Updated: Sep 26, 2020
A student recently sent me the following comment:
“I have the problem where I have an idea have the characters, the world, the basic story idea. But don’t know how to connect the dots without having to much unnecessary filler.”
Can you relate to this? Do you have plenty of ideas, but aren’t sure what to do next or how to weave them together into a coherent story?
If so, today’s blog is for you.
Here are some tips helping your story come together as a connected whole:
1. Make sure your main character has a clear goal
Many times when a story feels as though it is a random amalgamation of scenes and pieces, it’s because there isn’t a primary, driving goal connecting the character’s actions together.
What is your character’s overall story goal? Think of Katniss in the Hunger Games, for example. From the time she volunteers to take Prim’s place, her one driving goal is simply to survive. Every single thing she does during training, in conversations with Peeta and Haymitch, and in the arena all work toward this goal, and as the story progresses, her difficulty achieving her goal increases, thereby increasing the intensity and immediacy the goal as the scenes progress toward the story’s climax.
Does your protagonist have a clear, specific story goal that spans the entirety of your story and culminates in its most intense form at the story’s climax? If not, this may be part of why your story feels disconnected. Decide on your character’s primary goal, and cut any scenes that are not in line with it. If needed, create some additional scenes that build up this primary goal/conflict to help your protagonist move logically from the story’s beginning to its end.
Also make sure that your character has a specific goal in each individual scene. These should work toward the larger goal, as well, though they may sometimes seem to undermine it. For example, when Katniss shoots the arrow at the apple while performing for the judges, her goal was to get their attention and make a statement due to her frustration of being ignored. However, her primary goal was still to survive, and impressing the judges was a vital part of her strategy for doing so, since a higher score meant more sponsors and therefore better supplies sent into the arena. When she acts rashly and lashes out at the judges, she fears that doing so has harmed her chances for a high score (and thereby her chances for survival). Although it works out in her favor, this momentary setback adds additional conflict and tension while also working to remind Katniss (and the readers) of the importance of her primary goal – to survive.
2. Add layers
Now that your character has a primary goal, does your story feel too sparse? If so, you are probably lacking complexity in your story’s conflict. Although your character has a primary, driving goal throughout the entire story, this does not mean it must be her only goal, or that conflict cannot arise for her in other areas.
For example, although Katniss’ primary goal is to survive, and therefore her primary conflicts are things that directly threaten her survival (other tributes, the gamemakers’ traps within the arena, starvation, etc.), she also experiences both interpersonal conflict with supporting characters and internal conflict. Katniss butts heads with Haymitch, with Peeta, with Gale, and with her mother at different points in the story. All of these conflicts serve to underpin her primary conflict, and also help to develop Katniss’ internal conflict – deciding what kind of person she will be and what she is willing to do to survive. Some of these scenes may even complicate or impede her progress toward her primary goal (such as shooting the arrow at the judges, as mentioned above). However, they only serve to provide complexity and to refocus the character on deciding which goals matter most to her.
When all these layers come together, not only is the story more compelling and Katniss much more intriguing as a protagonist, but also now there are an abundance of scenes, both present and flashbacks, which connect the primary survival scenes and provide a fluid, captivating story. And none of these feel like filler, because they all complement her primary conflict and help build toward Katniss’ growth and the decision she will make in the climax.
3. Don’t Forget the Sequels
Once you’ve created layers of conflict and written additional scenes to flesh out your character’s internal and external conflicts and the story’s primary goal and scene goals, do you still find that your story lacks girth? Does it feel flat or skeletal or formulaic? If so, you may be missing a very important element: the sequel. The sequel, simply put, is the processing period following a scene, in which the character thinks through what has just happened, sorts through his or her thoughts and emotions, and then makes a plan of action for what to do next.
These sequels are vital to a story for 4 reasons:
They provide insight for the reader as to who the character is and what she is thinking and feeling, all of which demonstrate how she is changing throughout the story and help the reader feel more connected to the character
They provide explanation as to why the character is about to take whatever action she chooses to take in the following scene
They move the story along, providing a smooth transition from one event to the next, and
They can create additional tension and suspense for the reader, particularly if the reader knows something the character did not know while making her choice.
If you want readers to relate to your character and to feel as though your story flows effortlessly between major events, make sure you have strong sequels.
And there you have it… my top 3 tips for turning a collection of ideas into a cohesive, captivating story.
Do you have questions? Comments? Feel free to leave them below!
Also, for more information on this topic, check out the video I posted Thursday on my CCrawfordWriting Facebook page. It says many of the same things as this article, but with a few variations.
Thank you so much for reading!