I’ve been reading a book called WRITING WITH POWER by Peter Elbow. One of his recommended techniques is to plunge in and create “thumbnails” or sketches of possible scenes or plot lines.
These short narratives do not have to be in any particular order in terms of the novel’s timeline, nor do they need adhere to the usual format of “show, don’t tell” when creating a scene or chapter. These “snippets” may or may not contain dialog, description, and/or other details typically included in a novel.
The purpose of the excercise is to begin getting the fundamentals of your story down on paper. Later you will piece together a timeline and flesh out a full narrative from the fragments you have composed over time.
I have found this technique to be of tremendous benefit to me in terms of clarifying my purpose in tackling such an enormous project as constructing a novel in the first place. The idea is simply to begin setting down the context within which the story is to unfold.
I find it useful to create a notebook containing different sections – a section devoted to character profiles, back stories, and questionaires that help you to understand your characters on a deeper and more intimate level. This section can also contain illustrations and soundtracks, if these items prove to be worthwhile in getting a handle on the nuances of your characters.
Another section could contain nothing but scene and chapter ideas and might eventually expand to become fullblown scenes with dialog, description, and narrative detail. I have surprised myself while jotting down notes about potential scenes how quickly a bare bones outline develops into a richly detailed, highly nuanced piece of writing that may well end up in a final draft.
A blank page can be daunting when the expectation is that nothing less than pure brilliance shining from each and every paragraph is acceptable. When I wrote Book One of The Flamebearer, I followed a prescribed path, putting one foot in front of the other and slowly plodding along, proceeding from chapter to chapter with frequent stops to edit and polish what I had just written. It proved a painstaking and arduous process which stalled many times along the way and required numerous revisions and restarts, after having written myself into a cul-de-sac from which there was no escape other than to scrap large portions of writing and start over.
I now grasp Peter Elbow’s point – that this is the most dangerous way to proceed with any piece of writing, whether crafting a novel, a short story, or a non-fiction essay or memoir.
By allowing myself to jot down ideas as they occur to me, even if they seem minor at the time – a fragment of dialogue, an insight into the dynamic at play between two characters, or even a vague emotional impression that has yet to find its true power and meaning, the mere act of putting words on paper even without a clear idea of where the words might lead, establishes a flow, an incentive to keep writing.
Suddenly one is struck by the discovery that a story is beginning to take shape. The process actually becomes enjoyable, rather than drudgery. Soon, breakthroughs are more frequent than blockages, and innovation seems to spring from the ether. Yes, revisions and edits will be a part of the later stages of fine-tuning, tightening, and polishing, but the miracle is that now you have before you a substantive body of work to draw from. In fact, the real bonus of working this way is that you most likely will end up with far more material than you need. Then your primary focus will be on cutting clutter and redundancy and looking for the most explicit and direct way of imparting meaning with a minimum of repetition.
Imagine! Every author should be faced with such a dilemma – too many words rather than too few! The aspect of this method I find most enjoyable and intriguing is the ability to jump ahead to the fictional future and begin fleshing out possible endings while the middle has yet to be conceived. Working backward from the end to the beginning puts events into perpective in extremely enlightening ways. If you can see how a story ultimately ends, the challenge of discovering how to fit the pieces of the puzzle together in order to logically reach that destination becomes less burdonsome and more of an adventure.
The best stories are the ones that somehow feel inevitable without seeming contrived. In a character-driven plot, it is always the intrinsic nature of the character that seals his fate. Whether motivated by good or evil, he will make choices and decisions that drive him relentlessly toward a particular outcome, which in the hands of a good writer will keep the reader guessing until the end but when they reach the final scene, it feels like the natural conclusion to the long journey they’ve traveled with the author and characters. Sometimes you hate for a story to end. You’ve forged such an emotional bond with the characters that you want their drama to continue. Hint: That is what sequels are for!