(Writing) The Anatomy of the Story

Writing 150This summer I want to take the time and get really serious about my writing. That means working on it every day, reading stories from friends and colleagues as much as possible, and thinking about the aspects of my craft that I need to work on. When I asked my husband — the accomplished writer and wonderful dragon The Pen Drake — what I should work on first, it didn’t take him long to answer with “narrative structure”. After a moment’s consideration I totally see it. Plotting is one of those basic tools in a writer’s toolbox, and it’s one that I haven’t learned to use very well.

Plot is basically the series of events in a story that leads the characters through their arc. Ideally it should be interrelated with the character’s internal progression AND their external conflict; the main character’s main flaw is a significant barrier or source of conflict that needs to be overcome before the plot can be resolved. The main character is motivated to resolve the plot because it’s the only way they can get the one thing they desire. So the way the plot unfolds is inextricably linked to the internal world of the protagonist; the mistakes they make and the ultimate solution they come up with is based on who they are.

I think the main problem I have with plotting is, weirdly enough, having the protagonist actively work to achieve their goals and dealing with the consequences of those actions. In most of my stories the main character is little more than an observer, there to witness and chronicle the things that happen in the story. The protagonist takes in the action, but rarely actually initiates it, and the external stimulus is absorbed into their internal mental and emotional process.

What ends up happening is a lot of description; what’s happening in the world, immediately relevant to the viewpoint character, and how it makes them feel or changes the way they think. To be honest, I really love exploring how people are changed by the things they experience, and I love describing fantastic situations to explore how they’re interpreted through the lens of a particular person. But that’s only one half of the story; the insights you gain mean nothing until you put them into practice. You have to come down from the mountain, as they say.

So what I need to do is move further with the basic situations in my stories. It’s all well and good that a character’s life has been changed by something that’s happened, but what do they do about it? How does it get them closer to what they want? And what are the consequences of their actions on the world around them? What does that say about their priorities, and the setting?

The next Patreon serial I’m working on is a good opportunity to think about that. The plan is to make the protagonist the captain of a starship tasked with exploring the frontier and helping out in any way they can. In the first story, the crew of the ship contracts a disease that severely hampers their ability to carry out that mission; anywhere they go is now at risk of contracting the disease as well. How does the captain deal with that situation? How are his personal flaws going to make the resolution more difficult to come by? How do his actions affect the rest of the crew as well as anyone else they come into contact with? And what finally allows him to overcome those personal flaws to resolve the problem?

If all goes well, this will be the first serial of many in this setting. In future serials, the viewpoint character might shift so we’ll get a sense of how the captain’s resolution spins out to affect other officers and members of the crew. It’s ambitious, but that also means that the resolution of one plot becomes the catalyst for another — and that’s an exciting idea. To be honest, that’s what really attracts me to serialized fiction in the first place. Stories are never self-contained; they’re ripples on a continuum that keep extending outward.

Anyway, as I keep working on the pre-writing for this and other stories I’ll talk about my progress with this particular aspect of the craft. For now, I’m probably sticking to basic plots just to make sure I can construct a solid skeleton for the story I’m trying to tell. As I get more comfortable, I can move on to more complicated plots or figure out what kinds of twists I like.

If you have any advice on plotting, or any resources that have helped you figure out how to get better at it, why not share them in the comments? I’d be grateful for the help!

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