Structuring Stories

Welcome back!

A friend posed the question: “how do you go about structuring a script for longer stories?”

So I decided I’d give that a shot. I’m going to point out that this is just one way of handling it – and not always one I adhere to (it depends so much on the story and its scope), but in the interests of answering the question, here is a method I use (or like to think I use in my more ordered moments).

I would begin by sketching out: (1) a synopsis, (2) a more detailed narrative, with (3) a chapter breakdown, and then have (3) a secondary list of things you want to include.

What things might you want to include? Aside from research, fun/cute/funny/dramatic scenes, plot twists, and characters there’s… Worldbuilding!

Worldbuilding

For me (rather unsurprisingly), the key to writing a longer story or series is to have a setting capable of sustaining any number of stories. This means the setting needs to change and grow – if it’s stagnant, it will eventually buckle. Each story should, in my opinion, alter the world – the setting of book 1 should have shifted by the time of book 2. That shift is the plot and the impact the characters have on the world (even if it is simply the world around them). Even if all the characters do is go to the local post office and buy a bun and a stamp, that has altered their world. It might not make a large impact, but it will create ripples.

So let’s take that notion – what happens along the way to buying that stamp? Who do they meet? The person who becomes the love of their life? No one at all? Perhaps the post office is entirely automated and there are no other people around. (Why? Why are there no others?). Perhaps the character is just a robot.

Cause and Effect

In any event, Book 1 is a journey. Book 2 will focus on the why of that stamp and the who – who is that stamp being sent to and on what? A parcel? A letter? What are its contents? A love letter, a gift to a friend or loved one, a bill that desperately needs paying, a last will and testament that says: ‘avenge me’? A bomb? (Fiction only. Don’t actually attempt this.)

Book 3 will be the consequence of Book 2. Perhaps the parcel is waylaid, perhaps it reaches its destination, perhaps an answer is sent back. Perhaps one isn’t and our protagonist has to leave his or her hometown and go and investigate. Perhaps the parcel was addressed to the protagonist and returns – maybe in the interim, he or she (or it) has lost his/her/its memory?

Regardless, we have our plot. Now let’s tie it into the world. Or tie the world into the plot. Let’s assume we’ve already built a machine world and its full of robots that use oil (synthetic oil). The supply of that’s steady, the economy’s good, there are no wars, and everyone’s going around as they ought – perhaps without purpose. Let’s assume there are no more humans or perhaps there never were.

Using the plot, create a narrative – and form a history. Add in events from the news if it’s appropriate, perhaps new-fangled inventions, economic crises, even the weather. Do this in order to have instances that will affect the characters – either directly, indirectly, or both. Perhaps the price of fuel rises between Book 1 & 2 but falls between Book 2 & 3; is that relevant? That depends on the plot, and whether or not your character has to work and pay bills. Maybe the cost of fuel rises so sharply he/she is forced to find another job and this poisons their mindsets towards those ‘Grey-iron lumber-bots’ who have migrated into the inner cities from the rural outskirts. Perhaps in Book 3, he’s forced to reconsider that view, because his little cousin is taught by a ‘Grey-iron lumber-bot’ in factory-school – our protagonist inwardly mutters until one day he’s forced to go in for a parent-teacher analysis and a magical romance begins – or flatlines on account of his bad attitude. Maybe that attitude is justified.

Characters

Characters need to grow and shift with the story, in relation to each other, and to the plot. When the world changes, the characters need to either change with it or refuse to change. Those who remain steadfast in their ways may actively choose not to move with the times, to their detriment and benefit.

Deeper Analysis

I’m not entirely convinced I’ve answered the question sufficiently at this point. Each thing leads into the next: the plot drives the world, the world drives the characters, the characters drive the plot – the plot drives the characters, the characters drive the world, the world drives the plot.

Planning doesn’t always work out the way one intends; timelines, plots, characters get abandoned in favour of better ideas that may turn out to be less than stellar. The real key here is persistence, patience, exploration, imagination, and allowing oneself the freedom to just play. Have those crazy ideas, those sane ideas, that writer’s block. Walk away, come back. Inject elements of another genre.

Know your genre. Knowing what to write helps but isn’t strictly necessary. Find what fits for the characters, for the plot. Maybe the twist in the tale is that there is no twist. Maybe the twist that the character thought he/she saw coming was completely wrong. Jot down your characters’ feelings (or lack therefore of), perhaps in the margin. Outline and outline again. Or simply write.

Differences of Style

The trouble with this question is that every writer is different, has their own methodology and ways of working and what works for one writer (or even for one story!) might not work for another. Some writers like to discover their character as they go along, while others like to know the intimate details of their character, their quirks, secrets. For example, does wearing a certain item of clothing give your character confidence? Perhaps those platforms hold special meaning, or that bracelet that they are always fiddling with is an apparent memento but actually something that just caught their eye at a street stand? Perhaps they like to wear something that no one else can see – such as a tattoo hidden behind makeup, or a pair of unmentionables. Perhaps they regard this item as ‘lucky’.

Those little details all tie into the world and the world ties into those details, and this can be used to shape the plot. What happens when those boots get a hole in? Or that bracelet snaps or is lost? A jealous love interest/ex steals it? It’s these little details – and jotting them down – that I find helps sustain a longer series for me.

My Answer

So I suppose, to answer the question, the greatest way I know how to structure a story is through the overuse of ‘what ifs’ in order to create branching plotlines, character arcs, and then scribbling it down on paper or just holding a basic premise in my mind and leaving notes to myself under the heading: ‘next up’. In the case of the latter, which I did for my first NaNoWriMo (2011), I didn’t check back on the previous chapters, but in other projects I did check back and read. As it happens, I didn’t check back on any of my NaNoWriMos as I was writing them, although they were more planned than the first one, albeit loosely planned in the case of 2012, and then increasingly tighter as the series progressed but I still allowed myself the freedom to just write.

Sometimes, I find that as I write, the world develops. I start with a seed, a germ of an idea, and I just take it and move forwards, always building, always adding, and sometimes cutting and retracting.

And if one draft doesn’t work, perhaps the next will. A lot can be crossed out on one draft, and new content added for the second. The scale is perhaps the biggest factor in how I structure my stories – a tight focus is easier to maintain (although there is the risk of stagnation), whereas, a larger one has more moving pieces (which sounds obvious now I write it out).

But there you have it. That’s how I structure the ‘stuff’ of stories. Honestly though, it’s a chaotic mess most of the time.

Anyway, see you next time!

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