Short and Sweet Advice for Writers – Break Your Story Down to Build It Up.

VW bug cutawayWhen 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.

story breakdown

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.

Photo Credit: roger4336 via Compfight cc

34 thoughts on “Short and Sweet Advice for Writers – Break Your Story Down to Build It Up.

  1. This article was really helpful for me. I am currently in the midst of a rut as I try to sort through my own story. I really need to break it down and focus on the little stories within my novel first before I can see the big picture. I am such a novice about all the writing software out there. I’ve heard of Scrivener but I didn’t look farther into it. I think I’m going to try it out. Anyways, thanks again for the article.

    K.S Evering

    • I’m so glad if this approach helps you gain some perspective on your story. Scrivener is great, but I also love the good, old-fashioned tools like pen and paper or pen and index cards. It’s amazing what you can discover just by taking the time to really look.

      Good luck!

  2. Jamie, thank you for your post on advice about breaking down a story. I am currently a senior graduating in the spring with a degree in public relations and business. Although I am not a professional writer, I firmly believe that writing is the foundation for all communication professions. After reading your post, my takeaway is that you have to work backwards in a sense because it is crucial to make sure all details of your story are fully developed. All professionals need excellent writing skills whatever their area of expertise, and it is great to hear from others who agree with its importance.

    • Hello, Kaitlyn. Welcome!

      “Working backwards” is a great way to add another layer to this concept. I don’t know much about it, but I’d imagine that mystery writers often employ that approach – knowing where they want to end up and then working backwards to make sure all the pieces fit and all the clues are placed in the right spots and revealed at the right times.

      As someone who earns her living as a business/copywriter, I think your idea is even more applicable. Each piece of copy I write – whether a web page, ebook, blog post, or POV – needs to serve a specific purpose. I need to know exactly what my ultimate deliverable will be in terms of format, structure, tone, and – most importantly – message, and then I need to work backwards from there to build out all the pieces that will go into creating that end result.

      I’d also like to heartily agree with you about writing being the foundation of all communication professions. Have you read Ann Handley’s book “Everybody Writes?” She is a champion of good writing in business and marketing, and this latest book of hers is a fun and very informative read. I’m thinking about giving my clients copies for Christmas! 😉

  3. Hi Jamie,

    Thnx for sharing this with the community. Its an eyeopener.
    Currently I use pages on my wordpress to structure the fantasy world I’m creating to support my novell.
    However, I’ve never thought of doing something so detailed as this. I wonder how it will work out 🙂

    • Thanks for the reblog, Tim. I’m glad you’re excited about giving this approach a try and would love to hear how you make out. Good luck!

      • For now I’m swamped with work that gets me my daily bread, but when I get to it I’ll be sure to let you know what I think about this tool 🙂

      • I’m right with you re: being swamped. I’m not complaining, but I am looking forward to having some time to practice what I’m preaching, so to speak.
        Love to hear back when you catch a break. Here’s to that daily bread. 😉

    • I’m finding Scrivener to be a very helpful tool. I love the way it helps me centralize everything I need for my writing in one place – resources, references, even images and links, plus organizational materials and notes galore. I am still learning how to use all the features, but – so far – I’m loving it, especially for longer-form pieces. I hope you give it a try and like it. 🙂

    • Thanks for the reblog, Helen. I think there’s a lot to be said for pen and paper systems as well, but I do like the convenience of being able to search my materials digitally. Still, I love to have a “real-world” notebook as part of my process … there’s something about putting pen to paper that brings out different ideas and words than fingers on the keyboard.
      Either way – so glad you found this helpful & worth sharing. TKS!

      • I did thank you so much! I must admit I flit between hard copy and electronic tools, but sometimes I need to get stood up, moving around, furiously sticking post it notes to the wall!

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