Have you ever wandered? Not wonder, mind you. You're likely already wondering where I am going with this post. But have you wandered. If you were like me as a child, wandering was amongst the greatest hobbies. In those days, it seemed like an adventure of itself, discovering the world with fresh, innocent eyes by the monotony of milling about. It was a wonderful time (Pun intended). But as we get older, wandering doesn't seem to hold the same value as it once did. We get upset when the GPS reroutes us and loses signal. We hate to have to stomp around the grocery store in search for that one elusive line on our list. We even grumble when Netflix won't give us good suggestions and we have to go digging on our own! So, what makes us, as writers, think that wandering through our story is acceptable?
Abraham Lincoln once said, "Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe." Words to write by, friends. Your imagination is an incredible, God-given playground, an easel with which you can experiment and dream without borders. But when it comes to transplanting those imaginings to the page, much can be lost in the journey. That's why preparation is critical when it comes to telling your story. If you leap into the tale without having tools at your disposal, plots planned out, characters carefully created, and an end in sight, you are setting yourself up for likely failure. We can't simply wander through our stories with no clear objectives or solid groundwork and expect it to hold the same value for the reader as it did while in your mind.
So, what does such organization look like? When you're a creative thinker, it can be very difficult to sit still and carve out the tedious details hovering around in your head. But remember, the four hours spent sharpening the axe only makes the tree fall both faster and with less effort. I am no master organizer, as my wife may attest. I don't have any level of obsessive-compulsion to keep things neat and tidy, but I have deciphered a feasible way to keep my mind on track when structuring my stories. Three facets lead the charge: Character Bios, Plot Arc, and Explosive Scenes. If you have a difficult time staying on track towards the goal of your writing project, whether it be fiction or nonfiction, novel or short story, then perhaps you can find some assistance in my methods.
Let's begin with Character Creation. In my humble opinion, this can be one of the best places to start. Without engaging, relatable characters, a story can feel dry and forced. Oftentimes, we as writers plant a few main players in the tale, work a little on their personalities, and then let the rest unfold as the story progresses. While that may work for some, I can confirm that it's not a foolproof plan. I suggest sharpening the axe a little more before setting to work on the tree. Here is a great way to look at the gambit of characters in your story: you have Primary (main), Secondary (minor), and Tertiary (temporary support) players.
Primary characters are exactly what the title entails. They are the individuals that the story revolves around. Before ever putting your pen to the page, these characters need to be well-considered and fully developed. What are their personalities like? Are they short-tempered or patient? Are they bold or reserved? Intelligent or average? What are their worldviews? Are they religious or secular? Are they apathetic or active in society? How about physical appearance? Tall or short? Hefty or thin? Good eyesight, poor hearing, any physical ailments? The list can go on and on... But you get the idea. Even the smallest traits play into your understanding of these primary characters. When you create a scenario in the story, these nuances will determine their reactions and even feed into the Plot Arc that we will discuss later. Bear in mind, as well, that your primary characters are as much human as you or I. They may be the heroes, but they are flawed and those flaws need to be shown. Realism is a factor that every reader aches to see. It helps your audience connect on a personal level that may be difficult with the "Superman" types. Consider this carefully as you forge them.
Secondary characters are still important to the Plot Arc, but have less prevalence in the grander scheme. These are the distant friends, the relatives that show up occasionally but don't hang around, even the villains that play a role but have little presence compared to a Primary antagonist. In fact, a secondary character can be considered anyone in the story that impacts the Plot Arc in any shape or form, but does not constitute someone the story focuses on. This is the sandwich category that many, many players will fall into. Let's move onto the next category to give a better understanding of what a secondary character looks like by defining what he/she is not.
Tertiary characters are the chaff. Yep. They mean nothing to the overall story and they impact only your ability to formulate a real experience. This is the cashier at the grocery that has to check the prime character out. If the cashier was missing, the prime character would actually be stealing when he/she exits the store with goods in hand. Doesn't make much business sense to have an open market like that... Let's take this into a Gunslinging Western world for one of my favorite analogies. A tertiary character may be one of the many victims for the John Wayne of the story, as he draws down on a group of bandits and empties his six-shot revolver. They have no names, no personalities other than bandit-like behavior. They don't even matter other than being fodder for John Wayne's slick shooting. But without these characters, John would have no one to shoot, thus making this gunslinger keep his gun holstered. Tertiary characters are necessary to create a flow to the story and keep it locked in reality, but ultimately are expendable. Sounds harsh, I know, but knowing and remembering this as you write can save you time and effort of trying to forge too many secondary characters. Not all players in your tale have to be developed to the same level as the others. Take time to properly categorize and you will be well on your way to wise writing.
Now let's talk about Plot Arc. This is where your fiery imagination is translated to cold, calculated facts. We're not trying to turn you into a computer, but you need to access the left side of your brain for this exercise. Every good story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Simple logic. So, what does each stage entail? I'm glad you asked. How about a quick, bullet-point breakdown to help guide your plot creation:
For example, if I wanted John Wayne to have a love interest during my story, I can't simply ignite the flame and then send him out to deliver justice on the frontier, forgetting that the flame still burns back home. I have to address it in John's thoughts, forge scenes that show how the love is still alive, or even reunite John with his love at some point during the story. If John continues slaying his enemies and never stops to think of her or return to her, then why did I form the love interest in the first place? It was dead space in the tale, and readers don't enjoy dead space.
And lastly, let's cover Explosive Scenes. This may be the shortest section of all, as it speaks for itself. Consider the following comparison:
But keep in mind that these events should be developed before you write, at least to a base level. If you're like me, scenes play out well as I am in the moment of writing. I see and experience things in my imagination that just don't come as I plan and prepare in a methodical sense. But before I begin writing, I ensure that I have the right idea paved out; I know exactly what is going to take place and I know that there are certain aspects of the scene that need to stand out to the readers. Therefore, my Explosive Scenes are set; I only need to color in the lines with a vivid palette.
All this said, take time to carefully plot out your story before diving in. It pays to be patient and prepare. Honest Abe thought so, and I believe that we ought to do the same. Still looking for some tools and software to use to make this process easier? Drop a comment below and we would be happy to share our favorites to help make your writing project a true success. Until next time...
Steven C McCullough
Author and Agent to QuickFire.