Building a Roller Coaster
Having used my imagination to draw the details of a premise and characters and the world they move and breathe in, I’ve developed a clear picture of something that looks like the idea for a story. The characters should be three-dimensional and the landscape they live in should be panoramic. But it’s still just a motionless picture.
As yet there are only hints of how the plot might progress – the story will need real movement with proper pacing. Rising and falling through peaks and valleys. Sudden twists and acceleration. Pauses for the reader to catch their breath before a steep drop. Just like a roller coaster.
That roller coaster has to have a firm foundation and a solid framework and tracks that define a journey from start to end. But I don’t try to build the whole thing before I start writing. If you’ve read the other posts about my process, you’ll not be surprised that I lay that track ahead of me as I go along. (I love Neil Gaiman’s quote about how writing a novel is like jumping out of a plane and knitting yourself a parachute on the way down. It’s exciting.)
I don’t believe you can do that, though, unless you have a thorough understanding of the basics of narrative structure in the first place. In my first SPEC post, I mentioned several of the most accepted ways people have broken down and explained the structure of storytelling. I highly recommend taking the time to study them all and internalize the principles before proceeding with jumping out of that airplane.
Otherwise how can you hope to knit a parachute before you hit the ground – or in my analogy, lay those tracks down right before you roll over them?
As I said, I don’t design the whole roller coaster before I start writing. All I need to get going (or want, really) is that firm foundation, and I’ll build the rest on the fly.
At its most basic level, the foundation is right there in my original premise. There’s a central problem the idea is built upon. (In the previous examples, that would be the brain parasite and its deleterious effects.) That problem has to become apparent to someone somewhere sometime. And there’s your starting point. Which carries an implicit promise to the reader that the problem will be dealt with one way or another. And there’s your end point. And in between there will be all kinds of difficulties and complications – sometimes arising from the problem itself, but often from the attempts to solve it.
I still need more than that. The characters drive the story, so I have to take a good, long look to find out what really brings them into it and what it will mean for them personally to resolve the problem – a credible motivation that will push them through to the end.
Then, the story should start with a sense of movement. There’s a period of time when you’re just sitting there waiting for the ride to begin. But you shouldn't show it (and bore the reader.) You can begin with that first jerk of the chain that grabs your attention, or the slow crawl up that initial incline, with its sense of anticipation. Or you can start the story right at the plunge straight down that really gets you flying. Just as long as the ride is in motion.
You also need a satisfying end. Not the details, but at least a vague idea of how the problem will be solved. Because in order to set off from point A with a hope of getting to point B, you have to have a general idea of where in the world point B is. Then you can make sure the start of the story shoves the characters off in the right direction.
There will be twists and turns along the way, and loops that turn them upside down, but I don’t need to know what those are ahead of time. I enjoy discovering what the ride is like along with the characters. But I have to know enough about where the journey ends so that I can make sure we don’t get lost – that the characters can find their way. In the end.
Next week: Putting it All Together (Part 6 of this 5-part series on my SPEC method of developing story ideas.)