How do great writers create stories?
June 20, 2010 4:14 AM   Subscribe

How do great writers create stories?

I'm an avid computer programmer. I can sit at a computer for 24+ hours at a time, pounding away code to solve a particular problem. But when I try to write a story (film format is my endgoal), I pound out some great ideas, characters, and possibilities for thirty minutes or so. When I look back at what I've written, I realize they are pages of wandering randomness, I get frustrated that I'm not heading anywhere specific, and then my mind shuts off with frustration as I turn to something else.

How do the great writers start, plan, and plot along their stories to the end? I understand the elements of a good story (I've read a handful of writing books and am proficient to know what a good story/film is) -- character arcs, ups/downs, exposition, denoument, climaxes -- but once you have a concept/idea/character, what general direction do you head to from there? How do you plot yourself along?

When I write a program, I take little steps toward a firm endpoint out on the horizon -- the solution to a problem:

"Ok, I need this program to accomplish Z, so it first needs to do W, X, and Y. Great, now it can do X, next I need it to do Y. Ok, now it can do Y, now it needs to do W." These minor checkpoints or successes provide the incentive/urge/motivation/rush that yes, I am successfully making progress toward my endgoal, and thus help drive me forward into the wee hours of the morning.

But how do writers like Stephen King and Cormac Mccarthy write a story (I've read King's 'On Writing')? Do they think about an endgoal of what they want a character to learn or accomplish? Say -- "I want this father and son to find hope for the future", as in 'The Road'? Do they find a theme that they want to discuss or explore tr get people thinking, like ethics of good vs. evil in 'The Stand'? Or is it more of a wandering What-if game like "What would happen if a kid started practicing self-induced schizophrenia? What would happen if this kid visited an asylum? What if this kid met X?" Then letting the imagination wander as it finds more characters and situations that collide until the synching thread of plot is pulled taught and it all comes together?

I've heard that King doesn't outline, he just goes with the flow and free-writes linearly as it comes (I may be wrong on this). Of course, King is such a grandmaster at writing, that maybe this doesn't work for most of us "lesser-forms" of creative authorship :)

Besides finding some kind of goal or endpoint, perhaps I need to find ways to reach 'checkpoints' so I feel like I'm making progress, rather than just write-blasting away for a period of time, having no idea if I'm making progress or writing something worthwhile.

Of course, I realize that there is no one right answer to this. All conversation and book recommendations are very much appreciated!
posted by coldblackice to Writing & Language (48 answers total) 212 users marked this as a favorite
Yes, everyone does it differently and there's no one right answer. So I'll just present my own answer.

I tend to think in a combination of mechanistic goal-oriented plotting, and a kind of daydreaming -- walking around in my character's life, in my imagination, and trying to figure out what she would do and what she needs.

For my first novel, which was just recently published, I started with the basic concept of a girl who's going across the country on her bike. Okay, why would her parents let her do that? Are they neglectful? Nah, that's not really the book I want to write. Maybe they recognize that it's something really important to her. Okay, what's so important to her? Her best friend just died. That's not an answer that you can get by thinking "X needs to happen so Y can happen" -- it has to be something that resonates a little in your heart, I think, or at least it needs to make sense for it to be THIS CHARACTER'S yearning rather than someone else's yearning. Cass is shy, has few real friends, is confused about her sexuality and her feelings for her best friend. That's why the loss of her best friend devastated her so much, and that's why she can't talk to her remaining friends about it (especially her best friend's boyfriend!)

So, what needs to happen, emotionally, over the course of the novel?

* She needs to process her feelings for Julia and about her own sexual identity.
* She needs to reconcile with Julia's friends, and Julia's boyfriend.

That's different from what needs to happen in the plot, which is that she needs to get to California on her bike. But her goal to get to California on her bike intersects in various ways with what needs to happen for her emotionally.

So the events of the novel have to take her closer to those goals -- or, more likely, they have to take her farther away. Or take her closer by taking her far away. And that provided some signposts for where I could put turning points in the plot.

*I have to put her in such a desperate situation that she'll call Julia's boyfriend after they've had a terrible falling-out. If it were a serious injury she'd probably call her parents, but if she got her bike stolen, maybe...

*I have to put her in a situation that distracts her from her mission (taking Julia's ashes to the sea) because I don't think she'll ever confront her grief unless she fails, hard. And what if that distraction was a girl? Then she would have to confront her sexuality as well.

The thing is, though, if I'm just thinking about it mechanistically I'm going to get bad ideas, boring ideas, old ideas, ideas that could be true for any character and not just the one I'm writing about. So I have to spend a lot of time watching the story through my character's eyes and waiting patiently until I find a possibility that rings true.

That was not a heavily or tightly plotted book, and relied more on the emotional arcs than on a traditional X-so-then-Y kind of plot. For the latter, you may need to work the external plot more heavily, but always making sure it furthers the emotional plot at the same time.
posted by Jeanne at 4:52 AM on June 20, 2010 [24 favorites]

I've read from a lot of writers that they just write, with no real idea of how things will end up. Often surprised by where the characters end up. In this A.V Club interview with Vince Gilligan (spoilers if you haven't seen the final episodes of this season's Breaking Bad, he talks about how often the writers will set up a scenario, and then spend days trying to get their way out of it.

That said I am sure there are many authors who write with the entire book mapped out, or perhaps the only thing they do know is how the story will end, and they have to figure out how to work their way to that conclusion.

I think the key is just to write write write. Sometimes your ideas will go nowhere, other times you'll hit on something good. Write write write, then edit edit edit, and you might be surprised at what happens.
posted by backwards guitar at 4:56 AM on June 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

There's a good writing podcast, Will Write For Wine (fyi, focus is on romance novels) where they say that all writers are split into two camps, Plotters and Pantsers. Plotters spend a long time working out their plots and characters before they ever start the actual writing. They know their beginning, middle and end, and all the major scenes they need along the way. Pantsers just write and see where it takes you, letting the situation and characters suggest the next development as they go. And if you're a Pantser sometimes you need to write a LOT to find your plot. I tried Pantsing once, and after 50,000 words I think I finally had a good idea for a story.

I think one of the best examples you could look towards with film writing as your final goal is Pixar. They spend years putting together a story. Sometimes when you hear the original pitches ou wonder how anyone could have EVER thought some of those things were a good idea. But they refined, and refined and thought harder. And now they're known for their pitch perfect plots and characters. But they wouldn't get there without a lot of thought and revision.

The other thing you ought to look into is Nanowrimo. Nano is a writing challenge held every November for people to try writing a book in 30 days. The goal is to write a finished piece, not necessarily a GOOD finished piece. But the forums (open year round) are a wealth of good advice and encouragement, and will help you meet writers in your area. It's a fantastic, if grueling, experience. And I think it helps to surround yourself with others facing the same challenges and with the same dreams you do.
posted by Caravantea at 5:01 AM on June 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

There's probably also a fair number who compromise between Plotters and Pantsers. Just as, when writing a textbook or a manual, you should start with the Table of Contents and then expand each chapter at a time, in the same way you can write your plot's Table of Contents (opening, mid-game development, endgame). Then, when you start writing, you have a fair idea where you're heading, which helps. Helps a lot. But if the characters are really alive, if they are really carrying your story forward, they will surprise you: you will find them doing and saying things you never planned, never expected them to say or do. This is great; you will probably need to adjust your "Table of Contents" development plan. Perhaps more than once. Until after a while you don't need it any more, because the critical mass you have built up of storyline, characterisation and development carries you along and you are running to keep up and don't need these props and can discard them.

