What I’ve Learned About Story Development

 

Reflections after Participating in #TheWriterCommunity October prompts

For those of you that follow me on Instagram, it will come as no surprise that during the month of October I have been participating in The Writer Community prompts. This is a beautiful challenge (that they have since stopped calling a “challenge,” which I also vibe with) hosted by Megan Beth Davies, Sydney Alexis, Skye Horn, and RaeLynn Fry. These ladies put together daily topics of conversation to help writers connect and learn from each other.

Although past month’s prompts revolved mostly around a specific WIP (work in progress, a super common acronym I just learned recently), I was happily surprised to find that October’s prompts focus much more on the process of writing and story development in general.

I felt more confident speaking on these topics at first glance but, interestingly enough, the specific prompts quickly began to stump me! The hardest of all to answer were definitely those of #StoryDevelopmentThursday and so I wanted to bring this topic to my blog as well, sharing with you my answers to those difficult questions as well as insights I’ve gained since then and some shout-outs to other writer’s perspectives that I particularly appreciated.

 

1.) How do you develop a story?

My response:

I have to admit, this isn’t a simple, straightforward answer for me. So far, I have had a couple different experiences. The most common process for me, that I used when developing the stories for Fairly Familiar, is to start with a writing prompt.

I’d set a time and take it in whatever direction my mind went for a solid fifteen minutes without stopping. This allows me to get to know the characters and let them show me where the story should go. I usually try to just keep going in that vein of “pantsing it”* until I hit an inspiration plateau and only then will I go back and set up an outline for how I want to develop the rest of the stories, character arcs, etc. Sometimes I spend as little as half an hour before plotting, other times I can spend weeks—it all depends on the story.

On the other hand, some ideas just come to me, either when I’m on a walk, listening to a podcast, or even dreaming. I’ve had one brainburst in which I literally sat down afterwards and wrote a full-blown synopsis for a thriller I one day plan to write.

Although the general concept crashed over me like a wave, I know that that story will require a much different, more intensive development process when I’m ready to write it so I can’t wait to hear how everyone else does this!


My thoughts after reading other’s feedback:

I was surprised to find how many writers have never used prompts and that some are actually intimidated by them! I once felt like it made me a lesser writer to “have to rely on prompts” for inspiration but others were telling me they wished they could make them work. Just one of the many times interacting with other writers has reminded me that sometimes what we view as our strengths and weaknesses is only a matter of perspective.

This topic also inspired me to purchase some new books about writing novels (specifically Save the Cat! Writes a Novel and Story Genius) because, as I mentioned, I do think I will need to have a bit more structured plan for story development in the future.


Other perspectives I recommend you check out:

@rbarneswrites:
I’m one of the lucky ones that can see my thoughts play out like movies. If I get an idea, I always play it out. I can see how my characters look and act…and like a director I can shout CUT! I just transfer what I can see to paper.

@jessaright:
I am naturally suspicious curious. I usually develop my story by simply asking “what if?” And then I try to imagine the answer.

I have to get out of my own head to answer the question sometimes. The answer could be in a song, or a picture, or something I read, or when I’m driving down the road and my mind just starts to wander. The next thing I know, I’m telling myself the story.

 

2.) How do you develop story milestones?

My response:

Full disclosure, I don’t think I can really say I’ve ever consciously developed story milestones (oops?). Granted, I’ve yet to write a full-length novel and I imagine planning out certain milestones in order to lead up to them properly becomes much more crucial in long-form writing.

As far as my short stories go, I’m pretty loosey-goosey about planning those milestones. I kinda let the story develop itself for as long as it can until it loses steam. Once I hit a bit of a wall with the natural energy of the story, I’ll go back and create an outline based on what I’ve learned from my characters so far.

Sometimes, I properly break this down into details on the conflict, the opening scene, the rising action, the climax, the falling action, and the resolution (which essentially become the milestone, yeah?). Other times I just write down random details like the setting, characters’ ages at different times, themes, research findings, etc.

Either way, my milestones are usually apparent to me before I sit down to any outlining. I may change them, I may need to speed them up, or cut some of them out altogether when I realize I can’t fit it all into a short story format but they usually feel like something that naturally present themselves rather than something I have to purposefully craft.


