Discovering Your Story: 5 Ways to Find the Missing Pieces
Please welcome author Ali Luke with five excellent tips for finding the missing pieces of your story.
“Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”
Do you invent your story or do you discover it?
Writing is a process of invention. Chances are, though, that your subconscious is way ahead of you.
As your story begins to come together—through mindmaps and index cards and jottings and drafted scenes and scribbled notes and middle-of-the-night ideas—you might start to feel that you’re not really making it up after all.
You’re finding it.
Your story comes to you in snatches, and sometimes a big new idea appears and brings together what you’ve already written.
Much of this discovering will happen fluidly and naturally, maybe without you even noticing. You might not remember when or how your ideas came to you—they’re just there.
Sometimes, though, the process needs a helping hand:
- Perhaps you’ve stalled halfway through your first draft.
- Perhaps you need a 90,000-word novel but you only have 60,000 words.
- Perhaps your main character’s motivation doesn’t quite make sense.
In all of these cases, your story can be fixed by finding what’s hidden. Your full story is there—you just need to unearth it.
You can’t force a discovery, but you can certainly make space for it, and open your mind for it. Here’s how:
#1: Don’t Plan Too Rigidly, Too Soon
Some writers recommend planning a story in careful detail before you begin, plotting every scene on index cards or in a spreadsheet.
My writing brain just doesn’t work like that. (Though I can definitely see the advantages of this method—I spend a lot of time rewriting.)
When I’ve run into problems, I’ve sometimes tried to plan too much, too soon. If your novel seems to be stalling, or if you sense that some aspect of the plot or characterization doesn’t fit, then trust your instincts.
Don’t be afraid to plan loosely. Don’t be afraid to leave gaps or change your mind. Look for your process—not someone else’s. Leave room to discover your story—once you begin to chip away the marble, it may look a little different from how you initially envisaged it.
#2: Write “Maybe…” Notes
When I’m working on a novel, I have a notebook where I jot down ideas and thoughts. Probably 80% of what I write doesn’t get used.
Often, when I’m thinking through a scene or new part of the plot, my notes will start with Maybe… This is a great technique to use if you want to open up some new possibilities. Let’s say you have a novel with a sagging middle, and you need to add an extra dimension:
Maybe John asks Sarah out. Hmm… but John hasn’t show any interest in Sarah so far.
Maybe John asks Sarah out on a dare.
Maybe Sarah asks John out.
Maybe John and Sarah get set up on a blind date by a mutual friend. To their surprise, they hit it off.
Maybe John and Sarah have both just started to date one another’s best friends; they go on a double-date and realize they have much more in common than they thought.
Start with a “Maybe” and see where you end up.
#3: Be Open to Inspiration
New discoveries—big and small—can come from almost anywhere. Some of my favorite places for inspiration are:
- Overheard (and misheard) conversations.
- Museums and art galleries—especially small, unusual ones.
- Music and lyrics (again, misheard ones can be great).
- Almost-forgotten memories.
- The outside world—yes, it’s good to get fresh air once in a while.
(I’m sure you’ll have your own examples—do let me know what’s worked for you in the comments!)
Perhaps the interaction between two kids in your local park makes you realize that your protagonist needs a sibling, or the rain falling outside prompts you to set your not-quite-working story during a cold, miserable winter instead of during a balmy summer.
You don’t need to be deliberately thinking about your work-in-progress all the time, but keep it at the back of your mind and be receptive to great thoughts that might arrive at unexpected times.
#4: Do Quick Writing Sprints
Sometimes, you simply don’t have two hours to spend writing, or you can’t face the thought of a full writing session.
I find it hard to work “properly” on my novel for just a few minutes, but I find that 5–10 minutes is a great length of time for what I think of as a writing sprint.
Here’s how that works: Instead of trying to finish Chapter 10, open up a new document. Set a timer for 5 minutes (or 10, if you want a bit longer). Use a writing prompt or a word to spark an initial thought and run with it, writing as fast as you can until your timer goes off.
This is a great way to uncover new ideas and to write snippets that you might later combine into a full scene. It can also be a good warm-up activity for a longer writing session.
#5: Talk it Through
While I’m not usually a fan of talking too much about my work-in-progress (it can sap writing energy), one great time to talk is when you know you’re missing something but you’re not sure what it is.
For this, you need someone who’s familiar with your work-in-progress—maybe a writer friend who you’ve swapped drafts with or your spouse who gets to read everything you write before anyone else does.
Explain to them where you’re stuck (sometimes, just the act of explaining is enough, and you’ll suddenly realize what’s missing). Ask them for their ideas, and don’t reject them out of hand. If they suggest something that you know won’t fit with your story, think about ways to modify it.
There’s no magic, works-every-time method for discovering the missing parts of your story, but if you try all five of these, you’re almost certain to come up with something.
A true discovery should feel like it fits as an essential part of the whole, not like it’s been forced in or tagged on.
I’d love to hear your experiences of discovery or your tips; share them with us in the comments below.
If you’re a blogger short on inspiration, check out her post on “8 Under-Used Blog Post Structures.”