I published a novel in which the storyline took on a mind of its own, and started heading in a direction I had never planned. I was obliged to split the narration into two alternate POVs for purely logistical reasons that were never in my original intention. But it was the characters and the plot which pushed me into doing that, and I found that tremendously encouraging, because it meant the whole ms was taking on a life of its own, and I was merely recording it, rather than labouring to produce it. And because I had blackmailed myself into staying on track by putting the ending into the first chapter, this provided an anchor which kept me tethered.
posted by aqsakal at 6:06 AM on June 20, 2010

Blackice, I'm struggling with the same problem. I think you might find this book useful - "From Where You Dream," by Robert Olen Butler (you can read one of his short stories here).

R.O.B's strategy is to daydream, or meditate, or simply think deeply on a certain character or situation or event or object, until your mind starts coming up with ideas of its own accord. Sit and think and let your mind wander around. For larger works like novels, he'll break it down into chapters or chunks, write short reminders of them on notecards, and then play around with them on a table, adding and subtracting and modifying at will.

A lot of his advice makes good sense, but I'm beginning to suspect it may not all be for me. You gotta find what works for you. The one definite, unchanging piece of advice I took away from the book is that writing take a lot of practice. Write as much as you can every day. Be consistent. Even if you never turn into an acclaimed author, it won't be time wasted.
posted by boghead at 6:09 AM on June 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Gotta write, every day.

Gotta read, every day.

(Stephen King does not count)

Gotta be cool with throwing out a day's work.

Gotta be cool with digging through the trash to find that brilliant thing you threw out.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 6:21 AM on June 20, 2010

So sorry: on preview I saw that you had asked how great writers create stories, not how any writer does it. Not being a great writer, I wouldn't know. I just got carried away with describing how I had created a story, and have too late spotted the implicit cockiness in my reply. But I hope my contribution and others' will help you, and you will find nuggets in there which speak to you and set your mind working.
posted by aqsakal at 6:27 AM on June 20, 2010

There's some great advice from Jim Butcher here. (Scroll down to the bottom for the first entry - it makes more sense that way)
posted by tdismukes at 6:40 AM on June 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: No problem -- we're all beautiful and budding flowers capable of producing great works :)

Fantastic answers and dialog so far! I'm seeing two collective themes discussed so far: Plot and Character, Outline and Free-roam.

I started to type out some thoughts on the importance of one over the other, but I'm reminded that my problem is more of "How do I?" than "Why should I?"

It seems that the two method poles are structured outlines vs. roaming free-thought, both with equal merit and effectiveness. A combination of the two feels right. Thanks for the strategies so far.

How do you guys take your stories from beginning to end? What are the actual process and time schedules you impose (if any)? Of course, differing people, stories and types will have a wide range of possibilities, so please expand on any, even if they're just one-liner techniques that you implement to help bring about a story from concept to end.

For example, "When I want to write a short story, I take a concept/character and write it on the middle of my whiteboard"; "I do a free-write blast for twenty minutes at the start of each story session"; "I keep track of character biographies as they come along"; etc. And techniques heard from other writers are equally welcome.

Do you impose a schedule or deadlines during the process, whether on a plotted, timely scale or an ultimate finish date?
posted by coldblackice at 6:51 AM on June 20, 2010

Response by poster: Not to detract from my primary issue of not knowing how to take story ideas from concept to end, but in my cross-reference of other MeFi questions, it seems that a big part of accomplishing this task is simply imposing a deadline, forcing the poles to meet somehow, no matter how initially crappy it happens.

Jonathan Coulton produces heaps of consistent, very creative material. Here's a podcast of some of his processing to accomplish what he does: J. Coulton and the Forced March
posted by coldblackice at 7:04 AM on June 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

When I look back at what I've written, I realize they are pages of wandering randomness, I get frustrated that I'm not heading anywhere specific, and then my mind shuts off with frustration as I turn to something else.

Just curious, have you shown this writing to others? What do they say about it? It's important to get feedback and see how well people understand it.

As to general points, I work in what I think are layers, where things are constantly rewritten in draft after draft, until I get to the point where things work.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:13 AM on June 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm a bit of an evangelist for Script Frenzy and NaNoWriMo in terms of having a deadline imposed.

Both programs give writers FREE tools, expert advice, and the aforementioned deadline. I've written 2 scripts and 2 novels with them. Nothing is brilliant yet, but just forcing myself to write so much has GREATLY improved by ability to tell a story. Both programs also have a young writers component for which some pretty amazing workbooks have been created. You should check them out.
posted by ilikecookies at 7:19 AM on June 20, 2010 [3 favorites]

How do great writers create stories?

"To produce a mighty book, you must chose a mighty theme." --Herman Melville.

It seems that the two method poles are structured outlines vs. roaming free-thought, both with equal merit and effectiveness. A combination of the two feels right.

Read Writing: You Can't Hurry Love by Bill Wheeler.
posted by Fuzzy Monster at 7:39 AM on June 20, 2010 [3 favorites]

Are you familiar at all with the snowflake method?
posted by trunk muffins at 7:40 AM on June 20, 2010 [4 favorites]

Gotta read, every day.

(Stephen King does not count)

What? Of course he counts. In fact, he's great as a writer to look to for rising tensions and suspense, not to mention vivid descriptions--if a writer should only read for instructiveness. But that's not, actually, the case. A writer needs to read everything he or she can get his or her hands on--reading widely in a variety of genres. Sheesh.

How do you guys take your stories from beginning to end? What are the actual process and time schedules you impose (if any)? Of course, differing people, stories and types will have a wide range of possibilities, so please expand on any, even if they're just one-liner techniques that you implement to help bring about a story from concept to end.

I use the one-foot-in-front-of-the-other method. Which is to say, I view writing as a journey that can only be completed by taking small steps daily. My goal is to put some words on the page every single day--ideally between 500 and 3000 words, though sometimes this gets away from me. I generally don't rewrite while I'm drafting unless there's something terribly pressing that's getting in the way of my forward momentum (like I've mucked up a character, and need to set him straight). 500 words daily is a great goal for beginners, I think. That's only about two paragraphs, but it's enough that you can finish a novel in half a year, and enough that you'll be able to feel your progress as you move forward.

I've drafted three novels this way, and am halfway into a fourth. I've never done much in the way of pre-writing--notes or outlines seem like distractions to me--but I do always have the bulk of the novel planned before I write. I think of a novel as a problem that needs to be solved. For example, my generative idea might be that the citizens of a space colony, isolated from Earth, mysteriously die. There are tons of problems to untangle with that, and not just the why. For example, why is the space colony isolated from Earth? What political or environmental situation exists that made them flee? How is their death discovered? Who bears the bad news to the survivors? Then I think, I'd like a teenage girl to be the one who discovers this. Why would a teenage girl do so? Who would she have to be?

As you can see, it's a process that involves asking a lot of questions and stumbling upon just a few answers. Those answers will give rise to more questions, but if you're reading widely, you'll see how those answers could feasibly fit into the plot of a book. So it's not always a matter of two extremes. I always know how my books will end before I write a single word. That's not to say I've written any of that down, though.