My thoughts after reading other’s feedback:

Again, I worried that this “loosey-goosey” approach made me sound less serious and less professional, yet I had a number of people—including one of the hosts!—claiming I’m so lucky that milestone present themselves to me. Apparently this can be a struggle for some other writers. I always want to caveat what I say by pointing out that, at the moment, I’m writing short stories whereas many of the other writers in this community are writing novels so there may be some differences in my approach later on in my career.

Still, I want to take this experience with me into the future as a reminder that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” I’m really fortunate that I’m able to flow with my characters’ development and see milestones naturally and there’s no reason to try to force that into a form if it’s working well for me without it.


Other perspectives I recommend you check out:

@theofficialjazzi:
For now I’m trying to think of milestones as emotional markers throughout the story. More than anything, I feel the emotions of the story and want to follow their arc & let them lead me.

@author_s.alexis:
Milestones can take many forms. Whether it be a milestone in a character’s arc marking growth, or backslides, or in a romantic subplot, when the love interests take notice of each other or kiss for the first time, or in the story itself! … In a character arc, milestones are big decision points that force a character to choose between their old self and the person they are becoming.

3.) How do you develop realistic characters?

My response:

Again, I’m loving these prompts because they’re making me contemplate questions I’ve never directly asked myself. (Of course, I have asked my Alpha and Beta Readers if they like or “believe” certain characters I’ve written but I’ve never flat out asked myself how it is I make those characters more realistic.)

What I believe it comes down to, though, is layers. Every single person in this world is more than one dimension, more than one facet. Although you may know someone because of ONE of their facets (i.e. because they’re your teacher, parent, or opponent) there are many other sides to that person that you may be less familiar with.

That’s the kind of layering I try to bring to my characters. Instead of painting them as one particular way (usually a stereotype) I try to give them unexpected interests or backgrounds. Even if the other characters aren’t always aware of it, I try to reveal to the reader other facets of my characters’ personalities.

At the end of the day, the more multidimensional a character is, the more likely a reader will be able to find something they can relate to in that character’s experiences. And I think that’s a very real consideration as well: if readers can see themselves in your characters (even in just one small sliver of the character’s identity) they are more apt to connect with the characters, which inherently makes them feel more realistic.


My thoughts after reading other’s feedback:

I found that a lot of people said something similar to this, but in different words. I don’t take that to be problematic, though. It feels like validation that I’m on the right path! It’s also refreshing to know there is a full community of writers out there who also value multi-dimensional characters—bodes well for all of our reading futures!


Other perspectives I recommend you check out:

@devon.rg.clark:
The most important thing is to give your characters flaws and emotions. Please, for the love of all that is good don’t make them perfect. I’ve dropped many books and stories with the perfect MC [main character].

 

4.) How do you develop sub-plots?

My response:

Uff, yet again I find myself thinking “I don’t know, I’ve never deeply thought about this before…”

I guess the reality for me is that everything is interwoven. Last week we talked about realistic characters and my main focus with that is to make my characters multidimensional. As a direct result, I think sub-plots develop. Of course, the main trajectory of the story follows the protagonist, but I also want to ensure that the people around her have their own lives going on, which leads to sub-plots.

The week before, we talked about story milestones which, in my opinion, often required sub-plots converging with the main plot. Again, I don’t necessarily plan these out all of the time (although I’m practicing “plotting” a lot more as I start looking at more suspenseful storylines) but I believe a healthy story feels ALIVE and to me that means reflecting life in a realistic way.

Even though you are the protagonist of your own life, that doesn’t mean that your friends, siblings, parents, partners, neighbors, etc don’t have their own storylines happening simultaneously. OF COURSE they do! Sometimes those storylines directly interact with yours and sometimes they don’t but those are the “sub-plots” of your story. I try to mimic a similar situation in fiction.


My thoughts after reading other’s feedback:

Again, I felt like my answer was “I don’t put enough effort into this” but this experience is reminding me to EMBRACE the ease of it. To acknowledge the natural flow of story development elements in my writing process and let that be OKAY. Do some other people put more thought specifically into sub-plots? Sure! But I genuinely believe that I’m doing well with sub-plots so far because I’m naturally focusing on the other elements that create them.


Other perspectives I recommend you check out:

@theofficialjazzi:
I’m definitely of the team that subplots are just as essential to a good story as the main plot. I imagine scaffolding around a building — the board to stand on at the top may be the most important piece but it is held aloft by the limbs, the underbelly of the scaffolding.

