Don’t Strangle Your Unborn Story

Too many writers walk into their creative process with half a notion of the story in mind, and then do everything they can to shoehorn their creative faculties into that half-notion of a story. Don’t strangle your unborn story like this. Give it time to live and breathe first. In the earliest stages of writing a story or a novel or a screenplay, you’re not structuring it yet. Instead, allow your mind to wander around in the world of your story and just write down whatever emerges.

For example, when I started my novella, A Merchant’s Tale, I began with the skeleton of an idea: An odd-couple buddy story of friendship and adventure, set in my Kingdom of Droma. An odd couple needs two people, so I wanted to know where these two people lived, what their backgrounds were, and how they were going to meet. My notes from Day 1 of my process look like this:

Hrm. Ok. So Corentin lives… well, he lives on the road. He’s a trader from Aukriath just passing through Droma. And Adarc is a student for the priesthood, he lives in the major village in Droma with his mentor. Ok. A small town boy and a trader from foreign lands. I like that, it feels interesting. What else? How do they meet? Maybe Adarc is in the market looking for a new pair of boots and Corentin is trading in boots? Maybe, but that seems kind of dull. What else? Maybe the trader is an infidel and the young priest tries to convert him to the “true faith”? Possibly, but it feels sort of obvious and heavy-handed. What if they meet on the road? The trader has a package to deliver, the young priest has a mission in another village? What if the priest’s mission was actually to be the trader’s guide? Hrm. I kind of like that. What if the trader is also involved in some kind of kidnapping/human trafficking scheme (wow, where’d that come from?) and the young priest finds out? Oooh, that’s interesting. It brings up the question—is the trader really a slaver? What’s the prevailing attitude toward slavery in the priest’s culture? Would the priest offer to buy one of the trader’s slaves, or would he be opposed to the practice and threaten to call down the law on him? Hrmmm… I like that.

Ok, so I scribbled that down in about four or five minutes—completely random, just playing on the page. This gives you a sense of what it’s like to let your imagination wander. As I continued writing, the premise shifted in all sorts of directions.

The important thing is to simply trust your curiosity. The moment you force it or fear that you’re “getting it wrong,” you’re out of the story. One of the real challenges of this process is learning to accept the satisfaction that accompanies it. You aren’t writing at this stage, you’re scribbling, playing, dreaming on the page. This can be a deeply satisfying process, and a lot of fun.

“But wait! This is Serious Business! This is Important Work! Serious Business can’t be fun! Important Work can’t be satisfying!”

No. If you’re doing it right, this part should be fun. It should be satisfying. Remember, you’re writing a whole story here, maybe a novel. That’s a lot of words and a lot of hours ahead of you. If it isn’t fun and satisfying, it’s going to be very hard to get to the end. Learn to accept the feelings of fun and satisfaction that come out of a good afternoon spent playing with elves, or ninja-assassins, or sexy bikers, or whatever other characters inhabit your world.

Get Specific

If you don’t strangle your unborn story, you can move very quickly, turning over one idea for another like rocks in a creek until you find the slippery salamander that is your story. Can you imagine if I decided early on that Corentin was an infidel and then started writing my novel? I would have strangled all of the possibilities that followed before they were even born. I would have immediately narrowed my options. And honestly, that’s not the story I wanted to tell. It may have been my original idea—merchant and priest—but indeed, what I discovered was really interesting to me was the nature of slavery and cultural attitudes toward it. For my purposes, it might be more effective if I have Corentin involved in a slavery ring. The nature of the relationship between he and Adarc hasn’t changed, but the premise feels stronger as a means of exploring the question (a question of which I wasn’t even conscious a minute earlier).

The time spent imagining the world of your story prior to writing it or even outlining it will pay for itself ten times over. You don’t have to waste weeks and months writing tens of thousands of words about a merchant and his tiresome evangelist only to realize that your interest is waning. When you move from the generic to the specific, you are far less likely to write four hundred pages only to discover that your story lacks a narrative drive.

Trust your subconscious. It’s really good at sniffing order out of chaos, so your job is to give it conflict in the form of a story. It will go right to work, hammering busily away on it, even in your sleep. As a sense of your world begins to reveal itself through the imagined relationships between your characters, you’ll start asking yourself the simplest of questions: “I wonder what might happen next?” Scenes and scenarios will begin to reveal themselves. You’ll start to get a sense of the world, but you also haven’t limited yourself by making any demands on what must happen. You might find all kinds of different images and situations that seem to contradict each other. No problem, that’s fine. You’re not writing your story yet. Often, these apparent contradictions are leading you to deeper truths. If you start by outlining right off the bat, you might never allow yourself to develop any depth of character. Humans are complex creatures and our behavior makes no bloody sense whatsoever, but at the same time, there’s a perfect kind of logic to it. Take the time to find that weird senseless logic. Once you begin to develop a sense of the world around your story, then you can start thinking about story structure.

Want to learn more about Corentin, Adarc, and A Merchant’s Tale? Click here.


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Michael Dellert is an award-winning writer, editor, publishing consultant, and writing coach with a publishing career spanning 18 years. He is currently working as an independent freelancer. He lives in the Greater New York City area.

Posted in A Merchant's Tale, Creativity, Fiction, World-Building, Writing craft

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The Author
Michael Dellert is an award-winning writer, editor, publishing consultant, and writing coach with a publishing career spanning 18 years. He is currently working as an independent freelancer. He lives in the Greater New York City area.
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