I finished the rough draft! I didn’t think my story would end the way it did, and that’s a very good thing. I’ve surprised myself, even if I knew roughly how it should end. So I’m done right? Not nearly. The journey is far from over. Now that I have something to work with, I must look at it objectively. I compile my massive amounts of notes and address them. I try to get everything into Scrivener and flesh out any parts that are underdeveloped. Then, once I’m satisfied, I’ll look at my general outline. This gives me a chance to really get a bird’s-eye view and switch on the story structure part of my brain.
For structure stuff, I loosely follow the guidelines laid out in the “Hero’s Journey” and even more so in “Dramatica” — but I really just make sure that it makes sense. If there aren’t gaping holes, sections missing or double-beats, I move on. Story theory and story structure are really just tools to analyze what I already have. In an extreme void of creativity they can prove useful to find a solution, but I would never start with an outlined structure in mind. How could I? I don’t know what’s going to happen in the story any more than the characters would, living it out in real-time. They will inform me of what happens next, what they want and try to do and what happens as a result of it. Story structure would get in the way, and at best it would work but come off contrived and formulaic.
Now if there ARE gaping holes or if I’m just feeling like something is missing, I might turn to the old Hero’s Journey outline and see what it might offer. There’s volumes of books and seminars on the subject.
However, I took two years of story theory at CalArts that focused on the Hero’s Journey and I ended up learning more about constructing story from one year of Dramatica. I would urge anyone interested to check out their site, or take a trip on over to my professor Jim Hull’s blog, Narrative First (formerly Story Fanatic). Jim is an animator and story artist over at DreamWorks and really knows his stuff inside and out. He lays out the basics of the subject in his books.
Dramatica is more than a story book, however. It offers an interactive tool where one can plug in aspects of a story and it in return plugs plot holes, solidifies character interactions and helps complete your story in such a way that it will resonate with your audience long after they’ve put down your book. Worth taking a look, for kicks if nothing else. I honestly don’t use it the way it was intended, but knowing the story theory behind it has helped me out tremendously.
Once I’m satisfied with the working outline, I’ll scrutinize the details of the story a bit deeper and get more into research. More notes, adjusting things and rearranging. Some parts remain largely unaltered, while others are expanded or improved upon based on the research I find or connections I hadn’t yet seen in the story. The second pass is perfect for making sure those through-lines, themes and foreshadowing are well-placed.
But as I said, the journey is far from over. Here is where the really hard part begins. One has to make hard decisions and really start to craft the story. A lot of the time, my rough draft doesn’t even read like a story. It’s awful, some of it still in bullet point form or a very rudimentary sentence describing the sentiment or action. Hopefully, I’ve gotten down the core of the story and answered the questions: What happens to the characters? What choices do they make? How does it all unfold? What does it mean to them? How does it affect them? Etc…
After writing out an entire novel by hand, I’ll often forget what it’s like to be a reader. Since my book really isn’t at the stage where I can read it like a reader, I find it somewhat therapeutic and informative to pick up some old favorites and re-read them just to remind myself what a book feels like. If something strikes me, I’ll make a note reminding myself to try and apply it to my own work. There is no one way to tell a story and no right or wrong way to write. Ultimately it comes down to taste. I love both Hemingway and Fitzgerald, though they’re vastly different in style. The same could be said about any number of authors. Finding what resonates with you will help unleash your own unique style as it challenges what you innately find appealing or not.
I’d really encourage writers to go with their gut. Use trial and error and pick apart your favorite stories and films as opposed to studying structure and writing. That being said, there are some other books on story structure I would recommend to at least throw into your head (but only after you’ve already written your story). I would NOT recommend the popular book “Story” by Robert McKee. It’s purely critical and offers nothing to the would-be writer — and on that note, take anything these books say with a grain of salt: