Please welcome Steven James, the critically acclaimed author of thirteen novels. He serves as a contributing editor to Writer’s Digest Magazine, hosts the biweekly podcast The Story Blender, and has a master’s degree in storytelling. Publishers Weekly calls him “[a] master storyteller at the peak of his game.”
Steven’s groundbreaking book Story Trumps Structure: How to Write Unforgettable Fiction by Breaking the Rules won a Storytelling World award as one of the best resources for storytellers in 2015. When he’s not working on his next novel, Steven teaches Novel Writing Intensive retreats across the country with New York Times Bestselling author Robert Dugoni.
There are dozens of plot, structure, and outlining books out there, but almost no one teaches organic writing—and yet some of the most popular authors in the world write organically (Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and Lee Child, to name a few). I believe people can write better, more original, and more twist-filled stories by abandoning their outlines and trusting the narrative forces of believability, causality, and escalation.
How to Abandon Your Outline to Improve Your Story
On February 2, 2014, The Sunday Times related an interview with J.K. Rowling in which she admitted that she wrote the Hermione/Ron relationship as a form of wish fulfillment.
“That’s how it was conceived, really,” she said. “For reasons that have very little to do with literature and far more to do with me clinging to the plot as I first imagined it, Hermione ended up with Ron . . . It was a choice I made for very personal reasons, not for reasons of credibility.”
When she clung to her preconceived plot idea it didn’t lead her toward, but away from, credibility.
This is a common problem when we outline.
But are there ways to move past that? To jettison an outline and respond to the story as it develops?
Here’s how to get started.
Focus on story, not plot.
At the heart of a story is tension, and at the heart of tension is unmet desire. So, at its core, a story isn’t primarily about what a character does, but what he pursues.
This pursuit, driven by desire, escalates as the character faces mounting setbacks on the way to a
Plot is the byproduct of pursuit, not its precursor.
As Ray Bradbury noted, “Remember: Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations. Plot is observed after the fact rather than before. It cannot precede action. It is the chart that remains when an action is through.”
So, focus on the actions that your character takes in pursuit of his unmet desire. Let every choice in every scene be shaped by that pursuit, not by your preconception of what should happen to get “to the next plot point.”
Let context guide you.
Make sure that the character is sufficiently motivated to go to that next scene.
Often, when working from an outline, the choices the character makes end up being dictated not within the context of the scene—what makes sense in that moment—but from an authorial preconception of where things should go. [Read more…]