Some Theoretical Lists)
Last week I mentioned that a story can often be broken into a series of lists. The most obvious of these is a list of sequential events, which give the scenes from start to finish.
- Open on an idyllic village
- Villain comes and lays waste to it
- One character escapes, but collapses out in the desert
- He awakens in a strange home, having been rescued by an old sage
- After he has recovered, that sage takes him for refuge to a foreign village
- Once more, the enemy forces arrive to sack the city
Another set of lists would be that of character-arcs, which might show the gradual progression of simpletons into heroes.
- Our main character begins without any concern for the world at large
- The loss of his home and loved ones helps him to see that the broader strokes of the world are invading his life, whether he likes it or not
- He still needs a final push before accepting his destiny, which occurs when the old man urges him to stand up for what is right, but he refuses, inadvertently opening the door for that man’s death
At some point in the planning process an author takes each of these individual strands, and tries weaving them together in a story. At this point you might get more granular lists, such as the information that needs to be passed in a piece of dialogue.
- The hero comes to the conversation, trying to justify why he is running away, and why the old man should as well.
- The old man is nonplussed, says that if the boy has already made his determination then he ought to get a move on.
- Something is gnawing away at the boy, though: his conscience. He doesn’t just want the master to excuse him, he wants the master to absolve him of his guilt, which obviously isn’t going to happen.
- So the boy gets angry and reveals a hidden wound. He asks the old man where he was when the boy’s village got sacked. Where was honor and dignity then?
And as you see, we’re already well on our way towards a completed story, even before we’ve written a single word of dialogue or described any scenery. It is interesting to note that for all of the details we do have, this story could still exist in a plethora of different times and settings. All that we really have are the lists, a skeletal framework which could be covered in many clothes.
Making a List Interesting)
Of course, it is easy to write a list, but far more difficult to write an interesting one. And it is even more difficult to weave individual threads, even if they are good, into a cohesive whole. It takes time to get this foundation right, but if you do, it will pay rich dividends down the road. Here are two things to remember if your outlines are feeling a little flat.
Let’s consider the sample plot points I provided above. We began in a tranquil village, then we destroyed it, then we had the lone survivor awaken in a foreign environment. Each point escalates the boy’s situation and the list feels far better for it. If things were to start at the climax, and then moved towards flatness, things would feel off. Once our sense of suspense has been raised, we expect it to continue on.
The same escalation was also at work in the conversation outline as well. The boy begins by trying to justify himself, is denied the absolution he seeks, and escalates to wounded rage. Many scenes start in a quiet place, get agitated, and see the characters leave in a huff. This escalation does not necessarily capture the ebb and flow of real life, but it does result in a more arresting narrative.
With conflict I do not just mean war and violence, but rather weaving together different threads so that competing desires come to an impasse with one another. In the boy’s argument with the master we have the elder’s need to stand up for what’s right, and the boy’s need to run from his fears. Presumably the story would have already hinted at this tension in prior scenes, and this moment is where that conflict finally reaches a breaking point between them.
But also note that there can be conflict within a single thread as well. With my second list, that detailing the arc of just the boy, we can feel how he is of two minds about what he should do. The invasion of an army and the argument with his master are only personifications of his fighting with his own conscience.
Tension and escalation are key to writing a compelling story, and they should permeate even the highest level of an outline. The careful and intentional inclusion of them is one of the reasons why fictional narratives feel more vibrant and interesting than most historical summaries.
Dressing it Up)
Once you have a good skeleton, then you need to get some meat on those bones. Because in the end people don’t pick up a book to read a list, they want to read a story. Lists are rigid and artificial, stories feel organic and alive. One way to obfuscate the existence of a list is to make it too complex to recognize it as such. This should be a core consideration when weaving all those multiple threads together for your story. Is there enough variation that the reader doesn’t see the trees through the forest?
Another way to make a story feel more organic is to allow wiggle room within your rigidly defined structure. So let’s take my theoretical story from above. Remember that the master and young boy escaped to an idyllic village, which is then beset by the same enemy horde that destroyed the boy’s village. This leads to the confrontation between master and pupil, where the boy wants to run out of fear and the master wants to stay and help a lost cause.
All that is well and fine, but between the plot points of arrive at village and enemy horde comes to destroy it there could be any number of organic interludes. Perhaps the two are treated to a peaceful respite, where for a moment the boy is allowed to believe that his problems are behind him. Maybe he starts flirting with a street vendor’s daughter, which arc will be tragically cut short when the enemy horde arrives. Any number of things might happen, which serve to develop character, establish tone, and also to hide the transition from Plot Point A to B.
On Thursday I’ll be posting the next entry in my short story The Soldier’s Last Sleep. Try to pick out the list structure for how one event follows another in the trenches. Watch for how there is an escalation of danger, as well as how Private Bradley and the larger military organization feel the tension of clashing priorities. Last of all, take a look at how I smooth the shift from one point in the plot to the next. I hope this is helpful, and I’ll see you there!