Monday, January 12, 2009

Draw your story

In which I actually discuss writing!

Last week I was struggling. My picture book wasn't working. It was a great idea, interesting character, good plot, lovely language, perfect beginning and ending, and yet. still. not. working. and I. didn't. know. WHY?!?! AAAAAHHHHH!!!!!! (bangs head on wall)

I got a little frustrated. I showed it to anyone who would look. Everybody agreed: it was fabulous, but then not...somehow. I was ready to feed it to the squirrels.

And then I took it to one of my critique groups and listened to Diane read it aloud.

"OH!" I said. "I see what's wrong! The story goes like THIS, instead of like THIS!" And for the "THIS" parts, I made squiggling gestures with my hands.

Because they are wonderful and because they know my peculiar craziness, my critique group did not laugh, though they did stare a bit.

"See?!" I went on. "It needs to do THIS." And I drew a bunch of squares in my notebook. "But right now, it's like THIS." And I drew a graph.

Again, you gotta love my critique group (I do) because they were like "Oh, yeah, we see," and then gave great suggestions for resculpting the story.

Today I want you to draw your story. Not illustrate it, but graph it. You can use boxes, where each box is a scene and the stairs climb up as the tension does, or climb down as things get worse for your character. Or, you can set up an X and Y axis and draw a line graph. The top graph over to the left shows how I want my story to go; things get less :) for the character until the very end. The bottom shows how it was going, and why it wasn't working.

What shape is your story? And does it have the shape you want it to? Three things to consider:

1. Where does your story really start? If the beginning of your story shape is flat, if your scenes read "intro intro intro," there's too much intro. You get one box or a small bit of graph line before we need to go up or down. Otherwise, I'm bored.

2. Is your story going somewhere overall? Or is it a series of same-sized peaks and valleys? And what shape do you want it to be? Personally, I like to be able to discern a trend amidst the squiggles; if things aren't getting progressively worse for your character, if everything comes back to where it was after every episode, I never have to get emotionally involved, since I can rest assured all will be well.

3. Where is the peak or point of no hope of your story? Part of the problem I had was that the emotional climax of the story came too far before the end of the graph. Whether it's a picture book or a novel, you want very little time between the climax and the end. One box, maybe, or a little zip up on the graph.

So today, I want you to draw the shape of your story. No, seriously, just try it. And report back what you find.


C.R. Evers said...

oh! good idea! I'll try it!


Mary Witzl said...

I'm math-challenged, so my first thought here was "Eek -- graphs!"

My story started off as a long, shallow triangle. Readers had to slog their way up a long slope to a not-so-satisfying apex, then make their equally long, slow way down. I'm working on it, though. It's now a more interesting geometric shape -- or so I like to tell myself.

Colorado Writer said...


Elise Murphy said...

It's always the little slump of the graph in the first 10 pages that hits me in the gut. Yes. I know. Get straight into the action. I have tattooed those words on my arm, yet I still spend ten pages talking about how beautiful my little world is. Thanks (again)for the reminder!

Amber Lough said...

so THAT is what is wrong with my picture book.

word verification for today: bungency. Seriously, one day I'm going to get started on my Word Verification Dictionary. Then I'm going to sell it and pay off my house. uhuh.

oh, and "bungency" surely means to spring lightly into urgent action. He bungently caught up with the taller men in the 100 m hurdle...and he won.

J. Thorp said...

Great idea, J. I like to save graphing for late in the process, when the magic's run out, when I'm dreading revising something, when I can't find my critical eye, or like you said, when it's all great stuff, but also not, somehow ...

Often the graph points to a dear sweet passage or two that I've resisted cutting because they meant something to me (but perhaps not to the story).

Then, as a very vivid past boss used to say when I resisted her edits, it's time to "slay your darlings."

Candace Ryan said...

Yay!! You've gone all mathematical on us!

What I want to invent is a seismograph for manuscripts. Just attach some wires to a manuscript, and voila! Out comes a "seismogram," displaying the irrefutable shape of the story.

sruble said...

Great post! I like anything that encourages drawing.

I have a graph-like object in my head for my story (yes, I draw and write in my head before getting it down on paper).

There are ups and downs throughout the book. My graph looks like this: mostly downs at first, with tiny triumphs, then up when the MC tries to get things right, then way, way, way down - poor MC - then fight it out to the end, which is hopeful, but not all happily tied up with a bow :)

I don't know if that made sense at all, but I can see it in my head.

Angela said...

What a great idea!!

Vijaya said...

What a great idea! I haven't done any math lately, and believe it or not, it's very relaxing to crunch a few numbers that ALWAYS behave well (as opposed to those darned words).

Brenda said...

I'm changing directions with my writing, so not sure if this will work on nonfiction, but I'm gonna give it a try later...thanks for the exercise....

Sharon Blankenship said...

Aha! Eureka. Now I know what your blood pressure is. Ooops. Or your inspiration.
Actually, drawing your story is VERY illuminating for we visual types.

Jacqui said...

Christy, CW, Angela and Brenda, let us know how it goes!

Mary, my picture book had the triangle problem. Slogging is never good, I think.

Elise, we should write together. I will hit them hard in the beginning and you can slog through the MIDDLE, okay?

Amber, "bungency" is the trauma caused by too many hamburgers and not enough buns.

Thorp, "because they meant something to me (but perhaps not to the story)" is the hardest part, I think. Go slay those darlings.

Candace, that is a genius idea. And yes, sometimes my secret math geek gets her chance to shine.

sruble, I can picture it easily and it sounds perfect.

Vijaya, that's why I always loved physics and geometry; the answers were there and not moving and you just had to find them.

Jacqui said...

Sharon, ha! And thanks for always putting up with my "THIS" and "THIS" nonsense!

J. Thorp said...

Brenda, I think it still works with non-fiction -- as long as you keep in mind that the ideal "shape" or "line" might be different than that of a fiction piece. Inverted pyramid? Punctuated equilibrium?

I've got two or three big speeches to write in the next couple months -- I'll do this with them, to ensure the proper crescendo ...

Marcia said...

Wonderful -- another answer to that perennial whine of the math student: "What will we ever USE this for?" Great post.