There is nothing quite as wonderful as the story that tells itself, and nothing quite as frustrating as the story that won’t come out.
If you’re stuck in your story and wondering what happens next, or just can’t seem to get your scene and characters out of your mind and onto the page, it might be time to take a step back and rethink your approach.
What if you treat this story like a party or event?
Stay with me! We are probably all a little rusty at event-planning because of the pandemic, but the best part of this planning exercise is that we don’t have to socially distance, wear masks, adapt to Zoom, or put ourselves or anyone else at risk. All we have to do is think like a party planner and reimagine our works-in-progress in terms of who, what, where, when, and why.
Make quick progress on your work-in-progress by mulling over these five questions in a journal:
Where is the story being told?
The answer to this question is your story’s setting, your party’s venue—and it is more than simply a city name. Get specific by showing your reader where they are with concrete and sensory details. Then move beyond details and consider how your characters will interact with the setting, and how those interactions will further define both. Why is the where important to your story?
When does the story take place?
Night? Day? Past? Present? Future? All of the above? Your when is also part of the story’s setting and will influence the sensory details you choose to include in your narrative. For example, a story set in the American Wild West will be much different than one which takes place entirely in a modern bathroom in Japan. Birds chirping in the morning sound differently than they do at night. Flashing backward and forward in a narrative requires a clear signal to the reader that the time-setting has changed—and you want your invitees to know where they are. Spend some time thinking about time, and how much of it you will cover in your piece.
Why are you telling this story?
This is the heart of your plot. The answer to the why question is more than the main event or occasion of the story; it includes the main character(s) and the driving emotional tension. You often hear, about movies or books, “This is a story of redemption” or “Hear the untold story…” The why might be, respectively, “because redemptive stories make readers feel good” or “because if people knew what happened, they might be able and willing to help.” If you are not sure why you are telling this story, consider what would happen to your character(s) if the story went unwritten. What would happen to you, the writer?
Who are you inviting into the story?
This question is not only about who is going to read the story, but also to whom the characters are speaking. With whom is the narrator sharing her story? Is the person older than her or younger? Is she talking to herself or someone else? And yes, who is your audience? Who are you trying to reach or entertain? Knowing who will help you write an authentic narrative.
What does the reader need to bring to the story?
The point of this question is to check that you have laid a proper framework for your readers’ understanding. You have invited them into your story; what do they need to know upon arrival? Knowing what you are requesting of the reader can help you fill in gaps and remove plot holes as you go forward. You might also consider what you want the reader to take away (perhaps revisit the why). Your characters will change during the course of the story, and your reader should, too.
One more benefit of this party-planning method: if you invite yourself to respond to these questions with any story, you will be able to write a synopsis for query letters or submissions, or simply understand your own work better.
Do you plan your stories in advance? Will you try to using the party-invitation method outlined above? Share with us in the comments.
Related reading: How to re-route your writing practice when you feel lost
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