Story Doesn’t Come Through Writing
The buzz right now is NaNoWrimo, which will consume 30 days of a great majority of writers' lives—mine included. Frustrating, emotionally and physically draining (especially around Thanksgiving), it's one of the most productive writing tools I've ever found. My first book "Riley's Pond" came from NaNoWrimo. But the trick is to utilize the time wisely so at the end of November and 50,000+ words later, you have something substantial to work with. Otherwise you may as well write NaNoWrimo 50,000 times.
I'm 75% panster and 25% plotter in my writing. As I've stated several times, I'm a secretary to my characters. I love to transcribe the stories they tell. I used to start writing having nothing more than a general idea of who my protagonist was, thinking his or her inner struggle would manifest as I wrote. The end result was several pages and thousands of words I had to spend a chunk of time rewriting, or eliminating all together. I hadn't effectively used either my precious writing time, or the words necessary to tell a story. Write a book, yes. Tell a story? No.
As Lisa Cron pointed out in this blog, inner struggle is what defines a story on page one. It's something you have to know before you create the plot. Your story is "about how those events force the protagonist to overcome misbelief in order to solve the story-problem and achieve his or her goal. This internal misbelief must already exist before the plot kicks into action."
The protagonist already wants something and some inner conflict (fear, fatal flaw, wound) is what will keep them from getting it. This knowledge has to be in place before you start to write. Why? Because this is what defines the story. It's about an inner change. He or she will end up seeing the conflict through new eyes by seeing things through old eyes first, but only if we know how he or she saw things to begin with.
"The protagonist’s worldview is the lens through which she’ll see, experience, and evaluate everything that happens, beginning on the very first page…if you don’t know what direction their worldview is going in – and, as important, what specific events created it — how will you know how they'll react to anything? Or what things mean to her? Or what your plot must force her to realize? You won’t. Which means that chances are you’ll just write a bunch of things that happen."
Like I found, you can be a good writer, but a lousy storyteller.
Your "Personal Decoder Ring"
From birth, we've each built our own individual dictionary of meanings – our "personal decoder ring." We're good at instinctively interpreting certain physical sensations like: I’m hungry, I’m thirsty, I’m tired, I’m dying to know if that cute guy over there likes me.
Almost everything else is learned, but not “objectively.” It's learned subjectively, based on personal experience. Everyone has a different interpretation of the same “objective” thing.
The words “barking dog,” will create a different image in each of us, as well as how we feel or respond to the same words. You may think yippy Chihuahua, while I picture a German Shepherd with a loud terrifying bark. You might feel annoyance, where, because of a dog attack when I was small, my pulse is racing and I'm frozen. One thing we both can say with certainty is that neither "saw" upon hearing the words "barking dog." If I say "torture chamber," you might think medieval dungeon or "red room of pleasure," whereas I picture a dentist chair. Based on our own life experiences, we see and feel every situation differently.
As a writer, your goal is to know your protagonist well enough to be able to create the lens through which he or she is going to see their conflict and react accordingly. Throughout the story, your protagonist is going to call up moments from the past to make sense of what's happening in the current moment. That's what hooks your reader—the "inside intel."
So What Do you Do?
"Before you write word one, you must craft your character’s backstory and that can be as paralyzing as knowing nothing." The secret in writing backstory is to only look for information that affects the story you're telling. Identify the problem and look for the cause that will kick into gear on page one.
Pinpoint two things:
1. The specific event that knocked your protagonist’s worldview sideways, creating the misbelief that drives the inner action.
2. The event that triggered his or her desire for the goal itself, which tells us what it really means to them.
"Next, the trick is to trace how those two competing forces shaped his or her life up to the moment when the story begins….in scene form. If you do this first, your first draft won’t be one of those meandering collection of things that happen, but the first draft of an actual story."
This gives you not only the information you need for the grit of your story, but also reveals specific memories, ideas, and fantasies your protag will have as he/she navigates the plot. You also won't be saddled with a ton of re-writing later. You will also have nailed down the GMC (goal, motivation, and conflict) of your story so when asked, you can effectively pitch your book. When it comes time for the cover tag line, back blurb, or story synopsis, you have a place to draw from.
Remember that creating backstory or character sketches is writing. "Working out a story’s inner logic is the fun part. You can write like crazy, and not have to worry a whit about how “well” you’re writing. You can test out myriad scenarios as you can dig deep into how and where your protagonist’s worldview got skewed. Because you know darn well that from the instant her misbelief took root, there have been specific signs she’s misread, and facts she’s misinterpreted, things she’s done that have made achieving her goal that much more difficult. And, voila! You have her old eyes."
Your "Aha" Writer Moment
Now that you have your protag's lens in place, you've also discovered the other key players—people from their past who, for better or worse, helped facilitate that worldview. Most likely, they'll play a role in the story and you’ll know when and why they’re at cross-purposes with your protagonist, what they’re hiding from each other, and when they’re woefully misreading each other. You have your story foundation. I suggest you have your backstory in place before NaNoWrimo so when November 1st dawns, you'll have the keys in hand to build a great story, not just a book of words.