One writer I love to recommend for his books on writing is Lawrence Block, who has written a bagillion novels. He has a bunch of books on writing ("Telling Lies for Fun and Profit") is one, and he has a no-whining, no bullshit approach to writing that really rang true to me. I'd highly recommend him.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:44 AM on June 20, 2010 [4 favorites]


Ive got six books out, and for all the reading and thinking about writing I've done, something that still just makes my head swim and make me think I need to go back and start reading and thinking about writing more, is something I heard John Irving say in an interview.

He always writes the last sentence of the book first. And never changes it.
posted by timsteil at 7:48 AM on June 20, 2010 [6 favorites]

How do you guys take your stories from beginning to end? What are the actual process and time schedules you impose (if any)?

If I know what's going to happen next, I write.
If I don't know what's going to happen next, I either daydream or problem-solve. Usually on the subway, while walking, in the shower, etc.
(So it works for me to write for about an hour in the morning, and then if there are any roadblocks or problems that come up I can noodle at them during the day, and then I'll do some more writing at night.)

Problem-solving is getting around logistical things (how does she break out of the fenced-in-factory?) or plot things (why would she believe him when he says X?).
Daydreaming is more hammering out the specific emotional beats of a scene, the dialogue, and so forth. I like to have at least a little of that before I actually start writing the scene.

I aim for three or so sessions of 20 minutes each, or about 750 words, per day, but I try to count it as a win if I solve a major plot problem, even if I don't get down as many words as I wanted.
posted by Jeanne at 7:51 AM on June 20, 2010

(Please excuse the typos in the above; clearly, editing is a different story entirely!)

"Ok, I need this program to accomplish Z, so it first needs to do W, X, and Y. Great, now it can do X, next I need it to do Y. Ok, now it can do Y, now it needs to do W." These minor checkpoints or successes provide the incentive/urge/motivation/rush that yes, I am successfully making progress toward my endgoal, and thus help drive me forward into the wee hours of the morning.

On rereading the question, this actually sounds exactly like how I approach my novels. Again, think of a book in terms of end goals. Nifty ideas are great, but only in the service of those goals.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:53 AM on June 20, 2010

Response by poster: @Brandon: I don't show this writing to others. I've written some great stuff in the past, that unless I have a solid, polished piece, I abhor the thought of showing such "garbage" to anyone else. Perhaps I'm too self-critical.

@ilikecookies: I've done Nano, haven't tried Script Frenzy. Nano was a great experience in getting my daily word count down and feeling successful, but what I regurgitated was nowhere close to any semblence of a story -- just aimlessly running down the fractals of imaginative possibility. I feel Nano is a very powerful tool, but difficult for one who doesn't have the basics of fleshing a concept into an arcing story.

@Fuzzy: Interesting link. Perhaps it's a bit egotistical of me to want control over my creativity and not wait or nurture its random comings and goings. Some might disagree that creativity can't be forced, but I've also read much from the other camp (like the link above of Jon Coulton) that say that you can't wait for the "right time" for creativity to come; it's induced by the actual repetitive work that you hammer out.

I'm no expert between these camps, though. I guess I'd like to believe that I can train myself to dedicate certain times of day for writing sessions, and that they'll be more productive than waiting for the inspiration and then jumping on it. Of course this means keeping a notebook at all times for the ideas that come at any random time, but I'd like to (wish, at least) think that I can have a set daily writing structure, but more importantly -- gain joy from the process as I can feel/see that I'm making gainful progress toward building a functioning, entertaining world to share with others.

@trunk: I've bookmarked it, but never read it. Time to read it, thanks :)
posted by coldblackice at 7:57 AM on June 20, 2010

Solipsophistocracy's answer is worth expanding upon. I don't do any of these things, but I'm not a writer. My answer is based on reading about writers and reading about being good at stuff in general.

As frightening as it is to imagine that Stephen King has thousands of pages of written material that he wrote before he started publishing regularly, it's almost certainly true. If it's not true in his specific case, it's certainly true in general. Great writers write crappy stories before they finally write the stories that earn their reputations. Don't give up after half an hour because your work product is "wandering randomness." Spend a day or a week or a month and turn it into a finished product... which will probably still be bad. Do it again and again and in a few years you may be writing something you're proud of. Nobody expects to be a great violin player or basketball player without years of practice.

And part of practice is a constant evaluation of your work. After you're done with a short story or novel, don't just toss it away because you don't like it. Spend some time giving serious consideration to exactly what was good and what was bad. Actually write a complete review. Show it to smart people and talk to them about it.

You can learn in the same way by reading others' works. Read voraciously and then give all that material serious thought. Read some critical analysis and talk about it with anyone who'll listen. Great writers' works build upon and respond to other great writing. It's like a conversation that plays out over years and decades.
posted by stuart_s at 8:01 AM on June 20, 2010

We're better at reacting than acting. Which is why, though few can write, everyone is a critic. This also means that, for most of us, it's easier to correct problems in a finished story than to write that story to begin with. (This is the opposite of programming: writing a program is way easier than debugging one.)

This is why drafting and redrafting work so well. Your first goal should be to get ANYTHING down on paper. Let it be lame. Let the plot creak or be filled with holes. Write a bad novel. Then read it, pretending it's someone else's novel, and explain to him what he needs to do to make it better. Then, once you correct it, repeat the process: read the corrected novel as if it's written by someone else and tell HIM what to do to make it better. Keep doing this until "the critics" are satisfied.
posted by grumblebee at 8:05 AM on June 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

One of my writing teachers told me the same thing as Caravantea's link: there are "plotters" and "wingers." Either way is fine as long as you're willing to keep plugging away and not be afraid of sucking.
posted by Metroid Baby at 8:07 AM on June 20, 2010

I'm no expert between these camps, though. I guess I'd like to believe that I can train myself to dedicate certain times of day for writing sessions, and that they'll be more productive than waiting for the inspiration and then jumping on it.

I really think you need to stop looking at this as an either/or proposition. Keep in mind that even great novels had humble beginnings as ideas--and ones that, if the author were to tell you about them in a bar, might have sounded pretty cheesy. I mean, a novel about a dude obsessed with hunting a whale? Or a novel about a haunted hotel?

Those little, generative, weird ideas you get are good enough to build novels or short stories on at this stage. Your job is to grab them, no matter how funny they seem, and work them into a concept, adding plot and characters. And then to sit down and write that shit down. There's no great light of inspiration--only the steady pulse of equal parts thought and hard work. I know it's easy to mythologize what "great writers" do, but the biggest thing separating them from you is that they've grabbed one of their goofy ideas and put their butts in the chair and pushed themselves to write it all down. Truth is, the most valuable lesson you'll ever learn from writing novels will only come from writing one.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:08 AM on June 20, 2010 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Wow -- that makes fantastic sense, thank you. That helps me feel a world better seeing the differences between the programming and fiction.

At the same time, I also see the power in bringing the principle of setting mini-goals throughout the story to give the little boosts of accomplishment to keep plodding, sort of like the water cups throughout a marathon race. With me, however, I usually grab the first outstretched watercup and realize too late that it was Kramer's cup of coffee :)
posted by coldblackice at 8:13 AM on June 20, 2010

Response by poster: I agree PhoB, and that was my point -- I don't believe that great writers just have the heavens dump their gold down onto the paper for them. I believe that the majority of writing is work, and hard work at that. Like anything worthwhile, it takes a lot of it to produce something that's worthwhile.

That's why I feel that a steady, daily writing habit is vital to keep that stream of hard work coming, day-in and day-out, and not waiting for moments of inspiration or urge.
posted by coldblackice at 8:16 AM on June 20, 2010

I heard a story of a master painter teaching his students (Monet?Rembrandt? I have no clue who it was, but the story is good, if not true...).

