A few months ago I was having a conversation with @jessicamcquinston and she asked how I build story when writing a novel, and I found that question really interesting, because there are so many ways to approach story and narrative. An author’s style isn’t just about the genre they write, or the words they choose or how they phrase them, or the pacing or the characters, it can be found in the very first building blocks, the how of beginning to put it together.
With NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) officially started I thought this would be a good time to share a bit of my writing process with all of you, and give a general PSA: if you have anything you would like to see discussed on the blog, please let me know and I would be happy to get your input and do a post on a topic chosen by you!
Since that conversation in August I have been able to do some recon in the realm of writing; attending an expert panel at FanExpo this past September with Fantasy writers discussing how they build worlds, characters and story from the ground up. I also love participating in Pro Writing Aid’s writer’s weeks - specifically Romance Writer’s week 2021 and 2022 and Fantasy Writer’s week 2022, and anticipated 2023. Not only do the workshops and lectures dig into specific writers and their approaches, but participating in my first NaNoWriMo in 2021 was a real crash course in finding my own way through crafting the first draft of a novel.
Enough of that, let’s dig in!
When asked this question I really did stop for a moment to think. How did I write, what did I believe about narrative and crafting a story? The question was phrased as a quandary regarding the need for a plot up front, but a character was already stirring in the creator’s head.
The basic point I eventually boiled down to was simple: The who comes first, then the why evolves and the how of it all comes when those two things meet an obstacle. In my world the plot doesn't come first, the characters do. The plot doesn’t even come second - the why, the motivation, the wants and desires, the drive, the fear, all of that comes next. The plot can only manifest when the who finds their why and then I get involved and throw up roadblocks for them to conquer.
Let’s expand on this shall we.
I typically start with a character or a world - caveat here - world’s can be characters in their own interesting way - it’s still a who. For example, my Christmas Romance started with the main characters crashing into my brain as these two cute Christmas nuts who love the magic, but are a bit stunted when it comes to love. Boom, the story is born. I have no idea what is going to happen, or how, but I know the who. I also knew the who in terms of the world - Noelville Ontario - a real town, but mine will be fictional, a tiny Christmas obsessed Northern town.
Now when I say I know the who - I dig deep. I don’t do character questions, charts or nitty gritty likes and dislikes. I look at their lives, what brought them to this moment of falling out of love, what they do for work if they work, where they live, their social circle, their family life. Once you can understand who they are as people in your life, to relate to them and develop their sense of right and wrong, their upbringing, their history, it’s much easier to pinpoint their motivations, the why behind their choices, the drive that pushes or pulls them through life.
For example my Female MC loves hot chocolate and snowflakes, is a wedding coordinator at a wedding corporation that has lost the true meaning of marriage in favour of the glitzy power of the wedding industry. She works in destination weddings, and coordinates day of on the side. She lives in a downtown apartment that she hates, commutes to work and has a fiance whom she’s been with for the last seven years. She is comfortable. My Male MC is a photographer with a budding branding business. He hustles in the big city, but always returns to his small town roots, at least he used to. Loves his family and his nieces and nephews especially, but has distanced himself from the town these past several years. He loves life and enjoys capturing the magic of everyday life in photos for his clients.
Onto the why. What do my characters want, why do they want it, why do they need each other, why Noelville? All of the questions come out at this point. Mainly I want to know what they want and why they want it. They both want or need to find the magic of love again - whether they know it or not; a partner who understands them, champions them, supports them.
In the case of my Christmas romance the female MC’s drive is to fall back in love with love, to find passion and romance and magic, to find herself again without the confines of a relationship to tell her who she is. The male MC’s drive is to protect himself from rejection, insulate himself from falling too fast and making the same mistake twice, to find a love that will last and grow into something strong and true. The darker whys are important too, why did she leave her fiance of 7 years? Why does he not trust love anymore? The answer is in the book so you’ll just have to wait to see about those ones. We want to know why they behave the way they do - events from their past that inform their present, the way they think.
Which now brings us to the how. How does this all fit together? What happens that makes these things matter? What is the plot? Well I can’t give it all away, but for the sake of an example I’ll give you a piece of the puzzle. In my Christmas romance the setting is important - Noelville. The how is getting the whos together in one place where they can work out their whys. Maybe it’s a job thing that sends them both to the same spot, maybe it’s going home for Christmas, or escaping from expectations, maybe it’s the pursuit of holiday magic that sends them running for the snow of the North. Once there the how continues. How do they interact - which is informed by their whys. Will they or won’t they?
The how are the obstacles we put in the way of them getting what they want, mixing up and making them question their whys. These obstacles in these types of stories are often choices, usually between love and something else, another of their whys, another of their motivations. Love or the job, love or their ex, romance or safety, sacrifice or selfishness. How are they going to decide, how are they going to choose, how are they going to overcome - that’s the plot right there; what happens to change their path and how do they respond based on who they are and what they want.
Let me clarify with an example:
The main characters are the who - they want to save the world because they live in said world and don’t want to see their loved ones disintegrate, maybe they caused the problem in the first place and feel responsible. How they do this, how it happens is the plot, but the changes they undergo, the way they overcome those obstacles, that's the story - who they become to do the impossible. Maybe they have to battle the wizard in the woods and stop his spell of destruction - the mechanics of how they do that is the plot.
I am the who. I want to cross the river because there is a pie shop on the other side and I am food motivated. But there is no bridge, there are alligators and only a low hanging rope swing to help me get across. But I have a weak upper body and can’t hold on. So I make camp, I use the forest as my training ground, I build my strength everyday, motivated by the wafting scent of strawberry rhubarb pie over the rumbling river. One day I decide it’s time, I pat the gators on the head, I’ve been training them, you see, to stay in line across the river. Using the rope to balance, I walk across the backs of my friends, making it to the bank on the other side and the pie waiting there for me.
I just had an epiphany; I construct story the same way you play through a D&D campaign - starting with the party who have no idea what they’re doing but all have their own specific motivations and backgrounds that inform their decisions then plop them into a setting and let them free range until they interact and create an inciting incident which creates the story goal which then interacts with the characters individual goals and starters revealing levels of the plot as they play.
When I start with the characters they begin to tell me what they want, they tell me if they like the song playing on the radio, why they chose to act in a certain way. Once I start raising obstacles and forging a plot in the world we’ve found ourselves in, they react and I listen. No, they don’t talk to me exactly, but as I write it becomes more natural. So long as I have an idea of who they are, why they do things and what they want I can create a path that winds around and shifts as they move forward. If you want the story to feel true, it has to feel organic, it has to feel like your characters are people to you, and then they can be people to your readers.
For me the most interesting part of story isn’t the wild plot or the fantastic setting; it’s the journey the characters take to transform themselves, to change their minds, to win another’s heart. I like character driven story the most, and that’s how I like to write, that’s how I start, with the character.
There is no right or wrong; start with setting, start with main events you know have to happen, start with the problem, start with the ending - start however makes sense to you and your process, but start, that is the single first step you have to take, you must begin.