Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Who and the What

There are a million concerns that come up when I'm writing a story--pacing, development, wording, and on and on. But there are two that come first, two concerns that are the crux of the process.

Character and plot. Or, the who and the what.

Who is my story about? What happens in the story? These are the first two questions I have to find answers to when I start work on a new project. And they seem obvious. I can't tell a story unless I know whose story I'm telling. And if I don't know what happens, then I just have characters hanging around with no particular aim.

These are basic, bare-bones questions. The should be simple.

But I have a hard time answering both. I can come up with characters that live and breathe. Or I can come up with a fully-articulated plot. But I run into problems when I try to do both.

With Evin, the plot came first. I had the story worked out from beginning to end. I knew all the moving pieces of what would happen. But the characters were vague--ideas more than living participants for the story. They sounded the same. None of them had specific motivations beyond "do what the plot requires we do." I didn't have moments where I wondered what the point of a particular chapter was. I knew what beats had to be hit, what set pieces there had to be in each segment. I knew what scenes I needed.

But the human element was missing.

I did something around 5 drafts of Evin before it got to where it is now. There was a lot that was improved on between the first draft and the published draft. The voices are more specific. The motivations are somewhat clearer. But when I look at the book, I'm not satisfied.

With Project 2016, the situation was largely opposite. The characters came first, a team of them with specific backgrounds and desires and voices. I knew who these people were, and I knew them completely--and almost immediately. Not just how to make them sound different on the page, but what made them tick. Why would this person say these words? Why is this one the one that has to take the risk or do the task? Why does this one react so strongly to a particular situation? I could drop these characters into almost any scenario and know how they would interpret it. These characters aren't vague--they live and breathe.

But I was never completely sure what to do with them.

Evin's plot never changed during the process. The journey, the goal--I knew what they were from the beginning.

With Project 2016, I came up with a potential conflict and explored. I got a skeletal plot. I let it sit for years before coming back and refining it--fleshing out the conflict and figuring out some scenes that the characters' personalities would dictate. And then it wasn't enough.

I want people to connect with these characters--and to get that to happen, I figured out that the plot couldn't start where I thought it did. And that it might need to continue after I thought it would end.

I can't speak to which process is the better one for me in the long run. I personally feel more connected to Project 2016 than to Evin, but that could just be because it's the current project. Or I could be happier with it because I've learned new tools and tricks since I did the work on Evin, and it might have less to do with the process than with the level of experience. All I do know is that I have to get to a point where the what and the who are both fully formed. I can't rely solely on an interesting plot or solely on complete characters to compel a reader to stick with me.

For my readers who are writers, where do you start with a new project? What parts come first? How do you make sure you're giving each piece the best you can offer?

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