He said "Every artist has a hundred thousand bad paintings inside of them. The trick is to get them all out, so you can start making art!"

I think the same thing goes for writing.
posted by chicago2penn at 8:35 AM on June 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Great fiction is the product of a genius mind: sometimes effortless, sometimes not.

workman like fiction probably would be better off if it were non-fiction

Turgid awful fiction is the product of a crazy mind that is deluded to believe it is, or in fact used to be, a genius mind.

Journals are accessible to everyone. And at some point in everyone's life, everyone is a genius about something.

Also might like this, I did:
posted by DetonatedManiac at 8:41 AM on June 20, 2010

At the same time, I also see the power in bringing the principle of setting mini-goals throughout the story to give the little boosts of accomplishment to keep plodding

For me, most of those mini-goals have to do with prose mechanics and imagery. As you know from the countless writing books you've read, showing is better than telling.

My micro goal (on a much more granular level than plotting) is making my prose as SENSUALLY evocative as possible. This is because it's not good enough for the reader to just "get the point" or "know what happens." He should FEEL what happens, as if he's there and it's happening to him.

So I may figure out, on a plot level, that George steals money from Mary's purse, but that information is dry. It doesn't spark any feelings. I want the reader to grapple with George's moral choices, and for that to happen, they need to feel what he feels -- not just know what he's doing. So I start thinking about the roughness of the fabric inside the purse -- how that feels to George has his hand brushes against it. I think about how as he rummages around for her wallet, he might feel something disgusting -- something unidentifiable and sticky...

I don't want to go on at length about this, because my story shouldn't stall. The point is that he steals her money. But I want the moment to be evocative -- to stick in the reader's mind. So I'm looking for some pithy image that will do the trick. Maybe...

He reached inside her bag and groped about, trying to find her wallet before she came back into the room. His knuckles brushed against something rough (nail file?) and his fingers grasped something soft and lacy before finding her pocketbook, which bulged with coins can bills.

Is that too long? (too much of a derail?) Can I make the imagery even sharper? To me, this part of writing feels very much like the programming process of writing good functions. You refine them, trying to make them do one little thing really well. You try to make them small but satisfyingly functional.

I do most of this when I'm rewriting. In other words, draft one may just say, "George stole money from Mary's purse." Then, when going back over the draft, one of the things I look for is whether or not the prose is sensual enough. But I do some of this sensualizing while I'm writing the original draft -- just because it's fun. I just don't want to lavish so much time on it that it becomes an excuse to not get the draft down on paper in the first place.
posted by grumblebee at 9:08 AM on June 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

Notecards can be very helpful in plotting. There are many methods, in the one I was taught, you jot down a piece of information on individual notecards, arrange them in a particular sequence according to an outline or as they come to you, and then continue to rearrange the sequence of notecards, adding and subtracting and revising, until you reveal the major elements and the structure of the story (Nabokov used a similar method apparently, David Markson's later books are made up of nothing more than this sequence of bits of information). Then you start fleshing it out. You can also do the same on a micro level for individual scenes. Might be too methodical, but it can help if you're in a jam.

Personally, I've found writing partners are much more useful than writing groups. Either way, when you're ready, you have to start showing your work to others. The feedback is essential, and it can keep you motivated/focused.
posted by minkll at 9:13 AM on June 20, 2010

"I don't believe that great writers just have the heavens dump their gold down onto the paper for them"

I am not advocating the use of amphetamines (and as it turns out from his later works, probably neither would he) but it might be interesting to read the writing habits of Phillip K. Dick. Or other eccentric but genius writers.

I would say that the great writing is that which channels something. And once you are tuned to it, channeling is rather easy. You may be interested to read Impro by Keith Johnston. You won't care about the improv part (at least not immediately, but it could help you write better dialog) but he has a section about free-writing and narrative that may get you some good mileage and understand WHERE your writing is coming from and WHAT makes a story, not just a series of events.

NOW - equally so, if you look at PKD, you may find out what you channel is not very marketable... so if you want to make something that makes MONEY or gets you famous, or has people say how awesome you are... maybe just find formulas and techniques and pump out writing like so much processed sausage.
posted by DetonatedManiac at 9:18 AM on June 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Added to above - obviously you need feedback and good editors too, even channeling the word of God requires a spell check and to make sure that other people find it readable
posted by DetonatedManiac at 9:22 AM on June 20, 2010

I am also a programmer who moonlights as a writer, but I decided long ago that I was happy to just write fan stuff as a hobby and not bother with it as a career.

However... I read a lot of blogs by great authors (at least: authors I think are great) and I think the thing they all have in common is that they just write. A lot. They can't stop writing. Just like you or I can spend an entire day coding, they can spend an entire day writing and only stop when they realise the sun's set / they're hungry / their dog is hungry / etc. You know? Methods differ - plotters vs wingers or whatever you want to call it - mostly they write because they love writing and wouldn't do anything else for the world.

(Also, IMO, one major difference between programming and writing is that when you're coding you get instant feedback from the compiler. It either works or it doesn't, and you find out within moments. No such luck when you're writing a story.)
posted by Xany at 11:43 AM on June 20, 2010

If we are discussing the structure of plotting, I could suggest adapting plots from previously existing works, which is what Shakespeare often did. One of my favourite old books, 'The Charterhouse of Parma' by Stendahl, is a re-written version of what was originally the equivalent of a cheezy old Harlequin romance paperback. What makes it great literature is what Stendahl puts into it, his interpretation, his unique voice, his personal spin.

Great writers eventually learn to trust their voice, their flow and turn of phrase, and sometimes move on to experiment with the structure itself (thinking of James Joyce, who admittedly is not everyone's cup o'tea).

Structural rules are different regarding short stories verses doorstops!

A Doorstop, Magnum Opus, or F*ckin Epic is not only more physical words, but requires more "plotting" to make thing airborne. My brother once said: "Writers who put people together in a room and then see what happens often have weak endings".

With short fiction you are forced to zoom in on character right away, which is more forgiving to the "pantsys". The structure is reduced to one or two events which the characters react to. Traditionally, there is some sort of mini-revelation which exposes a new insight to the hastily-established protagonist, arriving in time for the conclusion of the micro-plot.
posted by ovvl at 2:40 PM on June 20, 2010

Thirding or fifthing the programmer-as-writer, but I wrote before I learned to code, so it's a chicken-egg thing at this point.

I've spent the last two years acting as a beta-reader for a writer's group comprised of 6 published novelists, 14 agented novelists, and a handful like me who are still working on climbing the ladder. Learning to edit has been the single most useful skill toward achieving my goal of writing short stories that don't bore me to death as a reader.

You didn't ask how *published* novelists or short story writers create stories, but how great writers do it, and I wondered the same thing, so for the last six months I've been dipping into the archives of the Paris Review and reading their interviews with great writers. I still don't know how Hemingway got from point A to point B in terms of plotting, but I do know that he wrote 500 words a day (unless he wanted to go fishing the next day, in which case he wrote 1000 words the first day and then spent his fishing time unfettered by writing concerns) and that he wrote "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" in one afternoon. It was the second story he finished that day.

