A to Z Challenge 2013

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Crafting A Story...Within Guidelines

Usually when we decide write something, we have a basic idea or inspiration to launch from. We are taking a shower and suddenly in pops the next short story or novel for our armada. Characters begin to form, plot is constructed, and - if we're really lucky - a framework for the story magically draws itself upon our mind.

What do you do however, if you're given the topic (along with some very rough parameters) and have to create something? For example, what if you are asked to write a story about a unicorn? You're given guidelines, such as the unicorn needs to be a central part of the story, there needs to be humor, etc. But you're also given leeway, such as being able to write the story on another planet (i.e. purple unicorns), during a different time period (Unicorn use during WWII), or in a unique culture (Tibetan Unicorns). How do you proceed to jumpstart the creative juices?

For me, letting the ideas form on their own is alot easier. My story ideas usually come when I least expect them, and not always with enough helpful details. When I'm presented with a topic though, the pressure of creation is almost too much. It's as if my brain doesn't like the restrictions; it would rather ramble freely across the landscape, picking up the diamonds of it's choosing rather than ones pointed out by outsiders.

The reason for this post is because I am currently standing on the edge of this virtual chasm. I have a story I need to craft, with a given topic, some rough parameters, and a concrete word count. Where do I begin? Do I start building some basic characters? Do I instead work on the plot? Or perhaps I should build a world for my story first? Spitballing within the confines of a defined vein is really difficult for me, and my muse is laughing his butt off in the corner with dunce cap in hand, ready to place it solidly on my head.

If you have any advice at all, I'm all ears. I feel like an American Idol contestant who has suddenly been struck mute right before the audition. Eep!


Cassandra Jade said...

I'm not particularly good at writing to set guidelines, but the few times I've tried it, I have always started with the plot. I slowly outline the series of events I wish to occur and give myself a start and end point. This in turn helps lead me to who the chracters should be and what they need to accomplish and slowly a setting evolves from this. As I said, I'm not fond of it, and tend to get brain freeze when I try.
Good luck and I hope inspiration comes to you soon.

WindyA said...

I'd start with not thinking too hard about it. But that's just me. Just because something is really important (unicorn) does not mean it is what you need to start with. Just a thought. I'm different from Cassandra Jade in that I generally don't have an outline until much much later, usually near completion, where I go back to outline and pick out the plot holes.

I'm also one of those writers who "let my characters tell me what is going on" so ... hehehe ... I really just write what the voices in my head tell me to write.

Good luck!

Jamie D. said...

I just wanted to say, "I completely understand." I'm not very good at writing to specific guidelines, and my most recent attempt is still languishing. But I do think it's a skill that can be *learned*, by training your brain to think in certain ways.

I'm personally working on that, because I *want* to be able to write a complete story around a single topic at any time...I feel like that would be a way to make myself almost completely marketable.

I recommend her a lot, but I swear I'm not making anything by referring you to Holly Lisle's site if you haven't been there already. She has some incredible information on developing plots, characters and worlds out of thin air, and putting them all together into a workable, engaging story. Head over to her site, and just start reading the free articles - that might give you some ideas for how to get started, at least. www.hollylisle.com.

Good luck! Keep us posted on your progress...I'll be interested in how you finally go about it.

ElanaJ said...

Yeah, I don't write to guidelines either. Or at least, not very well.

My advice? Start with your characters. You can give them a plot and a fun place to be, but there's nothing as intriguing and hooking as a good character. So if you have something specific you have to do, start with a character.

And good luck!

Danyelle said...

My advice echoes Elana's. Get to know your characters. They can make or break a story--in my opinion.

PJ Hoover said...

Start with the beginning point for each character and the ending point for each characters, and then work on the events that need to occur to get each character across their nice arc.
At least this is what I just did on my current WIP, and at least it got me started.

Have fun!

Valerie Wangnet said...

A very real problem. I have read your work and would feel absolutely ridiculous giving you advice. I do have a strange technique though. I shamelessly plagiarise the first five sentences of a legendary piece of work (that I have never read before) and then construct my own story from then on. Then I delete the plagiarised part. WEIRD! But it works, though you have to be careful to maintain your own tone and style. It is just a way of catapulting your story.

Jenna said...

I can't stand guidelines most of the time. But if I have to work with them, I push the line so that the story is everything I want but it still fits guidelines. Sometimes barely.

I always start with character maps and things like that, so I can get to know the people that populate the story very early on. From there I go backwards and say "okay, what kind of environment would shape somebody into this type of character?" and go from there.

By the way, sorry I haven't been around in forever. My commenting is pretty pathetic lately, but I'm working on it. :)

TereLiz said...

You've gotten some great advice here.

Given your guidelines, what would work the best for ME personally is to devise a plot around the given topic. I assume this means a general idea of the action in the story, or a premise.

Once you know what has to happen, characters and the world/setting will evolve to suit that story simultaneously. I find if I figure out the plot first, creating people to make the plot happen is much easier. Motivation is clear, but there's still room to grow, and for flaws.

My current wip grew out of an idea I had after I read an article online. So while I don't think I'd have a huge problem writing to suit specific topical guidelines, it would probably be very different from what the guideline makers had in mind. :)

Icy Roses said...

Hmmm, this is pretty interesting, since I am in the same situation, albeit for a fanfiction contest. We are given prompts and are told to write a story around it.

This is how I do it. You may approach it differently. I like to get to know the character(s) involved, becuase as wise people have said before me, characters make a story. Then I build a VERY SIMPLE plot. Like, "X and Y are in a race against time to prevent the Great Wall of China from falling down." See? Bare bones.

Then, knowing my characters and my vague plot, I come up with scenes. This is the fun part, because I like scene creation. I come up with enough big scenes to carry me from beginning to end. If it's a romance (yeah, I don't write solid romance, but it's easiest to illustrate), then you do stuff like: boy meets girl scene, boy and girl get to know each other scenes, boy and girl have massive fight, boy and girl go their separate ways, boy and girl are forced together by circumstance to complete common goal, boy and girl forgive each other, end scene. Like that.

Finally? Connect the dots. Flesh out the stuff between each important scene (candybar scenes, they're called), and usually, I come to find the plot will flesh itself out too.

Eric said...

Thank you everyone for the advice, comments, and inspirations. I can't say yet what I'm working on (I don't want to jinx myself), but once it's all over I'll let everyone know more details.

Glynis said...

I have not had to go through this, but I did get stuck with something for my novel. I overcame it by drawing pictures (not an artist, stickmen style). I then wrote under each picture, then moved the writing away from picture, and hey presto I was off again. Whatever way you choose, have fun :)