Sunday, April 12, 2015

Do You Really Know What Your Story is About?

This last year has been a gut-wrenchingly horrible disaster.  The only way I survived it was by getting lost in a new story that is so personal, I can't really talk about it right now.  I've done a number of things to take charge of my life, and in the writing arena, I finally decided to sign up for Holly Lisle's writing course How To Think Sideways, which encapsulates pretty much everything she learned from when she decided she wanted to be a writer, until she first got published and won all these awards.

In the first month, she presented a lot of clever ideas for tapping into your own subconscious and determining what stories are truly important to you.  I can't tell you what they are because, not only are they copy-written, I've paid a lot of money to learn them, so don't ask.

One technique I do want to talk about is something that is not unique to her.  In fact I came up with my own version of it years ago, and though her approach does offer an interesting angle I need to figure out how to incorporate into my process, over all I prefer my own approach.

That technique is the story sentence.

We used to play a game on the NaNoWriMo forums called 20-word synopsis, which really caused me to develop a system for writing synopses.  I call it my four questions and I don’t even start writing a story until I can answer them and produce a one sentence synopsis.
Who is the story about?
Not so much their name, but what is their role in the story? An orphaned street urchin?  A bored housewife?  An Evil necromancer who loves candy?  Start with a basic noun and adjective.
What do they want?
This is going to be the thing that moves the story forward.  This is what they are going to struggle and sacrifice for.
What is stopping them from achieving it?
Either the villain or natural forces or whatever the Protagonist is struggling against.  Often there is both an external conflict: overthrow the evil empire, and an internal conflict: must address a childhood trauma and overcome a debilitating fear of snakes to defeat the evil snake god.  If one is more important than the other, focus on that.  It’s up to you to decide if that secondary conflict should be added into your synopsis as an additional complication.
What is at stake?
This is the bad thing that will happen if the Protagonist fails.  This is why we should care about the story, what makes it interesting.
If you want to try and play the 20-word synopsis, try answering each question in five words or less.  For a book synopsis you’ve got a little more room, but this should help you focus on the important and interesting parts.
There is also an unofficial fifth question I like to answer before I start writing, though it never goes into the synopsis. 
How does the character change over the course of the story?