I finally achieved the goal of finishing a first draft of a novel during last year's Nanowrimo. That novel sucked (and is damned near impossible to revise, since I'm not very invested in it), but the physical act of establishing a daily writing habit combined with editing the manuscripts of others sort of jumpstarted me to finish the novel I'd been tinkering with for...a decade. In the weeks after Nano I wrote four bad short stories, and in the six months since I've written a handful of slightly less bad short stories while completing a draft of that first novel. I'm working on a second novel and will soon be doing another round of revisions on the first. They're all works in progress, but here's what I've learned: I will finish a short story if I know how it ends, but not necessarily if I have the entire thing outlined. Same goes for novels - I need to know where my characters end up, but if I outline it before I start writing, I lose the drive that gets me from the beginning to the end. And if the end has to change mid-way through, that's fine.

The writers that I read for each have their own method. Most of them just try to write every day. One of them writes her first drafts in a week, topping out around 25,000 words, then revises to fill in detail later. She outlines roughly when she's a third of the way through. Most of the writers I work with do not outline, and then have a bitch of a time with revisions - but end up with strong stories that have a lot of emotional impact. So, it is different for everyone, and the best way to find out what works for you is to keep writing. And revising.
posted by annathea at 2:52 PM on June 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

Recommend book on writing: Negotiating with The Dead by Margaret Atwood. She has a hilarious sequence where she lists the different motivations writers might have (LOTS of them). Atwood is also fairly killer in terms not wasting words.

Steven King's book on writing is great, and he's a swell storyteller, but his weakness is the volumes of filler cushioning his jems.

Hey, Philip K. Dick was mentioned. PKD is a genius because of his brilliant raw ideas and compelling concepts, but his plotting was sloppy, and his middle novels have inconclusive endings which read like the crash of a meth-jag. The exception to this is his drug-novel 'A Scanner Darkly', which I believe he wrote after coming through the worst of his substance problems.
posted by ovvl at 3:02 PM on June 20, 2010

You're over-thinking it. Great writers write. And they read. Some have systems, some don't. Like great photographers, most great writers produce a lot of crap. But they produce constantly, so there are some gems in there, too. Plus, they revise revise revise. They understand that a story isn't written in stone. Don't think so much about; just write, and when you don't like what you've written, go back and fix it.
posted by jdroth at 4:29 PM on June 20, 2010

You say your end goal is to write in film format -- I assume you mean screenplays.

I think the screenplay format is subject to much more rigid structural rules than the novel is. My own work process for fiction is a lot like those described above: very loose ideas about plot at the outset (or more solid ideas that turn out to be wrong.) You write a few pages every day, write the sentences that look, feel, and sound right to you, and as a result of this process start to figure out what characters are in your book and what happens to them.

But: I'm not sure this process would work well for a screenplay and I kind of think you should ignore all the advice from me and other novelists.
posted by escabeche at 6:18 PM on June 20, 2010

I'm hardly a "great writer" but I'll do my best to answer some stuff. For background, I've been working on two different novels at once for a while now, and I occasionally write short stories. I've been writing since I was very young but not seriously until coming back to it just recently. I don't have anything recent published, but when I wrote in high school I won a national gold award from Scholastic for a short sci-fi story and it was published somewhere, then I won lesser regional awards other years; I don't mention this because it's terribly prestigious -- it's a nice thing for a kid to win, but I was competing against other kids so that's a bit of a wash -- but because my approach to writing has changed drastically in the years since and I've learned there can be multiple approaches that work for the same person. This is the sort of thing I think about a lot when I should actually be, you know, writing.

I have written using both the planning method and the just-see-where-it-goes method. I find that for long form, planning is indispensable, at least for me; the reason I write long form fiction is because I like making sure all the pieces fit together well, and I like to make intricate plots. I can't free form that, not even if I wanted to. Even with a lot of planning, I find that after writing a hundred pages of a novel with an intricate plot, I go back and reorder and change events a lot. You see things crop up that are problematic, like it takes too long to introduce an important character, or the reader won't be connected enough to a character to care what happens in this scene unless I postpone it, or I need to introduce something earlier or this character is going to be too unlikeable, etc. That's stuff you can't get as good a feel for with mere planning, so even planners need to be flexible after the first draft.

So maybe you're displeased with your work because you didn't plan it enough. But maybe synthesizing a bunch of intricate stuff isn't why you enjoy writing long form. Maybe it's discovering where things go, and your problem lies elsewhere. If so, great; don't do what I do. But don't be afraid to play around and see what you like.

I've found that for short stories, I do much better when I just start writing with a mood in mind. For whatever reason, even my first drafts of short stories are satisfactory to me when I approach them this way, and it's rare that I find anything I write to be satisfactory. My long form fiction is very character-driven, but my short stories are more about single feelings and concepts and using the prose to evoke a mood. When I try to do my short stories in a planned out way, I get locked up and nothing feels right. I can't finish anything in a single sitting unless I just start with the mood. When I'm thinking about things like exposition -- this locks me up more than anything else if I try to plan a short story -- I write in terrible little bursts and stops and often can't finish the story whatsoever. When I write with only the vaguest idea of where I'm going, I find that the exposition comes naturally; it appears when I first need to know it, and that often translates decently to when the reader first needs to know it. (Not always, because sometimes there's stuff the reader needs to know later, but I've found it easier nonetheless.) In other words, the kinds of short stories I enjoy are better described as expanded poetry, rather than short novels. But that's not everyone's preference.

I realize this corresponds directly to the type of thing I like to read as well; it's difficult for me to have enough time to forge a connection to a character in a short story so I like short stories that focus on weird ideas or obsess over a particular feeling, but I get bored with long form stories that aren't character-driven. I like prose in short stories to be consistent with a single feeling, but I feel long form prose ought to change to suit the scene or current emotion. I like short stories to have an ethereal quality but a narrow scope, and I like long form to be precise and flexible.

In other words, It's important to identify the sort of things you like to read and be comfortable with that. For example, while I enjoyed Stephen King's On Writing because it was entertaining and funny, I actually can't stand Stephen King's fiction, and when he talks about how he doesn't plan out anything in his stories, it really shows, I think, in a bad way; his books meander all over the place and bore me. But you like Stephen King. That's fine. It should not bother you that someone else doesn't like him. Tons of people love Stephen King and there's nothing wrong with them. Identify what it is you like about Stephen King and see if you can't incorporate that sort of thing into what you write, to make your own stories more interesting to you. When you read, you should think critically about why you enjoy a story or not -- even if you postpone the critical thinking for when you've just finished it; being overly analytical while reading can suck the fun out of it.

once you have a concept/idea/character, what general direction do you head to from there? How do you plot yourself along?

You can start from any number of places. Really, it doesn't matter. I've started with a concept for a world. I've started with two characters. I've started with one character. I've started with a theme I wanted to express and figured out the best kind of character to express that and what kind of world they live in.

I will say that since I write speculative fiction, I tend to keep a file of vague world ideas to use as backdrops for stories that are ultimately about the emotional struggles of the characters. When I get an idea for an emotional struggle, I look through my world ideas and think about ways that emotional struggle would manifest in those places -- some kinds of magic and technology or societies put a more interesting spin on these things than others. Then I develop the world idea and the characters and the emotional struggle all at once to play everything up as best I can.

Themes will guide you whether you want them to or not, so you should try to get a hold on what themes tend to come out of you and consciously use them. I think it's typical for a writer to not even realize what themes they're writing about until after they've written for a while; for example, I think my biggest theme is that minorities of all types are misunderstood by other people, but that understanding is possible and that things are always moving in that direction. So I like to write with gay characters, racial minority characters -- especially biracial, since I think things are a bit different for them, and especially if they're part the majority race -- but I also consider people with a lot of power to be a minority that gets dehumanized by people without power because I saw that happen a lot when I worked in politics. I like to show how all these people are human. I had to write several hundred pages before I realized that about myself, though. Now I have a file where I list any themes I see repeated in my work.

