A lot of ideas will come at you while writing. Whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction, the challenge is to collect, process and structure that information so that it serves the story. You could leave it in your head, but consider the world we live in today.
The information age has changed the nature of communication. We no longer connect one-to-one with our wives, children and bosses. Thanks to social media, today family, work and friends are groups of people we’re at the centre of, and each group throws things at us all day. Buy the milk, finish the report, come have a drink. We’re nodes in an extended information network, and of course so are our family, bosses and friends. The volume of information that flows in ordinary life can be overwhelming, and then there’s TV, the internet and more. With so much begging for your attention, the practical problem is not only a lack of time to do it all, but also prioritizing what’s important to you as opposed to what’s been dictated to you.
The way inspiration comes is very similar. It catches you off-guard, demanding attention, and whether it’s good or crap you may want to hold on to it for a bit to try place it into a story. That’s the creative complexity that we’re managing here.
And to manage it all constructively you’ll need:
- An information gathering tool.
- An information processing tool.
- A conversion tool to turn information into story.
Information Gathering Tools
I got this from David Allen’s GTD, which I think is very smart when you’re quite anal about these things. He introduced the concept of the ‘inbox’ in which you throw anything that comes at you for processing later. The idea behind it was to keep your mind clear so you can focus on the action you’re busy doing right now. There’s an earthquake, cool, slap it in the inbox while I finish this thingamajig I’m busy with.
To implement it, I use cloud-based tools like Asana, Google Keep, and tried a million others too. No matter which you like, tools invariably tempt you with lists of functionality that can make your life easier. Like I love Keep’s feature of reminding me to pick up the milk when I’m near the shops. But for story I eventually chose what I needed and nothing more because, if you’re trying to wade through the complexities of story, the last thing you want is more complexity.
I also developed my own prefixes to tell me what story part an idea is related to. This helpful during processing but we’ll get there in a bit. Suffice to say, if you get an idea that says ‘they all jump into a car and drive off’ it could refer to a scene or to an entire concept, like a journey story. To mark it “CN” for instance as opposed to “SN” for scene is handy contextual information that saves time later.
I don’t go into that sort of detail over everything though, only when it’s dictated by the inspiration. Otherwise I’m just cluttering my life with more rubbish. Still, once you organize all these stray thoughts, you can see a story forming without having worked at it at all. If you’re the type of writer that plays along the different angles of your story till they pop in your mind, I think you’ll find this useful. For the more premeditated writer who digs a lot of words it makes for a handy reference list to build a story from once processed.
Information Processing Tools
This is not so much a tool as a process itself. Borrowing again from GTD, which I adapted for creativity, you essentially ask just two questions of everything that gathered by your inbox.
- 1. What is this?
- What to do with it?
GTD’s process is to organize this information into lists, the premise being that projects are just lists of action. For that they have project folders that keep the lists neatly organized. Again you can use Asana to order the list items, add deadlines and assign it to others if you collaborate creatively. The advantage of this type of information processing for story is that those lists can be your respective areas of story development, like conceptual, character, plot and setting information. You can add more too but having them all organized in one place makes a brainstorm of it.
Better than pulling your hair out of your head when it’s time to work the story. Now you have a reference list of prompts for any part of the story. And it’s always easier to work with an idea than to pull a new one out your arse.
So the processing part of this is to decide how to store your story ideas till you get to, or toss, them. Everything’s not a keeper and that too is a blessing because ideas are a dime a dozen and you just can’t use all of it. Again like life, you may not spend thirty minutes with the Jehova’s witnesses at your door, choosing instead to find out why your kid got into a fight at school. Can you see now how simply organizing things creates focus in story development.
GTD has a lovely flowchart which guides you through this organization process, and I would recommend reading Allen’s book anyway to get a clearer idea of how to make it work in your creative life. I’ve looked at many others too over the years. RPM from Tony Robbins is too cumbersome for fluid creativity so I ditched it in favour of an interesting process developed by Mark Joyner at Simpleology. It’s nothing new but he strings it together using principles similar to GTD. Simpleology was annoying though so I eventually designed my own creative machine using the tools I was comfortable with.
You don’t even have to have a good system. Just a way to process story ideas as they come did wonders for my creativity. Repeat the process as often as you like and you’ll see you have a constructive way to include story ideas into the actual story. It’s efficient because, as you process the information, you’re making creative choices about the ideas you get and that moves story development along.
It’s an iterative approach that start-up methodologies like LEAN have mastered. Iterations afford you the ability to manage story risks and calculate how you’re doing on a story without behaving like a micro-manager. It’s the measurement that opens your eyes to how well your creativity is performing.
Story Conversion Tools
Once you have the raw material of ideas to work with, all you need to do it put it together into a viable story. So these are really a set of tools that articulate all the ideas into a story. You can download templates for them from many places on the web to speed things up. Better tools allow you to shift things around like a puzzle without changing other pieces that already work.
The tool most writers use here is one form of beat-sheet or another. The old school guys rely on outlines, and even sometimes treatments, and the beat-sheet is a simplification of that. It comes from the screenwriting masters who began build stories with index cards. The idea was to use one for each scene, stringing and rearranging them till they came up with a good story. That method I think can be traced back all the way to Aristotle’s ‘Poetics’ but who has the time to decode Greek right?
What you’ll really need to convert ideas into story is:
- A character rigging tool, that is something to build your characters with. Larry Brooks has a great one. Linda Segar’s (and that other lady I can’t remember now) advice can be useful.
- A thematic argument tool, of which I’ve had to develop my own using John Truby’s 4-corner model.
- A staging tool to design the story arena, which I also got from Truby and his list of story symbols.
- A plotting tool like Blake Snyder’s STC. I only use his for quick analysis but there’s a host of freely available story structure tools you can choose from. You can even invent your own if you’re brave enough.
Overall Story Development Process
As you get inspired, process information and fit them in, the story comes to life. Tools are very subjective and I’m coming at this from the architecting POV rather than the drafting one. Drafting is more an ideation tool, when you need to feel yourself through the story, or a quality control one when used during editing. All the same, this story development process is broad enough to be massaged by any creative. And really I recommend that you take the time to adapt your own because you need to know how you tell stories, not how Tom, Dick and Harry does. That’s one of the great pains of writing I think, to find your authenticity, what other’s call your voice. It’s like having a vagina to give birth.
But process or no process, keep screwing or all the organization in the world means nothing!