Weaving the Story

Apr 6, 2010

Over on Guide to Literary Agents, Agent Cameron McClure of Donald Maas had this to say about what stands out from the slush:

“‘Good writing’ and ‘voice’ are high on the list, as is a strong plot, original premise, both internal and external character conflicts, and a sense of suspense or narrative momentum… In the last couple of weeks, I’ve seen a lot of superb writing with unique narrative voices, but weak overall storylines. What I’m looking for are projects that incorporate all of these elements.”

There are so many books, websites, and blogs out there that are helpful to writers. We read, we practice, and we focus on those things we’ve heard often that publishers and agents are looking for: good writing, and voice. And those are absolutely key! But the whole POINT of creative non-fiction is to tell a story of some kind. If we miss the boat on that one, no one is ever going to read what we write.

So how, then, do you write a tightly woven storyline? Here are some basics. First of all, keep in mind that a great idea does not equal a great story. You may have the idea of the century, but you can destroy it if it doesn’t have a storyline. Second, you need a character– a realistic person who actually WANTS something, and is DOING something to get it. Third, don’t be afraid to use a formula! And by formula, I don’t mean using a formulaic plot. I mean using the whole first-second-third act/story arcs/try-fail cycle ideas. Your readers will expect the type of coherent story that comes out of these cycles, so give it to them. There are plenty of places on the web to get an idea of how to do this.

Often, you will have to do a bit of outlining to get this right. I know, groans are sounding from all of us dedicated discovery writers. What’s a non-outline-friendly writer to do? I hate to break it to you, but you may just have to do a bit of it anyway. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to do it right off. I usually start with a very broad outline of the story. I know the major plot points, the basics of the world, and the essentials of my characters (and I write it all down so I don’t forget!). Then, I start writing. I discover things about the plot, characters, and world that surprise me. I ramble. I even let the story meander into unknown areas. Usually, I hit a point about halfway through where I don’t know where to meander to anymore. This means it’s time for a tighter plot outline. I go in, and I write much more detail, even over what I’ve already written. Now that I have a better idea of what my story is about, it’s much easier to give a tighter storyline. Then I can keep writing, and go back and revise what I’ve already got down.

I may go through this discovery/outline/discovery cycle a few times before I can finish a story. Once it’s done, I go revise again. And again. Even though I’ve tightened it up, it still needs a lot more tweaking, cutting, world-building, character-enhancing, and reorganization before the storyline flows along a tightly-crafted line. This is what revising is for! (Which is a topic for a related post.)

So remember, an awesome writer with a distinct voice who has a great idea but can’t tell a story worth beans is a writer who will remain unpublished.

Anyone else want to share their process or ideas for creating a well-woven storyline?


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