So when I have an idea and I think about where I want to go from there, I think about all the possible external perspectives on a situation or character that are possible and then I assume there will be people who represent all those perspectives. Within those perspectives I think of different motivations for the same opinions; this is how I start building other characters. For instance, a lot of things motivate nasty opinions: anger, fear, insecurity, ignorance, low intelligence, bad education, parents' attitudes, society's attitude based on some historical events, the government's attitude and motivations, a number of bad experiences that are statistically unlikely but happened to this particular person nonetheless (in real life I've noted that this in particular is much more insidious to fix than the other stuff), etc. Then I just look at all this and try to put together the most interesting character I can. Most characters I want to be sympathetic in some way, even if they're assholes. That means I have to ask myself what traits balance the bad ones I've already given them -- if I even want a perfect balance, which often I don't. As long as there's a rich spectrum between the two, I'm fine with there being some people that are basically good or basically bad. That feels realistic to me, or at least a realistic perspective for a protagonist to have even if they're not giving some other characters enough credit.

First I look at what these people want, and what power they have to make things happen or keep things from happening versus other characters. That's a ton of stuff right there.

Then I look at all these people and ask myself what might be necessary to facilitate understanding or at least getting along. What are their priorities, and is there anything they hold higher than whatever thing is in conflict? Realistically, the answer for some of these people is "nothing." That's fine. Others would require something big or dramatic to get along, or some series of events that leads to serious introspection -- these are gold mines for fiction, that's the whole point of character arcs. Others don't require much at all, and that's fine too; they don't need to be sources of high drama, they can be background flavor or else facilitate the plot in some other way. Or they can be victimized by someone else or have some other conundrum; drama can happen to them even if they're not dramatic themselves.

Once I have some characters I like, usually ideas for scenes or interactions come to me. An easy way to do this is to take two characters, compare whatever I've figured out about them, and think about how they would feel about each other if they met. What stuff would they like or dislike? What stuff might they dislike but grudgingly understand because it either reminds them of themselves or someone they know? What stuff might they blindly dislike without realizing it reminds them of themselves? That sort of thing. Sometimes there are multiple takes on this, depending on how the first interaction might go, or what's already taken place in the plot. Tons of scene ideas and plot twists come from this.

Real life is a constant source of inspiration during all this. I think about people I like, and what characteristics I don't like about them, and why their bad parts are forgivable to me -- are those parts forgivable to other people, and why or why not? -- and why they have those characteristics. I also think about people I dislike and what things I like about them. For example, I know a ton of people, including myself, that were/are argumentative because they're intellectually insecure, and that's because they're actually pretty smart so their identity is too wrapped up in their intelligence. All these people are pretty different in various ways, though, and some of these people I don't like at all and some I like a lot. It turns out, at least for me, that I will forgive a person for a lot of things if they are funny -- but not if their humor is mean-spirited. I will forgive a person for a lot of things if they sometimes make an effort to show that they care about other people, even if they can be a real asshole sometimes. I will forgive a person for a ton of assholery if they don't hold grudges. Degrees of traits matter, etc. Other people have different things they'll forgive or not. For example, I don't value loyalty, but other people will forgive almost anything if someone is loyal to them. Noticing all these things is important to making realistic characters.

If you start comparing people you know in real life, just how they're alike and different, and try to tease out reasons for all that, it's very helpful. Especially if there's anyone you both like and dislike -- those people are gold. I know one person that has a generally likable disposition, is attractive, funny, tons of fun, fairly smart, etc, but people end up slowly hating her because she's an insecure pseudointellectual and it takes a while for that to come out. Once you endure a bit of that and it seems to go okay anyway, it turns out she has a ton of irrational and offensive ideas about how other people work, is suspicious of other people because she projects her own neuroses on them, and oh man, she's a raging narcissist. She doesn't feel comfortable expressing any of that until she feels like someone likes her so I know maybe a dozen people that have been through that roller coaster. She's one of the most maddening people I've ever met. She is so baffling that you think she could only be fictional. So I took a bunch of her traits and stuck them in a male character that I needed to be likable at first and then really irritating -- 'cause let's face it, it's worse to like someone and then dislike them than to just dislike them out of the gate. The emotions involved are much more complicated and wrenching, and disliking someone you know when you really wanted to like them has a whole other stability to it than disliking someone you make a snap judgment about. It's an exhausting kind of dislike. Then I tweaked the character's other traits for the purpose of what I needed to do. The resulting character is like her in a ton of ways but different in a ton of ways too.

So for that character, I had a vague idea he needed to be likable and then abhorrent. I fished around for traits that make that possible and was reminded of this girl. That informed a bunch of other stuff about his character. Once that was established, I could flesh out his motivations, what sorts of lengths he's willing to go to, how he acts publicly and feels internally, etc, that I couldn't before. There were only a few little things left to do before he felt real enough to move the plot around. Something that wasn't interesting at all to write about before suddenly became fun and compelling for me. I actually like this guy, as a character, even though he's kind of amoral.

And the upside of this is it can really drain your dislike for the people who acted as inspiration until you just don't care anymore. I feel vaguely sorry for this girl, rather than the immense irritation I used to feel, because writing about it makes you more aware of all the vulnerabilities that drive that sort of personality. Writing can be a kind of therapy in that respect.

Anyway. Plotting, at least the way I work, is a lot like drawing a basic line sketch, then slowly filling it in -- some parts faster than others, or with more detail, and sometimes erasing other parts because it clashes with something else I just figured out and like better, but that's the gist of it. If your plots can be confined to notecards that's very helpful and I recommend it. When I tried to plot with notecards it didn't translate well; I tried this mess with yarn and color-coding and everything to connect all the stuff that was happening off-page, but it was too unwieldy to be helpful. You might be interested in the program Scrivener if you have a Mac; it does that sort of thing electronically.

I usually know where I want the story to start and end, because I have something I want to say outside of the whole minorities-are-misunderstood issue and other pet themes; this is usually something more personal or internal about navigating life and making decisions. I like for characters to confront big problems with themselves, to recognize there's something really messed up about themselves or how they treat other people or that their priorities have been fucked up, and then do something about it. I guess that's another theme that works for me personally, that you can ultimately get something good and worthwhile from all the bad experiences you've been through, because I put my protagonists through hell. I tend to like bittersweet endings better than happy ones, too, just because they always feel a bit more meaningful, so that guides me; I like for the protagonist to have to do the best possible thing they can once it's already too late, or for things to already be irreparably messed up in a lot of ways and their change of heart or good intentions won't just wipe the slate clean. It still means something to me if someone has a change of heart too late; internal changes mean more to me than external ones and affect me more emotionally, but I don't like to disrespect reality by having those internal changes magically fix everything. Figuring out what you personally find meaningful is another reason you have to always read critically. Chances are you like different kinds of endings than I do.

I look at where I'm starting and where I want to go, and I ask myself what sorts of things need to happen to change the characters. Since I set my protagonists up to need to undergo a lot of painful introspection, and because I know from experience how difficult it can be to even realize you need that introspection, the events that must happen are necessarily dramatic.

