by Leo X. Robertson
Writing Tip 3/4: Build a Story in Layers
So far, I’ve covered how to read and how to obtain story ideas. Now I’ll write about how to convert those ideas into stories.
I used to think stories should just fly out of you, from your soul directly onto the page. But, since my favorite part of writing is when a story takes off—and you don’t know what you’re writing, what this mood is, why you’re doing it—I would often go completely off the rails in pursuit of that feeling.
There’s a notion about writers that they are “pantsers” or “plotters.” There’s the “first draft” and the “editing process.” I’ve stopped using these terms. They don’t relate to anything I do. I suspect they were always false dichotomies, but it’s no more apparent than now. We can use computers to erase sentences just after typing them and so on. It’s just one big blended mix.
So I’ve developed a form of writing that works for me. Here is an attempt to put that process into text form (for a story that I haven’t yet gotten published, but it’s the best example I have of how this works):
- What if a guy came home and discovered that his flat was filled with little girl ghosts?
- I could call it Little Girl Ghosts!
- They wouldn’t just suddenly appear, would they? Why does this happen? Why now?
- Maybe he moves into a new place and that’s why they appear.
- Why do they appear to him specifically? And why are there so many?
- Well if there are so many of them, it can’t be that they all died in the same building, right? And this is going to be a compelling story, the ghosts will have to relate to him somehow.
- But he’s in a new building. Do we still want/need this to be the case?
- It could still be relevant. He might start by thinking that the ghosts are associated with the building, but later realize that instead they have sought him out specifically. They’ve done that because something happened in his life recently that triggered their visit.
- So the story probably starts with his discovery of all these ghosts (inciting incident.)
- (SCENE 1: GHOST DISCOVERY.)
- What would happen next?
- Maybe he would tell his girlfriend about it?
- Why isn’t she in the flat already? Don’t they yet live together?
- What if the reason the ghosts sought him out has something to do with his girlfriend? Maybe he just broke up with her.
- Okay but if that’s the case, I think I’ll relate to the story better while writing it if it’s a boyfriend he broke up with instead.
- In which case, if the ghosts relate to him and this relationship, they would probably all be boys, not girls. Also, the reason the ghosts were summoned should be something more severe than a break-up…
- Okay, I can’t call it Little Girl Ghosts anymore. I’ll need to think of a different title. Let’s just call it “Dead Kids” for now. (I definitely can’t call it that, of course—there’s some absurdity to this concept but it will probably be more compassionate than something worthy of that title.) Also it might transpire later, as I continue to develop this idea, that they were little girl ghosts after all.
Sometimes I write these steps down, but if they’re quick to solve, the process happens in my head. Either way, it’s through this dialogue with myself, or with the idea, that it slowly develops into a full story.
This process looks more or less like my first draft. But it’s less than a first draft, of course, because not a single word of it will appear in the final story. Eventually this text decomposes into the various scenes I need, the characters that will be a part of it and so on.
As I say, this story still isn’t published, but I’m not bothered about presenting you with my thought processes. I’ve developed it far enough away from this basic concept. Not only is this a vague outline related to the first of many scenes in this story, there’s no way that your mind, presented with the same idea, would take it where I did. Not because I’m that amazing, but because we’re different people. My own patterns as a writer are present not only in the premise itself, but in the questions I ask about that premise, the answers I come up with for those questions, and how all this is ultimately rendered into words. A writer is present throughout all these layers, not just in superficial things like a handful of fancy words that they know or the aphorisms they wedge in here and there (“Patience is like a candy bar covered in carpet hair: when the, uh, candy bar’s hairy, you forget that its chocolate is sweet because it takes a long time to pick off all those, uh, carpet hairs”—eugh I would always just cut these out.)
Building a story from the ground up, acknowledging that there is an invisible substructure beneath the final text, results in the most organic and meaningful prose I can muster.
It also makes me less envious of other writers. No matter what I read, I remember that I don’t know how long it took that person to write it, nor how many iterations of substructure they went through before arriving at the final version. That is, I no longer imagine other writers as simply typing the first sentence until the last. I can only do that sometimes, for pieces of limited size. About two times a year, a piece of flash fiction comes to me that can be written in its entirety and changed very little. Anything longer needs this substructure work.
For pieces up to about novella length, I can do this work until I discover the ending to the story. But novels don’t typically reveal their end to me. I start to develop with this process (usually about the first third or something), then I have to write the opening scenes in detail if I want the rest. Novels are just much bigger than I am.
The thread of ideas that I presented here, for this story, took me about nine months to complete. The final landed at the length of a short novella. I didn’t like it for almost that full time, and now I think it’s only okay—probably because I’ve read iteration after iteration of it until there’s nothing left for me to gain. But the joy of being a writer is often more distant than that of a reader. It comes less from “I can’t wait to discover what happens next” and more from “someone else will probably be keen to know what happens next.”
The reason it took so long is, it’s not like every time I came up with one of these questions, I instantly had the answer. I just wrote it down and waited for the answer to come to me. Sometimes it came to me while staring at the draft for a bit, other times while in the supermarket, in which case I noted down the next step in the Google Doc draft in my phone.
I was writing several other things at the same time, and bits of those stories developed also. I’m still doing this now. I’ll always be doing this! Chasing these little clicks of satisfaction.
If you write several things at once, there’s no pressure on any individual piece. The next question, scene, line of dialogue etc. can take its time getting to you, because you have other stuff to work on. I just let that energy find me, and if it’s not there, I’ll move on to something else, going back and forth to a piece as often as necessary. No worries. I’m always working on something somehow.
To address my old doubts about this method: There’s nothing “impure” or artificial about it. No more so than there is with any piece of fiction. It’s all made up. It did not happen. Better, then, to get its elements in order, to make it do what it needs to do. If you think of stories as “meaning-generating systems”, as I do, then this is the best way of optimizing the meaning a story can generate. It doesn’t matter how this gets onto the page, only that it does. No one will even ask how long it took you or how you got there or whatever. Why does it even matter?
And though I’m sure it’s done, there’s still plenty about it that I can’t answer. I don’t know why the protagonist is male or why I set it in Glasgow, for example. All I know is that the text resists further tampering, and that stories call to a higher power beyond our comprehension. (Which, yes, might be a fancy way of saying “I don’t know what the f**k I’m doing.” Well, that too!)
In my writing, I used to hide behind research. When I read a story that didn’t seem to use any research at all, I treated it with contempt. “Surely the writer’s job isn’t just to make stuff up?”
But reading the stories of others, as often as possible, is the main research. Producing the above sequence of logic is the work. The main work, at least, of a storyteller. Extruding sense and meaning out of the ether takes time, effort, skill and patience, which is what you hope to be paid for. Someday. Maybe. Sometimes it’s its own reward? Ah, who knows!
Next time I will give some more details on this story layer idea 😊
About the Author
Leo X. Robertson is a Scottish process engineer and writer, currently living in Stavanger, Norway. He has work published by or forthcoming with Flame Tree Press, Pulp Literature, Helios Quarterly and others. His latest novella, “Jesus of Scumburg”, is out now with NihilismRevised. Find him on Twitter @Leoxwrite or check out his website, leoxrobertson.wordpress.com