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The Creative Compass Excerpts: Allegiance to Story

The Creative Compass

Allegiance to Story

By Dan Millman & Sierra Prasada

First I write the screenplay.
Then I add in the dialogue.

— Alfred Hitchcock

In this article, we aim to help you approach your manuscript as an early reader might, so that you may gain insight into how to transform it as a writer. In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner says, “The writer is more servant than master of his story.” Now you know it, and your labors at this stage prove it.

During development, you need to remind yourself that you owe your primary allegiance to the essence of your story and that your manuscript may have deviated from it — either in a material way or because it doesn’t yet convey the emotional experience you intend. As you review each new layer, ask yourself, Does this draft convey to readers the full story that I want to tell? It’s the essential question at this stage, and answering it will require you to clearly distinguish between the movie in your mind and what’s actually transmitted by the written version, even as you’ve already spent days, weeks, or months striving to integrate the two.

In working to determine what kind of gap, if any, remains between your story and your manuscript, and how to close it, you can draw upon two analytical exercises — and you should do so to whatever degree that they illuminate new possibilities and motivate you to keep working.

In the first exercise, which we’ll call a story check, you’ll compare a story summary with a bare-bones plot outline. First, set aside your current draft. Write a short synopsis — no more than one to three pages for a long-form work — of the intrinsic story you want to tell. This synopsis should highlight major characters, important turning points, and the emotional landscape that you’re working to evoke. Consult, as necessary, your What If and earlier notes but not your manuscript. We’re suggesting you create this synopsis in the Develop stage, as opposed to earlier, because you’re doing so with a stage-specific purpose: to cultivate the distance you now need in order to assess what you have and haven’t achieved on paper.

Next, you’ll want to work from your latest draft to create a plot outline. Any outlining you did previously served a different function altogether: it organized your thoughts and ideas so that you might translate them into narrative. When you outline in the Develop stage, you do the reverse, translating what’s expressed in sentences and paragraphs into an ordered list of events that omits description and dialogue and focuses on answering one question: In each successive moment of your story, what actually happens? Put down every event, in order, from first to last.

If your plot is complex, your cast of characters large, or your story nonlinear, then you may prefer a less linear and more associative model or diagram, like a mind map. Additionally, if you’re more visual or tactile, you can storyboard as screenwriters do, constructing, rather than composing, your outline from index cards or Post-it notes, attaching them to a poster board or a wall, or dealing them out onto the floor of a large room. In whatever form you choose to work, the principle remains the same: you’re constructing a record of the events in your story.

When your plot outline is complete, you’ll be ready to perform the two interlocking tasks that form the mortar and pestle of development: First, review your outline point by point and appraise the extent to which it — and, by extension, your current draft — adheres to the story represented by your synopsis. You can start with the following questions:

  • On the most basic level, are the events in your plot outline consistent with your story as described in the synopsis?
  • Do events described in the synopsis play out in the same way in your plot outline?
  • Do the climactic turning points represented in your synopsis appear as such in your plot outline — or are they getting lost in a sea of competing events?
  • If you were to draw a line to graph the emotional affect these plot points convey, what would it look like?
  • How does this graph compare with your original intentions as represented in your synopsis?
  • Do your intentions need to change? Or your manuscript?

Like a compass, this comparison of synopsis and outline may point your revisions in a new direction. Alternatively, if you’re still too close to your manuscript to see distinctions between what you’ve written and the story you want to tell, you could ask a friend or hire someone else, such as a freelance editor, to draw up the plot outline and do the analysis — you’ll still need to create the synopsis as a guide. At the least, such an outside appraisal may serve as a rewarding check on your own instincts.

As you continue this exercise, turn your attention to the story itself as expressed by the synopsis and again take a reader’s perspective: Do you find what happens convincing? Satisfying? Now comes a pivotal question: Is the story that you’re struggling to write the one that you’d actually want to read? Be honest with yourself. If the answer is “no” or “possibly not,” then you’ll need to understand why before you can move forward. You may only now realize definitively that challenges you experienced while drafting pointed to flaws in the original story concept.

