Planning Your Story.
By now you have an idea for your story - but how does that transfer onto the page? Maybe you think you would like to write a story about the goings-on in a sleepy little New England beach resort town. That's fine, until you start thinking about exactly what you are going to say. If it's a sleepy little town it's not very exciting, is it? Let's also say you've got the idea in mind to write about the Town's Chief of Police and his life. I can already hear the gentle snores from the readers. Where's the story? Right, well let's say that this Chief of Police sudden has his world stood on its head when a young girl is eaten by a monster shark! On the face of it, putting all other thought out of your head, this may sound a trifle far-fetched. Peter Benchley didn't think so and 'Jaws' became a huge bestseller and one of the most famous films ever made.
The point of this is that Martin Brody, Chief of Police in Amity, has been presented with a crisis. It is essential for the book that Brody (known in writing as the lead character) is faced with this crisis - or there is simply no book. If the shark had swam off and eaten a couple of seals instead - no book. If there had been a huge whaling boat in the bay that shot the shark with a massive steel harpoon as soon as it saw it - no book. This is a very important point, and I'm aware that I'm labouring it a bit. The thing is that the crisis, whatever it may be, must be of such scope and urgency that if it is not resolved by the lead character the consequences don't bear thinking about. Here are a couple of other well-known crises that help illustrate the point:
The life of a young man is turned upside down when he is swindled and thrown into a dreadful, impregnable prison fortress - Edmund Dante in The Count Of Monte Cristo.
A woman is placed in terrible danger when the crew of her spaceship discover something monstrous on an abandoned planet - Ellen Ripley in Alien.
The crisis must be appropriate to the genre in which it is being written. To return to 'Jaws', think what it would have been like if Peter Benchley for some unaccountable reason had chosen as his main character a twelve-year old girl. A masterful writer such as Benchley might just have been able to make it work but, let's face it, the plot and characterisation would have had to be so contrived as to be totally unbelievable.
The crisis, therefore, must get a hold of your reader and, if it doesn't grab you, it won't grab your reader. A lot of ideas start with what are called 'what-ifs' or 'supposes'. So what if a man came across a dead body when he was out fishing on lake? Nasty, surely, and not something you would want to do every day. However, suppose the body he found wasn't human? Or had been chewed by something with very big teeth? Or suddenly came alive? Or was the body of his biggest enemy - or friend? What-ifs and supposes can therefore be levered upwards to find the story idea lurking underneath!
The crisis must also always throw your lead character's life into total and utter turmoil. It has to be a life-changing incident. If it is not resolved by him or her the result will be utter ruin of their life or worse.
Also ask yourself this: does this what-if fit in with my particular genre of writing? Take the man in the boat. If your genre is political thriller it may well work - the man in the boat may well have found the body of a high-rankin government official who everyone knew he hated - so he may well be charged with his killing. On the other hand, it wouldn't work in your genre if the body was that of an alien, would it? Try always to think of this before you go another step - it can save a lot of time and tearing of hair!
So now you have got a firm idea for your story it's time to start thinking about some of the other mechanics of planning it. What's the goal of the story? What is you lead character's motivation? How many words long will your book be? It's all part of your initial planning!
Let's take the first question: what is the story goal?
The goal is something that your lead character believes must be done or happen in order to solve his or her crisis. For Martin Brody, it was catching the shark. For Ellen Ripley, it was escaping from the alien. Your whole book hinges around this goal. Along the way there will be further crises, setbacks and moments when it doesn't seem possible that your lead character will win through - but the goal does not shift or change.
The second question concerns motivation. Your lead character must be someone your readers can cheer along, someone who maybe, secretly, they'd just love to be. Think I'm kidding? I recently went to see the new James Bond film, Casino Royale. Sure the crowd cheered Bond on and booed the bad guys but I noticed, on leaving the cinema, just how many men had that bit more spring in their step and a touch of steel about the eyes. All of them were James Bond! (OK, me too, I admit it!) That is when you know you've seen a good film or read a good book - when you so want the lead character to win that a bit of them rubs off on you. Your lead character must therefore show qualities that your readers can support wholeheartedly - duty, dignity, self-respect and patriotism are just a few. The 'bad' emotions - greed, lust, hate or envy don't work too well. Revenge is one of the few 'negative' emotions that can work for a lead character but it takes skilled handling - Jack Vance's Demon Princes series of novels are an excellent example. For new writers, though, it's best left alone. This kind or work is also more difficult to sell to publishers, too!
Book length is often defined by the genre it comes under. A good way to assess this is to again visit your local bookstore. Pick any book in your genre from the shelf. Do a quick word count of one page - number of words in a line multiplied by number of lines on the page. Then multiply by the number of pages. This will give you a rough word count of the book, enough for your purposes. Repeat this with a number of different books, the more the better (make sure they are all in your chosen genre, of course!). Jot all this down and when you get home add the total number or words for all the books up. Divide this by the number of books you looked through and this gives you the average word count for the genre. Let's say you are writing your political thriller and have discovered that the average word count for this genre is 120,000 words. Your book must therefore be about that length. A few thousand words either way may not make much difference (though it's a good idea to be as close as you can) but if you turn in an MS of 75,000 words, or one of 200,000, your story probably (read almost certainly) won't get a look-in.
The reasons behind this are twofold. Firstly, readers of this your kind of book expect it to be of a certain length - too long and they may think it could be long-winded, too short and they may feel 'content-cheated'. Secondly, commercial dictates mean that books have just so much room on the bookshelf and they must fit box size etc. Too, a huge doorstopper costs more to produce than an 80,000-worder. All these and many other considerations are factored in by the publishers when trying to establish bottom-line profits. Like I said before, it's just business. You either accept it or become 'an author'. Sorry!
So in this topic we have covered:
Is your idea and story suitable for your genre?
The importance of the crisis in your book
Thinking about the story goal
Lead character motivation
Ideal book length
Now we'll start looking at your characters in the next topic
Index page 1. Necessary equipment. 2. The importance of the workplace 3. Choosing the right book for you to write. 4. Ideas and how to get them. 6. How to make characters come to life. 7. Plotting your story. 8. Self-editing and the final draft. 9. Agents and Publishers 10. Writers' groups. 11. Writing competitions. 12. Reference works.