Thursday, January 24, 2013

Tracking the Elements of Your Story

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!


33 comments:

  1. Excellent post, Jessica! I'm not a list-maker, but this is exactly what I do mentally when rereading a WIP. Picking up on all those little things and weaving them back in. Having it on paper like that is a fabulous idea. =)

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    1. Thank you! It's really fun in a reread to take tangled strings and realize you can make them click! (Haha, oh, mixed metaphors...)

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    2. I agree with Roseanna. I'm a mental person, but you may have just converted me with that line that it does wonders for the sanity. :) Thanks for this, Jessica!

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  2. What a great post, Jessica! I've never made a list like this before, but I can always use a little more sanity in my life ;) Maybe this will keep me from forgetting about an important character like I did in my last draft. I'm going to try it!

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    1. Thank you, Anna! Glad to know you think it'll help. (And I, too, know the shock of realizing you've forgotten something important! xD )

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  3. Great post, Jessica! I had never looked at my story that way. I'll have to try this! :D

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  4. Great post Jessica and definately very helpful. I tend to have now and then that I leave things "unresolved" or "lingering" and only find out when I start editting.

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    1. Thank you! Editing is when I usually when I find those issues, too. The first draft is normally pretty experimental for me. Thanks again!

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  5. Wonderful post! Very helpful!

    http://jackofalltradesandoldestofsix.blogspot.com

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    1. Thanks, Raquel! (By the way, I love your name! And as a writer, you probably know what that means...) :D

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  6. Thanks for posting, Jessica. I tend to keep my "list" on sticky notes - jotting down all those little things that need to be tied up as I go back through the story. Maybe that's why my desk is always such a cluttered mess...dozens of sticky notes lying around do tend to pile up. ;)

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    1. YES. I too have sticky note issues. Especially halfway through the second draft. That's when they really get out of control.

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  7. This is a great idea! I LOVE making lists (it's the OCD in me), but I still have trouble being able to see the story in it's fullness. Thanks for the inspiration! :D

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  8. I love the simplicity of this, Jessica. I've attempted something similar in the past, but after reading your post, I see how I was making it too complicated. When I was trying to track everything, it led to getting frustrated and burned out. I would discard the spreadsheet halfway through the book, so then I wound up tracking NOTHING. I like this a lot :) Thanks so much for sharing!

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    1. Thank you. :) I've been through that cycle before. I still go through it when I try to make synopsis' and such. I make things too detailed, and the next thing I know I'm (metaphorically) tossing my papers toward the sky. I guess it works sometimes to keep things simple, so you can understand it at a glance.
      You're so welcome! Thanks for having me. :D

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    2. *synopses. Wow, I had to Google that one.

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  9. Sounds like a really awesome idea! I'm just starting a book, so I'll start doing that now :D

    Thanks for sharing!

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    1. That's a perfect time to start; you can track it as you go. :D And you're so welcome!

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  10. Love this! Thank you for sharing the template; I'm going to use it now with the book I'm currently working on. =)

    Tessa
    www.christiswrite.blogspot.com

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    1. You're welcome! I hope you find it useful. :)

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  11. Great post Jessica! I keep a character list but this will definitely help me wrap everything up. I left a few things hanging in my last book and I didn't even notice. Thank you!

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    1. Thank you! Catching those little "incomplete"s can be a curse and a blessing. I mean, it's icky to read something that just sounds forgotten. But it can be so much fun to find ways to make 'em click! :D

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  12. Thank you so much for these additional ideas with circularity. I'm starting to plan for a new book, so this should be really helpful.

    Does anyone have any ideas for when you are plotting a new story and you have a perfect character in your head, but you can't possibly figure out will happen to the character?

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  13. Wizard idea, Jessica! I've never thought of anything like this before, but now that you've mentioned and explained it, I'm excited to try it. I've got this bookmarked and know I'll be coming back to it plenty in the future, because it's brilliant. (: Thanks loads for sharing this!

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    1. Hey Jenna! Great, I'm so glad you can find it useful! (And sorry for the super late reply!)

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  14. Sounds like a good idea, but a list of every element seems a bit intimidating...

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    1. (Sorry for the late reply!) It's not as daunting as it seems. Just ask yourself: what's important enough in my story that I want the reader to remember it?

      Hope that helps. :)

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  15. Awesome post! :] Writing story elements down really helps, especially with keeping your brain from exploding. :P

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  16. Great post! This is one thing I'm having problems with now I'm looking at my first draft, so this will be useful.

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  17. Awesome idea! I just watched a movie called Psychic, where the bad guy (who I liked better than the good guy, actually) was painting this little model in the beginning, and then at the end of the movie SPOILER!! when he died, the good guy saw the model that had fallen out of his pocket. Is that sort of what you're talking about? :)

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    1. Yes, that's exactly what I'm talking about! The movie Mulan is full of great examples too, if you've ever seen it. The clothes and makeup Mulan is dressed up in at the beginning of the movie is brought back to use as disguises near the end of the story. And Mulan's method of twisting ropes together to climb a pole is used in the middle and the climax of the movie.

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