Thursday, February 12, 2015

Before You Type "Chapter One"

Hi, everyone! I hope you're having a great week. The weather here in Florida has been quite lovely lately. But if you live north, try not to be too jealous because in the peak of summer, it'll be plenty hot enough here to make you glad you live where you do!

I'm starting a new story which I'm very excited about, and I've realized it's amazing how quickly I go from elation to writer's block when I'm working on a new book. Know the feeling? To a certain extent, it's probably inevitable. But there are definitely things we can do to flesh out our scenes as we're writing, instead of going through seventeen drafts before we get to one that seems halfway decent. So today, I thought I would write about several things I've found helpful to know before you type "Chapter One."

I should start by saying I used to be a total pantster, because I was taught in college that too much plotting hinders an organic development of story plot. And while on some levels that may be true, over the years I have realized the importance of being able to plot, even on the most basic level, before a book is written. And my stories are so much stronger for it. Took me several painful proposal synopses to get to that realization, but I eventually did.

So even if you tend to prefer writing as story elements come to your mind (perhaps especially if that's you), I hope you find this list helpful to consider before diving in.

What to consider before typing "Chapter One":

Photo by  gt_pann.  from
  • The character's main struggle. If you think about it, on some level, the character's main struggle drives nearly every element of the book. From page one, you need to know what he or she is dealing with on a big picture level, because that will influence every choice you make as a writer as you force that character into uncomfortable situations. It's amazing how targeted you can even make your descriptors if you know what fear/guilt/heaviness your character carries. We tend to notice the world according to our preoccupations, and the same is true for our characters.
  • The character's main goal. In like fashion, you should be aware what your character wants, even if it's only a vague idea at this point. If you don't know what's driving your character forward, you probably don't really have a book-length story-- at least not a good one. I've written drafts before without a clear character goal, and let's just say they did not turn out so great. If you can, try to tie your character's main goal to your character's main struggle (i.e. all she wants is to graduate from college but she has to face her greatest fear--a math class-- in order to achieve it). If we see the goal and the struggle/fear combine, and the character overcomes that struggle, the end result will be all the sweeter.
  • If you're writing romance, know your central conflict. You need simultaneously something driving the characters together and apart. Think about You've Got Mail. They are pulled together by their online romance, but that in and of itself would make a boring movie. You need the conflict--the fact he is running her out of business and she hates and loves him at the same time-- to make the magic work. In a similar fashion, find a way to get your heroine and hero physically in the same space, and be sure they have a solid reason to love and hate each other.
  • The story question/take-away. Okay, so let's be honest-- you probably won't fully know what your story question or the main take-away of the book is until you finish writing. That's okay. You can go back once you're done with the first draft and look for patterns of how that theme showed up in your writing unintentionally (which is one of my favorite things to find in a story!). But you should have a general idea of the take-away value based on the characters' struggles. For example, if you've read Kristy Cambron's stunning debut The Butterfly and The Violin, you saw her story brings up the question, "Where is God--and beauty--in the midst of suffering?" Her book presents a challenging response to this question, one of the best responses I've seen in fiction or non. The more development you can do on your story question before you begin writing, the easier you will make things for yourself as you go through the first draft. You'll find character development as well as layering much easier to accomplish, as each scene will become purposeful and focused with the theme in mind.

And that's it! Do you have any other elements you like to work through before you begin writing? Do you find you're more of a pantster or a plotter?


Ashley Clark writes romance with southern grace. She's dreamed of being a writer ever since the thumbprint-cookie-days of library story hour. Ashley has an M.A. in English and enjoys teaching literature courses at her local university. She's an active member of ACFW and runs their newcomer's loop. When she's not writing, Ashley's usually busy rescuing stray animals and finding charming new towns. You can find Ashley on her personal blog, Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter. She is represented by Karen Solem.


kaybee said...

Ashley, this is SO important. I'm somewhere between a plotter and a pantser. I do plan and plot first, but I'm not as strong on structure as I should be. My crit partner is a structure nut and has been coaching me. It's better to have something set up in the beginning than to have to rip it apart later, or have to abandon the whole thing. A good tutorial.
Kathy Bailey

Krista Phillips said...

I'm an odd duck. I rarely know ANY of this before I start chapter one. Usually I have this very tiny gem of an idea, and just kinda free write the first chapter or two, trying to get to know my characters. THEN I stop and go back and flesh through goals/conflicts etc and make my character sketches, although sometimes I DO try to get character visuals before I start.

I think it is because I am a VERY visual person... if I can visualize a character that goes a long way in getting into their story for me.

Ashley Clark said...

Thank you, Kathy! Sounds like you and your critique partner compliment one another well!

Ashley Clark said...

Krista, I like the idea of writing a couple chapters and then reevaluating! Gives you a chance to get to know your characters without writing so much you have to rip it all up later!