As for the sorts of things that I make my characters confront, the things that ultimately guide what kind of story it is, they're always things that I have dealt with: ways I acted or things I did that I'm ashamed of now, things I didn't see then that embarrass me, or potential for bad things in myself now that I don't like. It's like atonement for things I've done and an outlet for things I don't want to do. I wholeheartedly recommend this to anyone. Sublimation is a powerful thing; the writing gains from it and so will you. And so will your readers, if they've ever had to deal with anything similar. I think reading can be as therapeutic as writing; I've grown a lot as a person from exposure to other people's stories and I think it would be nice to play that role for someone else.

It helps to have something in mind about what you want people to feel after they read something you've written, or what you want them to get from it. I wrote mine out and I say it before I sit down to write. The gist of mine is that I want people to be less judgmental, to see parts of themselves in people they dislike and be more forgiving of others, and to confront and forgive themselves for whatever they're ashamed of -- I want people to feel like no matter how terrible things get, there is always something positive they can do to start climbing their way out, even if it's just a change of perspective because everything external is too messed up to fix. If I don't incorporate those things, I feel like what I'm writing is very mundane, like it could just be generated by a plot machine or something.

So it's possible your problem is that you're not putting enough of yourself into your writing; that you're looking at it too much like a programmer, just doing the writer's version of the postman's problem where you try every combination of possible story components and seeing which yields the best result. Speaking as someone who also enjoys programming, I can say that meticulousness will be helpful to your plotting. However, you will never get as satisfying a result using that method alone because there isn't a "best result" or even a point at which you will have calculated all the possible paths. You need to identify some basic things you like about stories so you know when you're on the right track and when you're not.

Of course, I want to stress that there's nothing wrong with it if you genuinely enjoy looking at it like a postman's problem -- there is no right reason to write, and plenty of writers like only the plotting aspect and think everything I just wrote sounds really pretentious and stupid. It just sounds like that approach isn't entirely doing it for you, so you may need to spend some time reconnecting with stories that have moved you and figuring out why. I've been doing this consciously for five years now -- with every single book, movie, play, documentary I encounter, so roughly a half-dozen times a week -- and I'm still constantly finding new things that work for me. I'm also often pleasantly surprised by how often people take something that normally doesn't work for me and make it work anyway. When I started I couldn't much articulate why I liked or disliked something, which is pretty normal. Now I can describe that quite precisely, and in addition to making me a better writer it's made me appreciate a wider range of things than I did before. When you can articulate something in words, you can begin consciously using it; until then you're relying on instinct, and instinct isn't reliable.

What are the actual process and time schedules you impose (if any)?

I write a page (250 words) per day on each of two novels. Short stories I write in one sitting, two if something comes up. I only write short stories when inspired to write that particular short story; I don't force myself to sit down, come up with a short story idea, and do it. Novels I put a lot of planning into first, and then trust the rest will come if I sit down and write. If I get hung up while writing a novel I will permit myself some time to back away from it and reflect. I leave short stories alone for months after writing them and review them later.

I've done other things in the past that worked fine, though. A scene a day was good, for example, and I might go back to that at some point later.

The amount people write, and when, varies widely. Try anything and everything. Don't believe people who tell you that you have to write every single day. It's good for forming a habit but you don't have to do anything. I've had schedules where I skipped weekends or holidays or whatever, or made up multiple days on one day. You'll find something that works for you; don't be deterred because other people don't think it's ideal.
posted by Nattie at 3:11 PM on June 21, 2010 [8 favorites]

Response by poster: Brilliant! Thanks for the time you took to answer!

And a BIG thanks to everyone above -- there's a lot of great stuff in here that's worth multiple reads.
posted by coldblackice at 5:19 PM on June 24, 2010

Not a writer (yet?) and not much of a critic, but I've definitely enjoyed The Paris Review Interviews as a source of wisdom on writing (and life).

Taken together, these conversations with novelists, poets, playwrights, essayists, biographers, journalists, and critics constitute what Salman Rushdie calls “the finest available inquiry into the ‘how’ of literature.”

The index is complete, but only a (fairly large) selection are available for free online.
posted by carsonb at 7:06 PM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Read Bird by Bird. It will be worth your time.
posted by quadog at 1:17 AM on June 25, 2010

I think one of the best examples you could look towards with film writing as your final goal is Pixar. They spend years putting together a story. Sometimes when you hear the original pitches ou wonder how anyone could have EVER thought some of those things were a good idea. But they refined, and refined and thought harder. And now they're known for their pitch perfect plots and characters. But they wouldn't get there without a lot of thought and revision.

This is a great suggestion and greatly facilitated by DVD extras. Monsters, Inc. (for example) has old sketches and test animation where they talk about and show the initial idea which was an entirely different plot. Deleted scenes have commentary so you can learn why they were not used and the general commentary throughout the movie is very instructive.
posted by mikepop at 6:19 AM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

I am just in the middle of teaching myself to write in a more disciplined way, because I'm definitely temperamentally a "pantser" but that gives me horrible momentum/plot/wander-off problems. I just finished Save the Cat!, which is ostensibly a book for screenwriters.

That's not specifically where I'm aiming with my writing, but it totally blew my mind on plotting. It's very much about mechanics rather than nurturing the inner flower of your artistry or whatever. There's a follow-up book that sort of reverse-engineers popular films into their outlines, which might also be interesting to you.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:41 PM on June 25, 2010

just dropping in to recommend the snowflake method & nanowrimo. I always thought I was a "pantser", but after not finishing anything in [mumble mumble] years, I tried the first half of the snowflake method to get ready for nanowrimo, and I ended up finishing a novel...that I'm not totally unhappy with!

I spent a lot of my bike commutes in the weeks leading up thinking out the main events of the novel as recommended by the snowflake method. So when I started, I knew pretty much where I was going. Some unexpected stuff happened along the way, but I at least had a framework to put it in.

one other thing that helped when I got stuck was a list I made, based on a recommendation in the nanowrimo book (pretty good, btw), of stuff I hate in books, and stuff I love in books. (style, plot, types of characters, etc) Get stuck? Make sure you're not trying to write something you hate, or start writing something you love. Shockingly helpful.
posted by epersonae at 12:47 PM on June 25, 2010

One trick is to take a cue from dramatists. Playwrights are taught to base their stories around character goals. A character has a specific goal and he tries to achieve it. So the atomic unit is something like this:

Joel needed milk for the cake. He checked the fridge, and found a half-full carton. Just enough! "This cake is going to be delicious," Joel thought.

In case you couldn't tell, Joel's goal is to find milk for a cake. Now, the story, as it stands, has no conflict. So we'll add some. We can add an internal conflict...

Joel needed milk for the cake. "But milk is so fattening," he thought.

Or we can add an external conflict...

Joel needed milk for the cake. He checked the fridge. No milk

External conflict can be an act-of-God, as above. Or it can come from another character...

Joel needed milk for the cake. But his son, Marty, cut in front of him and grabbed the milk from the fridge. "Oh no you don't!" Joel said.

Marty should have his own goal...

"Dad, I NEED to drink this," Marty said. "Coach said we should have a glass of milk every day after school!"

At this point, Maybe Joel wins...

"One day without milk won't kill you. This is a very important cake. It's for your mother's birthday. You know she hasn't been feeling well."

Or maybe Marty wins...

Marty sighed, trying to figure out how on Earth he was going to make cake without milk.

When a character wins or loses, one of two things can happen. One is "the end."

"Fine," snapped Marty, stomping upstairs to his room and slamming the door.

