(If you smell a formula and a speech about the ills of formulaic writing and virtues of craft is pressing on your tongue or keyboard, bear with me.)
Without structure and a clear understanding of how to move your story forward, your manuscript will lack focus and impact.
When I collaborate with and coach writers of memoir*, the first order of business is finding the story and building the backbone of the book. I created what follows to help my clients determine the story of each chapter and define the scope (what to include and what to exclude).
The result of this exercise will be:
- a list of stories and stories within stories for each chapter,
- more showing, less telling,
- a stronger emotional connection to your reader,
- a descriptive and intriguing Table of Contents,
- and a more efficient and pleasant writing process.
*This applies to some fiction too, although your manuscript's structure may be slightly different depending on whether you have subplots. If you're writing fiction, replace "you" with "your protagonist" in what follows.
PLOT VS. STORY
Plot points are the things that happen to you. These are often catalysts for change.
Story is what happens in you. The story is your journey from one way of thinking and acting to another.
A catalyst for change is the thing that happens that disrupts the status quo and demands action. It's something that happens to you or compels you to take action.
This big, defining moment in your life will most likely be the one you open your book with, but you’re going to keep this train of thought going as you develop each chapter.
Keep These Questions in Mind as You Build Each Chapter by Answering the Questions Below
1. What was the catalyst for change?
2. How did you react? (React, not respond. Reactions are instinctual--emotional. Responses are rational.)
3. How did you respond (decision plus action)?
4. Did anything funny or surprising happen?
5. What relationship friction did the catalyst for change bring about? What weaknesses did it expose in you and those around you? How did you navigate the situation and negotiate the outcome (internally and with the other person)?
6. How did this experience threaten you physically, emotionally, financially, and in any other way?
7. What happened to lead you from reaction to response, and who if anyone facilitated that?
8. What new status quo did you achieve? How did you grow or devolve?
(Keep in mind that often we move backward emotionally and relationally before we move forward on our journey.)
9. What new challenges and fears did this new way of thinking and being introduce into your life? How did it change your relationship(s)?
Answers to this question will show you what comes next (the contents of the next scene or chapter).
A journey from Point A to Point B, no matter how short, consists of micro-moments.
Focus on the five (or however many senses are at your disposal) senses: sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch.
As you think about each chapter and the people and places in it, paint a vivid picture in your mind about it: colors, patterns, temperature, light levels, physical interactions with the people and things around you.
Incorporate These Elements into What You Document Below
1. Anything that jumped out at you in the moment (the ticking of a clock(s), the color of the sky or someone’s eyes, a smell, etc.)
2. The impact that had on your emotions and sense of wellbeing
3. What scared, concerned, and/or delighted you about these moments?
4. Other people’s reactions
What did you observe about their behavior?
What did they say?
How did you respond, physically, and verbally?
5. Verbal responses and interactions: key words and phrases (dialog)
CHAPTER ONE STORIES: CHAPTER TITLE (copy, paste, and complete for each chapter)
- Catalyst for Change/Disruptor: Always start with this. If there’s no problem (external or internal) to overcome and no potential for growth (internal), readers won’t connect to the material. NOTE: A catalyst for change can be (objectively) good or bad, and threats may be physical or emotional.
- Your Reaction (emotional) and How This Manifested in Your Body (What did you feel?): This will help you show, not tell. Examples: cold sweat, churning stomach, flushed face
- Relationship Friction (internal and external negotiations): Here’s where you state (tell) how you mentally processed this new information. This is your thought process, not the conclusion you came to. Include conflicting thoughts and how you weighed each to come to your conclusion. Include both your self-negotiation (how you weighed your response against conflicting values) and how/what you thought about the other people in your life, how they’d respond, and how you decided to approach them. Note: Make a list of words and phrases that came to mind as you processed this.
- Your Response (rational) (What did you think?): Here’s where you state (tell) how you mentally processed this new information. Include your thought process, not just the conclusion you came to. Include conflicting thoughts and how you weighed each to come to your conclusion.
- Your Response (action) (What did you do?): What did you do because of your emotional (gut) reactions and your rational (thought out) ones? How did your interactions with the people around you calm or increase your fears and what actions did you take?
- Surprises (good and/or bad): People are unpredictable. As you approached a situation and/or person, what happened or how did they respond in ways you hadn’t imagined when you ran scenarios in your mind?
- New Status Quo: Always end with this. This is the solution/resolution of the problem presented in the opening paragraph of the chapter.
NOTE: Not every story and chapter will end on a positive note.
- Make a list of the story/stories you will use in this chapter to take your reader on this journey with you.
CREATE A COMPELLING TABLE OF CONTENTS
Remember, your Table of Contents (TOC) represents plot points in your journey from where you were to where you are. Great TOCs tell stories. Now that you've determined the arch of the story and which stories you will include, create strong chapter titles that, when read in order, lead the reader from Point A to Point B.
After completing this exercise, you should be well on your way to developing a story that reflects your journey and meets the needs and expectations of readers.
BACK TO THAT FORMULA VS. CRAFT THING
I agree with my fellow professional writers and editors who say that formulaic writing doesn’t make for great writing. But, if you’re not one of those people who naturally sees and feels the structure, arch, and conflict in a work and what’s at stake for the people involved, it’s helpful to have an example to follow to get you started.
Started. On your way. If you cut, paste, and cobble together a manuscript based on the formula above without an appreciation for the limits of the model and without massaging the draft until you find your voice, the real story, and the rhythm of the piece, you will have built a house that appears inside out. That is, the rough beams will be what your reader sees. So, this is a start, a potentially useful first step on the road to becoming an excellent writer—a master of the craft.