Starting Over — What I’ve Learned So Far

A couple of months back I wrote an article about how I’d decided to take a step back and re-learn the basics of storytelling (here). It’s been working out really well, and today I’m here to share a little of what I’ve learned so far.

What am I doing, and why?

First of all, a few words about my process. How am I going about this in order to learn as much as possible along the way?

The short answer is that I do a lot of planning and outlining. In the two months since I began I’ve worked on my project daily, but I haven’t written a single sentence that’ll make it into an actual book. I won’t go into exact detail, as what works for me may not work for you, or even anyone, so I’ll just explain it very briefly here.

So, what I’m doing is I’m writing a series of shorter stories (may reach novella length). I’ve got twenty stories planned and the entire series can be summed up as follows:

Famous werewolf wrestler travels across the world to be with a woman he believed to be dead.

Originally the plan was to write it as one single novel, but I ended up splitting it into shorter stories to make it more manageable. The first thing I did was to write a few sentences detailing what each story would be about – essentially summing up the entire series. You can see these descriptions here.

After I’d done that I wrote a basic outline for each story. In addition to just story content the outline included information about the story itself, such as the promise it gives to the reader and what the characters in it want and need. I’ll talk more about both Promise and about Wants and Needs in a moment.

Currently I’m defining the waypoints that the story has to pass through in order to successfully reach its destination, and I’m listing all of the scenes that I need to write in order to achieve this.

The next step is to go over the list of scenes for each story to analyse what part each scene plays in the overall story. I want to know what its purpose is, both in the story and in the series as a whole.

After this I’ll probably do outlines of the individual scenes, and then I’ll finally sit down to actually write them (phew).

Why am I doing it like this?

The short answer is that it feels right, but as far as answers go that’s not very helpful.

The reason I’m putting all this work into outlining and planning is that it gives me the opportunity to consider how the various different parts of the story connect and relate to each other. I get to decided if a scene or event I’d thought about really is relevant to the story, or if it does a good enough job of moving the story forward. Perhaps a part needs cutting out, or perhaps I need to add in a new scene to support it?

After my initial outline I had ideas for thirteen stories. Two of these turned out to be way too complex compared to the rest of them and I split them up into four stories each. One of these turned out to be still too complex and I split that one into two. Similar things have happened within the stories as I’ve gone about looking at them in more detail.

This is part of the learning process, and for me it feels intuitive to try and figure these things out before I write the stories rather than after.

What Have I Learned

I feel like I’ve learned a lot, but trying to put it into words is more difficult than I first expected.

Perhaps it’s not so much that I’ve learned a lot of new things, but that I’ve gained some important insights. On a few occasions during the last two months I’ve felt like I’ve “levelled up” as far as my storytelling skills go. I noticed on myself what a difference it makes to actually understand something as opposed to just knowing about it.

The Promise

The first major insight I gained was regarding reader expectations. This is nothing new. I’ve known about the importance of meeting the expectations of the reader for a long time, but it’s not until just recently that I really got my head around it and added understanding to knowing.

What triggered this was a change in terminology, and I came across it here on the forums on Mythic Scribes. Someone brought up how the story makes a promise to the reader, and then it has to keep that promise or the reader will feel cheated.

Simple as that.

The concept hasn’t changed, just the words used to describe it, but for me it made all the difference. This change of words helped me go from knowing that reader expectations are important, to understanding why reader expectations are important. You have to be true to your word.

As a direct consequence of this I added a section about promise to each story outline. This is to define what the promise of each story is and give me a better idea of how to present it and deliver upon it.

Wants and Needs

For the longest time I didn’t read books on writing – I learned enough from just hanging around here on the forums and in discussions with other writers. As part of this project I’ve invested in a few books, and I’m reading up a bit more on the intricacies of storytelling.

Currently I’m working my way through The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know, by Shawn Coyne, and that’s where I learned about the Wants and Needs of characters. It’s probably mentioned in several other books as well, so I doubt it’s unique to this specific one.

What it boils down to is that each character has two goals: something they want, and something they need.

The thing they want is their conscious goal. It’s something they’re aware of and which they actively strive towards.

The thing they need is their subconscious goal. This may not be something they’re aware of (but it can be), and they’re not actively pursuing it. They probably won’t be able to gain happiness/satisfaction until they finally achieve their subconscious goal though. It’s what keeps them going/wondering even after they reach their conscious goal.

What a character wants, and what a character needs doesn’t necessarily match up. In fact, it seems likely the story will probably be more interesting if the conscious and the subconscious goals are in conflict with each other.

In my outlines I added a section where I described the Want and the Need of that story’s main character. For two of my three main characters the conscious goal changed from story to story, but for the last one it stayed the same all the way until the end.

The subconscious goals on the other hand changed much more rarely, but when they did it was always much more of a big deal for the character involved.

I believe that having clearly defined conscious and subconscious goals for my characters helps me add more depth and believability to them. It also helps me decide what’s important in a scene and what isn’t.

Trope List

This is something that I’d like to think I came up with myself. It started out like a silly little game I did just for fun, but it turned out to be quite useful.

While reading about storytelling the concept of reader expectations kept coming up – like I mentioned above already. Over and over I was told how important it is for a writer to be familiar with the established tropes and conventions of the genre they’re writing in.

I decided that the best way of familiarising myself with the tropes I’m using would be to read about them, so I did. I opened up tvtropes.com and began looking for tropes that matched what appeared in my story outlines.

This is when the idea came to me: what if I try to represent the events of my story as a list of tropes?

At first it was just a bit of fun, and I wasn’t very serious about it. What I found though, is that listing the tropes helped me get a better overview of the story. It provided me with short and descriptive names where I’d previously just imagined a series of events.

