Writing a successful novel or screenplay that resonates with readers doesn’t happen by accident.
As John Tullius, author and founder of the Maui Writers’ Conference, said, “I don’t care how talented you are. It’s not about contacting your muse. Success comes from taking the time to learn the craft.”
There are many different elements that go into the process of completing a story. Broadly speaking, they are planning, writing, rewriting and editing.
One mistake many aspiring writers make when starting out is that they mix the tasks up and find it hard to move towards completion.
Below are some elements we recommend you consider if you want to write the best story you are capable of writing.
1. You Need a Process
Coming up with the idea or feeling for a story is really only the starting point.
“As Pasteur once observed,” Swain said, “chance favours the trained mind. Feelings tell you what to say. Technique gives you the tools with which to say it.”
Coming up with the idea or feeling for a story is only the starting point. Writing a well-structured novel or screenplay doesn’t just follow naturally.
You need a process to develop your idea and craft it into a story.
Dwight Swain, author of Techniques of the Selling Writer says, “Faculty lies in knowing what to do next. To know what to do next, you must master process … an ordered step-by-step presentation of materials that presses emotional buttons in your reader, so he feels the way you want him to feel.”
You cannot judge the quality of your story until you have followed the process through to the end.
Understanding that writing a story is a process is a huge step forward for any writer and puts you on the path towards finishing your novel or screenplay.
2. The Importance of Structure
A story based on classic story structure is one where you have readers wanting to know what happens next, while taking your main character on an emotional and spiritual journey of change.
The events of a well-structured story link the external and internal journey of your main character, thus creating a meaningful experience for your reader. It is the story structure that gives your story emotional depth and deeper meaning.
According to Robert McKee, author of Story, “The function of structure is to provide progressively building pressure that forces characters into more and more difficult dilemmas where they must make more and more difficult risk-taking choices and actions, gradually revealing their true natures, even down to their unconscious self.”
Robert McKee goes on to say, “You might have the insights of Buddha, but if you can’t tell a story, your ideas will be as dry as dust. Craft is the sum total of all means used to draw the audience into deep involvement, to hold that involvement and ultimately reward it with a moving and meaningful experience.”
It is structure that gives your story shape and meaning, takes your reader on an emotional journey and keeps them turning the page.
3. An Act of Discovery
Writing a novel or a screenplay is an act of discovery where you take yourself, your main character and ultimately your reader on a journey of discovery. A first draft is about discovering your story and developing your characters.
This is what J. R.R. Tolkien, author of Lord of the Rings wrote in a letter to W. H. Auden on 7th June 1955.
“I met a lot of things on the way that astonished me. Tom Bombadil I knew already; but I had never before been to Bree. Strider sitting in the corner at the inn was a shock, and I had no more idea who he was than had Frodo. The Mines of Moria had been a mere name; and of Lothlorien no word had reached my mortal ears till I came there.
Far away I knew there were the Horselords on the confines of an ancient Kingdom of Men, but Fangorn Forest was an unforeseen adventure. I had never heard of the House of Eorl nor of the Stewards of Gondor. Most disquieting of all, Saruman had never been revealed to me, and I was as mystified as Frodo at Gandalf’s failure to appear on September 22.”
By immersing yourself in the world of your novel and screenplay and surprising yourself with discoveries, your work will become richer and more emotionally involving.
4. The Dance Between Structure and Imagination
Your specific imagination is the source of your story ideas and gives your writing that quality that makes readers want to read what you have written. But if you just fly by the seat of your pants without a process or an understanding of story structure, your novel or screenplay could wander all over the place and have no meaningful shape or direction.
If you plan too rigidly, though, your story will become dry and flat. By following a process, you set up a dance between the left and right sides of your brain, enabling you to access the power of your imagination while grounding your novel or screenplay in solid story structure.
Author Tina Howe said, “I think the cruelty of the form is that to write a good play the architecture has to be impeccable. The form demands rigour and a sense of structure. But then the cruel part is that for a play to live you have to surrender control and let your characters go. It’s a constant balancing act. The structure has to be right, but you have to leave room for spontaneity, mystery and silence. As territorial as we are it is important to be challenged.”
Good structure stimulates your imagination and produces magical results if you complete the journey.
“When forced to work within a strict framework,” said T.S. Elliot, “the imagination is taxed to its utmost – and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom, the work is likely to sprawl.”
Your imagination informs the structure of your story and vice versa. This back and forth between the two produces magical results, enabling you to come up with story ideas that you never would have thought possible.
5. Have Fun
Writing your first draft should be a profoundly enjoyable experience during which the act of writing becomes its own reward.
Elmore Leonard, the great crime writer, said he only started getting anywhere when he started having fun:
“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates or making friends. In the end it is about enriching the lives of those who will read your work and enriching your own life as well. It’s about getting up, getting well and getting over.
And Stephen King wrote:
“Getting happy, okay? Getting happy. Much of this book – perhaps too much – has been about how I learned to do it. Much of it is about how you can do it better. The rest of it – and perhaps the best of it – is a permissionship: you can, you should and if you’re brave enough to start, you will. Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. So drink. Drink and be filled up.”
If writing is your thing, the process of writing your story will be enjoyable—and will enrich your life.
6. Write Your Story Bird by Bird
The key to writing a powerful story and enjoying the process is to break the process into manageable steps and take it one step at a time.
As Anne Lamott wrote:
“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead.
Then my father sat down beside him put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
7. 10-Month Novel & Script First Draft Course
If you want to follow a 10-month process that leads you on an enjoyable dance between structure and imagination, consider enrolling in the Novel & Script First Draft course.
The course aims to people working full-time to complete the first draft of their novel or screenplay in 10 months.
If you book directly into the course, you will receive the 4-week Unlocking Creativity course (a prerequisite) for free.