who are the lovers, the brilliant, and victims alike; but is that always good?  A resounding no.

Outlines can be straight-jackets.

Outlines can be suicidal to any story if overused, removing flexibility and creativity.  Think about it: Is your outline simply being used as confirmation of a weak story?

Creativity is unlimited.

Limits are imposed by a predetermined plot.  See “Outlines” above. The same principles apply to the development of characters.

For your story structure, are you plotting, or plodding?  Have you included planting?

There are benefits to be had in using either of the two systems; but the best result invariably results from a combination of all three.  Why? Because you, the writer, are the master, the director of your own destiny—and that of your characters.


©2013  Raymond Alexander Kukkee

RA KukkeeRaymond Alexander Kukkee writes short stories, children’s literature and poetry, but his favorite genre is fiction. His eclectic blog Incoming Bytes encourages readers to think for themselves. Don’t miss Raymond’s wonderful novel, Fires of Waterland.

questionWhat sorts of evil Plots have you hatched in your writing? How do you approach Story Structure in your novels? Share your thoughts and your author link in Comments, below.

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Comments

  1. My sincere thanks to Raymond for this thoughtful post.

    And, seriously, if you haven’t read his novel please get yourself a copy. It’s a wonderful story.

  2. Thanks, Jim, much appreciated–my pleasure”:)

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