Some Tools for Building Stories

I’ve written my share of fiction off and on over the years, and as a result, I’ve developed a few ways of building stories—tools of the trade, as it were. These have worked for me more often than not. So for any of you who are interested in trying your hand at building stories, or who have tried and met with the seemingly endless frustration that comes with such exercise, herewith, some pointers. See if any of these are of practical use.

To learn to write, copy other writers. Literally. I did this with Jack London stories because, years ago, I read that Jack London used to copy out or type out Rudyard Kipling stories. That’s how Jack London got a handle on how to write. So I tried it, too. What I discovered was that, by doing this, I was able to watch the story take shape in slow motion as I typed. No matter how slowly you read, you type a lot more slowly than that. Sometimes, it was almost as though I could sense why Jack London chose this word rather than that one, or went in this direction rather than the other.

I didn’t do this to an extreme degree; I typed out perhaps half a dozen of his stories. But it was sufficient that a professor at Kent State University, whom I met in the 1970s, commented that in my early stories, I sounded kind of like Jack London. When I told him what I’d done, he was amused.

Another good idea: Take a book you like by a writer you admire and tear the book apart. Literally, if you have to. Make an outline of that book the way you learned to do outlines in high school. Tear out the passages that describe characters and their backgrounds and tape them onto notebook paper. Retype the dialogue to see if you’d do it the same way. You’ll get inside that story like nobody’s business and very soon feel confident about building your own stories. Everybody starts at ground level, so tear that writer’s story back down to the ground and then rebuild it. 

Meet the Muse halfway. The phrase is Tchaikovsky’s; I read it in his collected letters many decades ago. What he meant was that he would sit down every day at the same time and start to work whether he felt like it or not. Make it a habit to sit in that chair at that desk or table at that time every day. If you don’t feel like writing, tough. Put in the time.

And if you don’t feel like writing, write anyway—just don’t worry about working on the story you’re in the middle of. Pretend to write a letter to someone—your sister or your spouse, your friend—telling them about the story you’re working on and complaining about how you have hit a rough patch of weeds. Pretty soon you’ll have talked yourself into a way out of the weed patch.

What is the emotional age of each of your characters? Characters act and react according to their emotional ages, not their actual ages. A middle-aged woman might well behave as a 16-year-old girl would. We’ve all met grown men who are basically still 18-year-olds, and young persons who, because of what they’ve had to put up with in life, are old beyond their years. 

Storytelling, especially popular storytelling, deals with the part within us, or the person within us, that is the star of our own story, our ego or our inside self. This self is the larger-than-life self that we carry around and whom we feel is the real us. Our lives are our emotional lives, and we live them big. That’s the age of your character, the person inside who wants to scale mountains or dreams of fighting in a distant land, or who wants to start her own business and so is in the process of faking it until she makes it, as the phrase goes.

Have each character interact with every other character at least once. Draw a grid. The interaction might be in the form third-party conversation, an old diary, an imaginary meeting, anything, but it serves to tie all of the characters, their actions and motivations and emotions, together as a kind of net to contain the world of the story or to provide the perimeter of the world of the story.

I erred in a recent manuscript by not doing this, and the story became too focused on two of the characters. The story started to feel hollow and directionless. Well, think in terms of putting two characters together that you otherwise wouldn’t have, and the story livens up immediately and points you in an interesting direction.

When in doubt, have your character perform a physical act. We are our physical bodies, and I contend that, even though most of spend most of our time inside our heads (and, in fact, spend way too much time inside our own heads), we feel most alive when we are active. So if your story has slowed down or you’re not sure what to do next, have a character make a meal and anticipate eating the food. Have your character go for a walk. Or think about making love or having made love. Or have the character experience cold, rain, wind, heat. Have him or her go for a swim, or jab his or her finger. Or suffer from the flu. Anything physical. We can all identify with that, and it brings the story and the character to life.

Write as though you are telling what actually happened. Report what occurred. Even though you’re making things up, the feeling you have while writing the story, and the feeling that you want your reader to feel, is that you’re presenting events that actually took place. So even if you run into a weed patch or a wall and aren’t sure what to do next, simply ask yourself what it was that happened or what the characters did. They did somethingSomething happened. Tell us what it was. Be a reporter.

Maintain consistent person in your story. In other words, if you’re using third-person omniscient, stick with that. Same with third limited, first person, even second person (as Jay McInerny did in Bright Lights, Big City.) But do not, do not, do not mix these up in the same story. I read a novel once by James Patterson and, honest, he switched from third person to first person every couple of chapters. Jesus Christ, after a while, I didn’t know what had happened to my brain, and I regretted ever having learned to read. Please don’t mix up your story in this way.

Could actors portray your characters? If your character isn’t sufficiently deep or interesting that an actor could find enough in that character to want to play him or her, then work on that. This is particularly true, of course, of main characters. Even if you’re writing a novel and not a play or a movie script, readers are going to believe in your characters the way they would if someone were portraying them on stage or on the screen, so give us enough in the character to build on that. How would an actor research the character? What physical tics, habits, or features would an actor pick up on? Where’d your character come from, how does he or she speak, what got them to this point in the story before you started writing it? If you were hired to portray this character in a movie, how would you go about it? What would you want to know about the character? That’s what you want to know about your character as you create and write about her or him.

Join writers’ groups or attend writers’ conventions. A guy I used to work for used to say that people like to do business with people they know. The regular client or the regular service person, in other words. Networking. I went around for years thinking that turning out good work is sufficient; surely someone will notice good work and go out of the way to publish me or contact me. Well, maybe. But just as you need to meet the Muse halfway, you need to meet publishers and editors and business people halfway, too. We know our own kind; hanging out with word people and storytellers is what word people and storytellers do.

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