Instead of “Roy and Alene get captured by a bunch of angry villagers who want to lynch them” I’d have “Torches and Pitchforks.” It may not seem like much, and it’s not, but it’s one of those little things that has had a big impact on how I approach my stories.

As an example, here is the full trope list for the story where the above example is from:

  • Mysterious Past / The Cartel / The Exile / Price on their Head
  • Checkpoint Charlie / Walk into Mordor / Let’s Split Up, Gang
  • Hillbilly Horrors / Deep South
  • Traveling salesman
  • Doesn’t Trust Those Guys
  • Split and Reunion
  • Torches and Pitchforks
  • Escape / Big Heroic Run
  • Memento Macguffin

I believe that even someone who hasn’t read the outline will get at least a vague idea of what the story is about, especially if you skip the Traveling salesman bit. and I find this really fascinating.

For me who knows the story it gives me a quick reminder of the important parts in it.

Routine

The last thing I’ve learned is technically not something I’ve learned. Rather, it’s old knowledge that I’ve had reinforced, but it’s important enough that I’m including it anyway.

It’s simple: routine helps.

I try to write every day. An hour or two after work. As much as I can handle on the weekend. It’s not always fun, and I don’t always feel like it, but I try to do it anyway (I’m not always successful).

What happens to me, and which I remind myself of when I don’t feel like writing, is that inspiration comes when invited. I’m not always inspired to sit down and start hammering away at the keyboard, but I’ve found that when I do and once I’ve been at it for a while the inspiration is there.

It’s much more difficult to sit down and start writing than it is to continue writing once you’ve begun. Sometimes it’s even difficult to stop.

Your Turn

This has been all about me, and about what I’m thinking and doing. How about you? After my previous article I found that a lot of other writers are in similar situations, where they’re trying out different things to improve their skills and their stories.

What have you learned that has helped take your writing to the next level?

Have you had that feeling when something just clicks and you enter a new realm of understanding (kind of what happened to me with “Promise”)? What was it you learned?

Outlining is a big help to me in understanding story, but it’s not for everyone. How do you do it, and what do you do to try and learn more?

My last piece of advice if you’re stuck on trying to get your head around something is to try and explain it to someone else. This forces you to think about it in a different way, and can help you gain the understanding you need.

Finally, if you’re interested in checking out the outlines and other notes I’ve shared for this project, you can find them on my blog, here.

Nils Ödlund is a writing and fantasy enthusiast. He’s currently chipping away at a series of novellas about the adventures of two shape shifters and a paladin, while at the same time trying to crack the secrets of storytelling. Ödlund lives in Cork, Ireland. When not writing, he enjoys exploring the countryside on foot, and when the weather gets too bad he’ll stay home and play games on the computer (or write some more). You can follow Ödlund on his blog (link just above) where he mostly posts pictures of coffee, beer, and the Irish countryside, as well as the occasional update on his writing progress.

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LouiseDespois
Member

Although Coyne’s book *is* helpful, I think you’ll find that the best parts of it come from Robert McKee’s larger work,_Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting_. Although I could disagree with a few points in McKee’s work, overall I think it’s one of the best books on writing I’ve ever read. If I recall correctly, Coyne does give McKee credit at some point in his work. Nonetheless, I think you’ll find that Coyne is the nugget, and McKee is the mother lode.

Hope you’re having a great time with your Werewolf. 🙂

R Snyder
Guest

A thoughtful and well written piece, Nils. It’s interesting how we think (as opposed to what we think) about writing. I’m not a structure guy because that’s not how I think when it comes to writing. And maybe because I’ve not written, nor ever will, something that requires that level of organization.

The Promise (reader expectations): If you were to focus your attention on only one aspect of writing, this would be it. I don’t know how much you read but I’ve been reading since I was . . . ten. There are a number of different types of reads; in order: You give up after a few chapters and put the book down (or throw it across the room); You struggle through it, wishing it had been better conceived; You enjoy it. No big complaints; You really enjoy it. You think about it the next day at work; You really enjoy it and vow to read it again one day; And the last! You can’t put the sucker down. You’re in it, you’re living it. It moves you. You’re sad when it’s done. To me it’s that simple. You’re always aiming for the last two. You make the promise when you write whatever it is you’re writing. People pick up a book expecting to be entertained. Read your own book and see where it lands. Don’t disappoint.

What I’ve learned that might be useful. I think Stephen King wrote the best book on writing. In it, he explains how sometimes getting a story out is a lot like unearthing a dinosaur fossil. You expose a part of it and then work from there, never quite sure what you have (what IS the story, have I captured it) until you’ve uncovered the entire thing. I have a story like that; I declared it finished back in 2011. It wasn’t. I picked up up again and spent another four years working with it, off and on. Last fall I read it all the way through and unearthed the last bit of it and plugged it in; in doing so, IMO, moving it into the last category. It takes time and patience — and you have to have a good story to begin with, but in the end, it’s worth the effort.

Enjoyed your thoughts and look forward to more.

Codey Amprim
Member

Fantastic read, Nils. I am going to give this a shot tonight and see how far I get.

Thanks for sharing your personal experience!

Greybeard
Guest

Loved this post. It gave me some new ideas to experiment with. The following hit home:

“Someone brought up how the story makes a promise to the reader, and then it has to keep that promise or the reader will feel cheated.”

Did you ever see the American TV show LOST? It made big promises and didn’t deliver on them. Many viewers felt cheated.

R Snyder
Guest

Smiled at this. It failed in the end (why I don’t know . . .), but it was an entertaining ride.

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