We’ve all been there, and there’s a remedy: Your manuscript, due to length or complexity, will probably seem less amenable to change. But you pledge your allegiance to your story, in part, because it remains mutable — and the synopsis aims to make it more accessible. You can rework the synopsis as necessary and then draw up a plan to produce a revised draft. Just take it one step at a time — and then you’ll know that you’re actually moving forward and not just marching in place.

As you undertake the preceding exercise, you’re driving toward another significant question, this one about the manuscript itself: What story does the reader take from the existing draft? To answer that, another layer of analysis may prove ideal for shorter pieces, and time-consuming yet rewarding for longer works. In this second exercise, you’ll construct what might be called a reader discovery outline, compiled from the answers to one question: At each successive moment of this story, what does the reader know?

You’re no longer limiting yourself to plot points alone — this layer of analysis also encompasses character biography and details of story world and setting. Go through your manuscript page by page, paragraph by paragraph, even line by line if your work’s particularly complex. As you do, take notes in the margins of the text, or on a separate page, as to exactly what information the text relays to the reader.

Keep your intention in mind: you’re not trying to compile an encyclopedia based on your own work; you’re checking that readers know precisely what they need to know when they need to know it. You’re assessing your own use of exposition — factual information that must be subtly incorporated into plot, description, and dialogue, and without which your readers can’t fully appreciate the story.

As you undertake these exercises and other, more free-form assessments that direct new revisions and make the Develop stage as analytical as it is imaginative, craft takes on its single greatest importance in the five stages. By craft, we mean every useful (or at least useful-sounding) word of wisdom, or principle, or technique as to plot, character, story world, setting, theme, and to some extent language — it’s time to bring them out one by one, as lenses through which you’ll reexamine your manuscript.

How? Turn observations and axioms into questions that you can answer. And be as specific as possible. Vague queries like, Is my plot strong? won’t help. Novelist Justin Kramon, for instance, has defined plot as “the intersection of what happens with what you’re expecting to happen,” an observation that yields a number of other questions you can ask yourself:

  • What might I expect to happen at a given moment?
  • What does then happen?
  • What effect does the intersection of the two likely have on the reader?
  • Could the two intersect in a more satisfying way that would heighten suspense? Or reveal character? Or move the reader?

The axiom “Show, don’t tell” also conceals more precise questions, such as:

  • I’ve summarized a year’s occurrences in two paragraphs. Might any of these events deserve a scene of its own?
  • Of the existing scenes, does each contribute anything to the reader beyond the information it articulates?
  • Might that information be presented more efficiently?

It’s worth pointing out that experienced writers understand “Show, don’t tell” as shorthand expressing the difference between dramatic scene and summary narration. For instance, in a novel about a marriage, a three-page scene might cover the couple’s argument from beginning to end, beat by beat, whereas only four paragraphs may be necessary to describe the thirteen years that follow their divorce, leading up to another scene in which the couple meets again for the first time. In other words, “show” and “tell” each serve different purposes — and both are useful to the extent that they serve the story.

You could conceivably spend hours or days on the preceding exercises. It’s up to you whether to prepare a detailed assessment and then plunge into rewriting or to rewrite as you go.

Not sure what works best for you? Experiment. Find out. Ultimately, these exercises aim to unite the writer and the reader within each of us: the agent who acts and also the observer who’s capable of stepping back and making the most of a capacity for self-observation. We all move back and forth between living and watching ourselves live, between creating and wondering at what we’ve created. It’s our creations that draw these two viewpoints into alignment like patterns seen in the night sky, constellations that may stand in for eyes looking down on us as our stories unfold. •

Next: Sense and Sensibility »

Dan Millman and Sierra PrasadaThis article is extracted from The Creative Compass: Writing Your Way from Inspiration to Publication copyright ©2013 by Dan Millman and Sierra Prasada Millman. More »

Updated 1/5/14