When someone posed the question on line as to why he is able to create good characters but can't create a decent story to save his soul, the Internet lit up with do-gooders, not the least of whom was one of my favorite spreaders of online misinformation. Here's what I told him.
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First, assuming the Queen of Wrong can read (which may be a stretch), I'm not sure why she feels you are only interested in the characters "as they are, not how they got to where they are now." You stated in your question that you're good at characterization, so what's Queenie's beef?
And, as for her implication that you need a course on "plotting," let me say that plotting isn't the be-all and end-all she apparently thinks it is. Plotting is storytelling, plain and simple. If you can tell a good story from beginning to end without losing your listener's interest, a plotting course will only slow you down in your development. Ask Herman Melville or Uncle Remus or even Beatrix Potter if they'd taken many courses on "plotting" throughout their lives. Uh-uh? That's what I thought.
So, assuming you have a good story, and you can describe it vocally, you should be able to describe it in writing, right? Well, I wish it were that easy, but it's not. You see, transcribing a story from your brain to your finished product is a complex task. Here's what I think you should do, and it has nothing at all to do with enrolling in "Plotting 101".
First, envision the story from the beginning through the middle to the end. Think about it. Don't write about it yet. Just think. Envision the characters and how they interact in your story. Imagine what they do, how they relate to one another, and what happens to or with them as the story unfolds. Think about the problems they must face to emerge victorious at the end: What is their gravest hurdle? Finally, picture a dynamic climax. You know: Boy meets girl, girls gets into his Ferrari, and boy and girl drive off together into the sunset.
No, what I'm talking about here is building characters, establishing conflict, pitting good against evil, and seeing where that takes your characters. Perhaps boy meets girl; girl dumps boy for a flashy drug dealer, and boy has to plan a way to rescue her from the pusher's nefarious clutches. (She has a wealthy father who will do anything to get his little girl back safe and sound and lavishly reward anyone who helps.)
Do you see where I'm going with this? Good. Remember, envision first; then, write. Here's how to do that.
Begin by writing out an outline. You know: Chapter One. Robert Townsend meets Roger Goodell at a bar, and they decide to go into business together selling designer turtles. Chapter Two. Roger catches pneumonia and dies, leaving Robert holding a bagful of hapless amphibians and a pocketful of debt. Chapter Three. Roger didn't die of pneumonia, according to a nurse practitioner at the hospital who tells Robert of her suspicions. And so forth.
If it helps you keep things organized, break the outline down into Beginning chapters, Middle chapters, and End chapters. The beginning chapters will be devoted to defining the characters and setting the stage for conflict. Throw in some description and add a little "backstory" along with anything else that will give the reader a reason for wanting to continue charging ahead. The middle chapters will focus on the explosion of conflict and the introduction of seemingly overwhelming odds. The end chapters will follow the characters through to their ultimate victory and the resolution of the story. Simple, no?
Next, the fun part. Once your outline is complete, go back to Chapter One and begin filling in the blanks. The outline talks about Robert in general terms. In the final story, you have to make him come alive. Not just for yourself but also for your readers. The technique is called "fleshing out," and you can do that by introducing dialogue that reveals Robert's character, integrity, and personal philosophy. Once you have finished with Chapter One, move on to the next chapter. Continue doing that until you sit back one day and say to yourself, "My God, I've written a book!"
Then, put your book aside for a few days before returning to it for a read-through, preferably out loud, which will help you "hear" any weak spots and find any errors in logic or syntax. It's a much better way of identifying all the weaknesses in your writing. Make a note of those areas that need additional work—either fleshing out or, perhaps, cutting or expanding. Again, work one chapter at a time. When you've gone over that fist chapter a dozen or two or ten times or more and made all the changes you can think of--and when you're convinced it's gold--move on to editing Chapter Two. And not before then.
Easy? Not exactly. Necessary? Absolutely. You see, I have a feeling that you haven't put in the kind of blood, sweat, and tears necessary to do right by your story—and the book. You haven't done your homework. If you tackle writing from beginning to end all on in one mass effort, you're likely to become overwhelmed and wind up as disappointed as hell in the outcome. But, when you break the process down into manageable parts, you're more likely to succeed in writing a book you can't help but love.
And, that should be every writer's goal, shouldn't it?
Now, if you still have questions about any part of this process, please feel free to contact me via my Website at www.djherda.org. I'll get back to you promptly. No charge. In the meantime ...
Smoke if you've got 'em.
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D. J. Herda is author of the new series of writing advice, About Writing Right, available in eBook, paperback, and hardcover formats at Amazon and at fine booksellers everywhere. You can check out his weekly column, "The Author-Ethicist," at Substack.