When we read a finished story, whether a thousand-word piece of flash fiction of a thousand-page novel, we perceive it as whole. It’s similar to the way we see each other. You don’t think of your friend as a collection of distinct elements. You don’t perceive her as a particular combination of skin and hair and eyes, scarf and jeans and shoes. You don’t see the individual bones, muscles, or cells that make up her body. You don’t consciously perceive all the discrete events and experiences that make up her personality and character. You just see Jane.
Stories are like that. We experience a story as the sum total of its parts. And, as with a person, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Still, those parts are there. Without them the person or the story would not exist, at least not in the form you perceive.
As a writer, you need to define each part of your story in order to create the whole. You need to break your story down in order to build it up. This will not only help you build a better story, it will make the process of writing even a long-form piece (like a novel) much less overwhelming. In her comment on last Saturday’s weekend edition, Jean Brown shared how studying the structure (the parts) of a particular piece had helped reduce the overwhelm she felt about writing a “A Whole Book:”
One of the major benefits of this exercise for me was imaging how the author had laid out the whole structure ahead of the writing, and how this structure basically chunked the book into 10 page sections. This made the idea of writing “A Whole Book” seem incredibly achievable, whereas before it loomed as nearly impossible in my mind.
I felt a similar sense of relief when I realized that writers I admire put a lot of thought and intention into creating and arranging all the separate elements that make up their stories. When you can think of a novel not as “A Whole Book,” as Jean put it, but as a series of much smaller pieces that all fit together (perfectly) to create that whole, it suddenly feels much more manageable.
Plus, I love a good puzzle and the idea of identifying and arranging all these pieces to create a particular experience is pretty intriguing to me.
I sketched this visual to help illustrate how I think about a story breakdown. I intentionally left off labels so that you can interpret it in the context of your own story. If, for instance, you are working on a novel, the top level would represent the finished book, the next level down might represent “beginning, middle, and end,” the circles might be chapters, the triangles might be scenes within chapters, and the dots might be individual elements within a scene – things like lines of dialog, setting details, reveals of character traits, etc.
As we drill deeper into the elements, breaking things down further and further, the gaps between the individual pieces close, creating that sense of wholeness and story continuity.
There are many different tools for doing story break downs, but so far I’m finding that Scrivener offers some helpful features. I love the cork board view which allows me to look at my whole collection of story elements along with more detailed notes about specific actions, etc. The “binder” in Scrivener allows me to organize different pieces of my story by section, chapter, scene, etc. There are also ways (which I haven’t yet fully explored) to filter my notes and draft so that I can isolate a particular thread (such as a character or a setting or a sub-story). This will allow me to focus on a single story element within the context of the whole.
Whatever tools and process you prefer, I encourage you to think about breaking your story down so that you can get “inside” it – really see how it’s put together. I promise that you will gain greater clarity and even, perhaps, some new inspiration.
Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who also happens to be a marketer. She helps her Suddenly Marketing clients discover their voice, connect with their audience, and find their marketing groove. She is also a mom, a prolific blogger, and a student of the equestrian arts, voice, and trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.