Maybe that character is now our of the story altogether. (If he's the protagonist, the story itself might be over.) Or maybe he'll return, later, with a new goal.

A character who wins can go onto have a new goal:

Now that he had the milk, Joel realized he was out of flour.

A character who loses can, too:

"I guess that's that for the cake," Joel thought. "But I HAVE to get something for Anne. I wonder if she'd like a romantic dinner out somewhere..."

He can also think of his loss as a temporary setback and stick to his goal:

Joel realized he had time to buy more milk at the Publix, but he had to leave right away. It was a five-mile drive, and the store would close in twenty minutes.

I think this is how writers often come to feel that their characters have minds of their own. Once you posit a goal and make it important to the character, and once you toss in some obstacles, your choices are limited (in a good way). The character is going to do what he's going to do.

As you draft, you will realize that certain goal can't sustain the story. Are you really going to write a whole story about Joel trying to get milk? How are you going to keep him from getting it long enough to sustain more than a couple of pages? At this point, you can go back and revise the goal. Or you can make that goal a mini-goal -- part of some greater thing the character is trying to achieve. Maybe Joel is trying to win back his estranged wife.
posted by grumblebee at 4:05 PM on June 25, 2010 [4 favorites]

I'm not a great writer here, but...

The way I write is to start with something I call a boggle. The boggle is something that grabs my attention. Usually it's a fairly dramatic bit of action, the more able to engage my feelings the better. For a random example, let's say it's a war time execution of a pow. I hopefully get a feel for one or two of my central characters as I launch into it. The non com who has ordered the execution and is supervising it, for example is repulsed by everyone around him. If possible I add another bit of character to someone else- one of the conscripts who is ordered to participate in the execution is both detached from the experience and intensely curious about it.

Now sometimes I have a second boggle in mind and the trick will be to span the two - let's say the second boggle is of a woman lying to her young son about his father, and the father is/was the pow that is supposed to be executed. For what ever reason I think that a climactic scene of this woman deliberately and quietly making up an alternate reality for her son, sort of erasing the life of the pow, will be poignant.

So I keep this in the back of my head, which means the story is going to be about the the character of the pow, the people who are affected by his character and what happens to him, and that the woman is probably going to have to have a prominent part in the story to make her decision to erase the man meaningful.

The next step is to try to immerse myself into the experience. What do you smell/hear/see, think/believe when you are in a war zone participating in an execution that may or may not be authorized by the senior officers? Detail and realistic dialogue are the essentials here: So I describe the ground underfoot -dusty, and the soldiers' boots are dusty, the cicidas, the fig tree with the limp motionless leaves, -okay, that gives my scene some atmosphere. But now I want to throw in something that is a bit more original, not something that you'd see in your average movie with a scene like this but which might very well be there in rl. So what would they have present at a modern execution...? A back hoe. Nobody is going to dig a grave by hand in this day and age, so we've got the back hoe grumbling.... no, find a better, more evocative word than grumbling. Idling crossly? The engine playing the chamade?

Then with the scene set, I ask myself what is going to happen? Well the guy could fold up as neatly as a folding chair from a bullet in the back of the head. Or one of the firing squad could start to hyperventilate as they line up to do it and attract attention to himself as the other guys wonder if he's going to lose it somehow. Or, given that this is a hot war zone, we could get a sudden thunderstorm of shelling, the fig tree quivering from the detonations like a recruit seeing his first action, some R rated profanity - somebody is bound to yell out something crude when the shells stir up so much red soft dirt that the staggering execution squad are powdered so thickly in the dust that they all start to look like crumbling golems made out of the earth, their insignia and marks of rank obliterated.

I'm hopping back and forth between what I already described and what I see and hear and smell and taste now. I said it was dusty to begin with. What happens when dusty terrain is hit by shells? What does a guy that is feeling detached do? What does a guy who hates his execution squad as much as his prisoner do or think when the shelling starts? Does the back hoe keep droning, or does the back hoe operator switch it off? If he does switch it off, is he going to be able to get it going again -especially given all that dust?

Okay, let's make it so that in the chaos of shelling and cursing and coughing and dust, that the execution is done really perfunctorily, sloppily even. These guys just want to get out of the dust and under cover. So they shoot at the pow when he is already on the ground and kick him into the hole the back hoe has just dug - after a fast debate if they should get into the new dug grave themselves, in order to use it for cover!

But I've thought of a little twist I want to happen here, so we'll have them all get down behind and under the backhoe for cover instead of getting into the grave. And there they sit where all they can see of the grave and the man they shot is his boots sticking out of the hole until the shelling is over . (I mentioned boots at the beginning, so let's bring them back in again.) And they cough and curse and cower for forty minutes. (Might as well throw in some alliteration there. It's not too obviously a rhetorical device and hopefully it will help with the rhythm of the story. I suck at rhythm. People who criticism my writing say i drone. :( )

And then when the guys decide to get out of cover because it looks like the shelling has stopped and they have transportation to get out of there and back to base, what do the bunch of them see? Just the boots. The guy is alive. He got out of his grave and he got out of his boots and left them because he could tell that the men would see them and think he was in the grave still if they were there. He's crawled away under cover of the dust. There is mud in that hole there, not a lot of mud but it's tomato red mud almost like thick ketchup, because that is what you would see if they wounded the man and he was bleeding in the iron rich red dirt....

It comes in fits and starts, with me jumping between character driven action: What do the guys do when they see their prisoner has escaped? And scene driven action: I imagine all those guys would have been a little bit deafened by all those explosions, and what the heck is there behind the fig tree anyway, because I'm going to need to describe it, because whether or not they try to track him that is the direction the guys are going to look when they realise he got out of the hole.

And then there is the plot driven action, as it occurs to me that I can decide what is going on by having the nco in the habit of shooting the prisoners that his detachment takes, but this is the first time one of them has survived, and worse, they are looking at getting in a little trouble since no commanding officer wants to be told his men have been committing atrocities. Yeah, so let's have a journalist embedded with the regiment to make the hazard of this incident getting found out more suspenceful...

It all goes in and not all of it gets used. That fig tree will probably not come into the story again, but if it does I might make a biblical reference to one of those cursed fig trees in the Bible. I'm getting my cast of characters from who would probably be around: NCO, anxious soldier, detached soldier, back hoe operator, CO, journalist....

I always go for the not completely expected, so like the back hoe in the war zone creating a realistic incongruity, let's decide the journalist is going to have no intention of reporting atrocities. They pick and choose who they are going to embed with combat troops, after all. He's patriotic! He's going to want to cover it up more than anyone. Of course the CO won't know that....

And I'm starting to tie the final boggle to the initial situation. I've got a theme. Truth is the First Casualty of War. This is going to be a story about telling lies.
posted by Jane the Brown at 7:41 PM on June 25, 2010 [3 favorites]

I am not a writer, but I have always heard that the most creativity is possible when you give yourself lots of constraints.
posted by aesacus at 8:22 PM on June 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

One interesting way of creating a story can be to start with some sort of basic question. A question that 'reverberates' in some way for you or with semi-developed ideas you already have in place. There's a nice French word for this sort of question: 'la problématique'. The issue that drives the narrative.

'What are people capable of doing under pressure?' (a common one and a bit vague)
'How does someone forgive their sister if she sleeps with their husband?'
'What does it take to change a person entirely?'

It sounds a bit out there, but if you can work out a question you usually have the core of a story, if only the core.
posted by litleozy at 11:24 AM on June 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

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