by Jessica Staricka
A couple weeks ago, Jill Williamson had a great post on circularity! I mentioned in the comments the idea of making one big list of all the pieces of a story, and then trying to bring about finality to each item. Next thing I knew, I was booked for a guest post! It's so awesome to be here!
When I take a look at one of my half-finished novels, I usually see sludge.
I've got the main plot, the main character's emotional journey, that one theme, this one reoccurring personality trait, that object, those parallels between conversations, this mysterious backstory, the foreshadowing for this and that and this other thing...
The overwhelming confusion is often just as bad after a first draft as during it. It's tough to look at thousands of words and piles of notes and still feel that my novel is disjointed, awkward, and the opposite of well-rounded. But maybe I'm not the only one with this issue. I find that I left too many elements of the story unidentified and unresolved. So my advice is, to keep it all straight in your head, make a list. That's what I do, and it's done wonders for my sanity.
The best way I can define “elements” in fiction would be... everything that makes up your book. Recurring themes, subplots, character traits, or even objects and people you consider a part of your story are all elements. They're pieces of the puzzle. And, sorry to be cheesy, but every piece, no matter how small, ought to come close to fitting. And before you can finish the puzzle, you've got to find all the pieces, right?
I've got a page in my notebook titled, “Elements of Anomaly,” where I list the pieces of my current novel. To give you some examples, the first thing on my list is, “Milo [my main character] can't handle emotions.” That's a major plot, and the root of my main character's personal journey. But another, smaller item on the list reads, “Milo's lanyard, full of keys.” It's an object that comes into play at both the beginning and the end of the book. Adding it to my “elements” list makes sure I remember to write in the necessary foreshadowing.
A list like this really turns out useful when looking for unresolved themes. To make a story feel well-rounded and full, I try to bring about a resolution to all the elements. That's circularity. I usually go through my list and state how or when each element is resolved. Though it depends on how small the element is, a resolution doesn't necessarily mean an ending to a subplot, or a change in a character. It can simply mean one final mention near the end of the book, to bring a clean close to the idea. It happens pretty often when I go through my list: I'll look at one of those tiny subplots and realize I left it dangling. For example, since my character Christina smiles throughout my story (a somewhat significant trait, since my main character does the opposite,) I realized that I ought to give it one last acknowledgment near the end of the story. It gives all those earlier images of her constant smile some significance, and it brings the idea to a close.
Most often of all though, I use the “elements” list when I'm staring at that half-finished draft, trying to untangle my mess of plot lines and searching for that one thing (or rather, today's thing) that just isn't working in the story. It doesn't seem like such a sludgy mess when I can find my elements and define what exactly I'm trying to do, here. Then I can turn to a single comprehensive list and see the pieces of my novel on a sheet of paper, pieces that I can always change, combine, add, or remove if I need to. And my own idea of the story becomes much clearer in my head because of it. Hopefully, making a list like this can do the same for you!
Click here to get a template and make your own story elements list.
Thank you so much for having me on the blog!