@esmecarmichael_author:
If my current WIP was a chicken pot pie, the subplots would be the gravy holding everything together Subplots are so versatile…and, just like a chicken pot pie, the flavours need to be complementary. The subplots need to elevate the flavour of the main plot, either by adding tension, mystery, atmosphere or complexity.

Occasionally, and particularly when writing a series, you might add just a little bit more gravy to the current mouthful, letting the subplots take centre stage while they head towards their individual conclusions. Even so, they still don’t distract us from the main plot. Ultimately, no matter how much gravy you add, you want to still be able to taste the chicken in the pie.

 

5.) How do you develop your setting / world?

My response:

I have to admit that when I hear other authors talking about worldbuilding I feel like it’s something that doesn’t apply to me. While “building your world” is crucial in a fantasy or science fiction novel, I always write realistic fiction. As a result, my instinct is to think “Readers already know our world. I don’t need to spend time developing it.”

But that’s not necessarily true.

I’m learning this even more in my current WIP, a series of short stories that take place in Spain. For me, the setting is my everyday world, but it will not necessarily be boring and familiar to my readers. I believe I need to lean into descriptions of the sites, customs, and surroundings of Spain more in order to build up this world and make it come alive.

At the same time, I want to make sure the stories themselves shine brighter than the setting.

It leads to a tricky, but necessary, balancing act. So far, I’m including scenes of sightseeing and discovery in some short stories to really highlight the Spanish world around my characters, but I’m not doing that in all of them. Small things like some Spanish expressions, food, and holidays will be peppered in (and explained) in all of them to set the scene, but I think I’m still leaning towards a light approach to world building.


My thoughts after reading other’s feedback:

Well, I’m writing this blog post before the final Story Development Thursday, but I can already imagine I’m going to get some great advice and insights from authors in other genres. I’ve noticed that a lot of the writers in this community seem to specialize in fantasy and its many variations which is probably the genre I read and write the least, so it’s great to have their company in order to help me have a well-rounded perspective.

In my Instagram post, I also directly asked readers if they would expect MORE emphasis on the setting than what I described or if they would be happy with the balance I’m currently trying to strike. On one hand, I’ve very curious to know, but I’m also slightly anxious to ask. What if everyone says they want more, and I don’t feel like I can do that with the style and stories I’m currently writing?

This is the moment in which wiser Dani chimes in and tells doubtful Dani that it doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, I always have the choice. Of course, I want to consider all the constructive feedback that I receive but I don’t have to change anything that I don’t want to change. Writing is such a personal process and we each have our own ways of doing it!

It’s been beautiful to participate in this community and to grow as a writer with the support of others. I have loved the opportunity to learn from them and aspire to learn more and continue developing my own process as a result. But that right there is perhaps the most important piece to remember—“my own process.”

If you are a writer—previously published OR aspiring—I highly recommend you join The Writer Community! This challenge pushed me out of my comfort zone and required I dedicate a lot more time than usual to my social media account. However, I know that going forward I will have this wonderful group of writers in my corner and that makes a big difference. It feels wonderful to be supported while striving to hone my craft and develop my own process.

In the end, I feel like this month has actually helped in my OWN story’s development…the real life story of Dani J. Norwell. How cool is that?

xoxo,
DJN

 

*This is another term that gets thrown around a lot in the writing world but that I recognize may not be common terminology if you don’t spend a lot of time speaking with writers. There seemed to be two recognized approaches to writing. Some people plan everything out and they are known as “plotters” whereas others just roll with it, flying by the seat of their pants, and they are known as “pantser.” For anyone who falls in the middle (currently myself), they can identify themselves as a “plantser.”

4 thoughts on “What I’ve Learned About Story Development

  1. I love your post! Thank you so much for the shout-out for #TheWriterCommunity! Our goal was to create a community of (you guessed it!) writers who can come together to talk, bond, and improve our craft and connections. I’m so glad that we are doing that for you! Keep up the great job on your blog and on IG!

    1. Aww, thank you for the comment and encouragement! I think you girls have definitely succeeded in creating that and should be very proud. It has been a wonderful experience and I look forward to continuing to connect with #TheWriterCommunity in months to come. Thank you 🙂

  2. This is an amazing post! I love the way you touched each subject and gained insight from so many other authors/writers. I’m really looking forward to seeing some of your work. Best of luck and hope to see you in next months challenge!

    1. Thanks, Devon! I’m so glad to hear it resonated with you. 🙂
      THis has been a hugely educational and supportive experience.
      I’m looking forward to seeing more of you too!

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