Building with Legos

I acknowledge the trademarked status of “Lego” building blocks and use it here without permission.

Phew! Legalities aside let’s get to it. :)

After Mark’s recent Q&A with me for his site, and Paul’s post last week on first novels, I got to thinking about how I approach an idea when it’s new and it still needs a lot of fleshing out—how I personally build a story.

The first thing that occurs to me is a basic plot, a direction I’d like the story to go in, and usually this is in the form of the initial setting, the climax, and the dénouement. (Incidentally, I consider the dénouement as separate from the climax, though I know that some people combine the two; I’ve found dictionaries to differ on this point.) After this I try to brainstorm some characters to accompany the single character that I vaguely have in mind, the one who will travel through the more mentally established storyline.

At this point things usually get turned around for me. The more I develop the characters, it seems, the more they take over the story themselves through their growing personalities and the interactions that they generate. This pattern really takes off once I actually start writing, sometimes to the point where the story will head in a completely different direction, and sometimes to the point where the characters simply won’t work with each other and one or more has to be abandoned. And as we’ve discussed here of late, sometimes the entire project has to be abandoned.

For this reason I find it helpful to keep my story planning to a minimum, to a rough chapter outline at most. This approach worked very well when Eric and I were creating “Green Skies”. As that was a graphic novel the art had a huge influence on the story and so after my first draft of each chapter he and I would work together on the changes he thought necessary from his point of view as the artist (and of course as a reader). Only after the later drafts had been established would he then storyboard the frames for each chapter.

Likewise, other stories I’ve been involved with, my own or others, will often undergo metamorphoses based on how an established character may or may not relate to a situation or another character—issues dealing with motivation, requiring the writer and editor to put themselves in the character’s mind and try to see their world from their standpoint. Not an easy thing to do, as I’m sure is well understood. On the other hand, less character-driven stories require far more planning ahead of time, I think, to keep the focus of the project sharp and the point that the writer wants to make always visible. Losing oneself in a non-character based story runs the danger of it falling flat on its face.

These are just some thoughts I had on the matter, and I’d love to hear from others the process they go through and the initial approach they take.

And lastly, speaking of stories, I finally took the time to figure out the Kindle pricing scheme for people selling on international sites but based outside of the U.S. The upshot of which is that now “Randolph’s One Bedroom” is at long last available for just 99 cents! (Though note that the displayed price varies when amazon.com is viewed from outside the U.S.) The very price I’ve been wanting to sell it at since I published the nutty thing a year ago. All’s well that ends well, I suppose.

Next week, Paul j Rogers looks at planning a novel.

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4 Comments

  1. Paul
    Posted May 14, 2011 at 4:08 am | Permalink

    The differences between BrE and AmE never cease to amaze: Lego (uncountable) in the UK. Regarding how much to plan beforehand, I guess it’s case by case. You can start with a blank page or create a detailed outline. Somewhere between the two works best for me although it’s more just research than plot direction.

  2. Andrew
    Posted May 14, 2011 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

    Yeah, I know. I think the company name officially lacks the ‘s’ but as a kid I always pluralized it. I’ve noticed that my nephew does the same. I suppose it makes sense when you’re referring to the pile of blocks on the floor rather than the company itself.

    Just out of curiosity, whereabouts between a blank page and a detailed outline are you? Do you make an outline of ideas for each chapter or just notes on your research? Or something else entirely?

  3. Posted May 15, 2011 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    Characters always come first for me and it generally starts with names, or nicknames. Once I have a name, I get a voice and a look. Once that happens, plot ideas start to form but its been different with each project. Dogs Chase Cars took me where the characters wanted to take me with very little planning. The sequel is 20,000 words in and developing alongs the same lines but with more planning. I am re-drafting my second novel ‘Moscow Drive’ and it features around 50 characters and an awful lot of sub-plotting. Naturally, this has called for a detailed chapter plan to tie all of those subs together.
    I am always fascinated by the process and how different writers approach it. I’ve been telling myself that I may get around to trying the John Irving approach one of these days. Last line first, work backwards from the climax to find the beginning and the first line will be the last line you write.

  4. Andrew
    Posted May 16, 2011 at 1:09 am | Permalink

    I’ve been telling myself that I may get around to trying the John Irving approach one of these days. Last line first, work backwards from the climax to find the beginning and the first line will be the last line you write.

    Now that is interesting!

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