Telling Yourself the Story

Have you ever been writing and everything is coming along smoothly until…it isn’t? Some people might call it writer’s block, but I don’t actually think writer’s block is a thing. There are, of course, many reasons someone might be unable to write, including depression/emotional issues, lack of time, etc. but when “writer’s block” means “I don’t know how to proceed forward,” then I have a few tips.

I am one of the rare people who finds beginnings and middles fairly easy to write, but endings? Endings are the bane of my existence. I generally know what the ending ought to be, but how to get from the middles I’ve written to the words The End is something I find myself having to sit down and think through again and again. For me, this “roadblock” generally happens around 60,000 words.

When this happens, I usually have to take a step back and whine and complain about how hard writing is. After whining and complaining for a bit, I revisit my manuscript and read the story so far. At this point, I’m trying to read as a reader–not as a writer or an editor–the person who asks, “And then?” If I don’t know the answer to “And then?”, it’s time to sit down and tell myself the story.

What does that mean? It means I take a notebook and a pen and write down the most simple, bare-bones story of my novel. I’m not trying to think like a novelist; I’m trying to think like a storyteller. Imagine you’re around a campfire and your annoying little brother just asked you to “Tell [him] a story.” Okay, so you’re going to tell him the story of what you’re working on. No beautiful prose, no deep character motivation, just what happens, pure and simple.

When you take out the quirks of what makes a novel a novel and not a simple story, you’re left with action and character. In other words, you’re left with what is essentially a fairy tale. As Philip Pullman says in his introduction to Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm*, “Swiftness is a great virtue in a fairy tale. A good fairy tale moves with a dreamlike speed from event to event, pausing only to say as much as is needed and no more.” So you start telling your brother:

Once there was a young man whose family business was killing zombies. Business was good until one day, a rival family of zombie-killers stages a coup, killing the head of the Protagonist’s family and becoming the unparalleled resource for zombie hunters. After coming home from school, the Protagonist finds the bodies of his mother and father slain in the kitchen, their throats ravaged and their eyes cut out, as though they had fallen prey to a zombie attack.

“What does the Protagonist do?” your little brother asks.

But the Protagonist knew that this was not the work of zombies; Zekes kill mindlessly and without prejudice, driven only by a primal hunger nothing but human flesh could satiate. A zombie would not savage the throat person without consuming the rest of him, and the taking of eyes was a hallmark of the rival zombie-hunter family. So the Protagonist set out to avenge the deaths of his parents, and to bring glory back to his family name.

“Then what happens?”

The Protagonist needed resources, so he packed up what few things he needed: food, weapons, and the name of a young woman who could bring him to the head of the Enemy. But as soon as he set out from his house, he’s set upon by a horde of zombies.

“And then?” your brother asks breathlessly.

The Protagonist fights his way through the horde of zombies, but it’s too much: there are too many, and too few of him. Just as things were starting to look dire, he’s saved.

“By whom?”

The young woman. She arrives to save his butt, having heard of his parents’ murder on the news. She tells him that she knows the truth of what really happened, and that the Protagonist must follow her, or be killed in the same way as his family.

And so on.

I’m a pantser by nature, so outlining a book before I start writing doesn’t work for me. But there comes a point where pantsing doesn’t work so well, and I need to have a roadmap of where I’m going. (Again, for me, this usually happens around 60,000 words.) Sitting down and telling myself the story of what happens in my novel clarifies the plot for me. In reading the story I’ve told myself, I can start to pick out scenes that I need to write next, and even scenes that I’ve forgotten to write and are crucial to the plot. At this point, I can get back to work and flesh out my bare-bones fairytale into a book.

Of course, this doesn’t work for everyone. But sometimes, when my critique friends and authors are stuck, I’ll often ask them to tell me a story. Tell me what happens in your book. I’ll keep asking you “And then?” until you get to the very end. Sometimes my authors and critique friends don’t need to get to the end; just the act of telling me the story has broken them out of their rut.

So what do y’all think? Do you think telling yourself will help? Let me know in the comments below!

* I adore Philip Pullman, not just because he wrote my favourite novels of all time–the His Dark Materials trilogy–but because he is exceptionally wise on what makes a good story. He retold many of the famous tales from the Brothers Grimm, adhering to his principles of swiftness and economy. Even without the quirks of prose, his voice shines through, which goes to show that the voice of the storyteller is a much purer, simpler thing than people realize.


12 Responses to Telling Yourself the Story

  1. Ashley Norris Sep 4 2013 at 7:49 am #

    Reading my manuscript as a reader and not a writer or an editor is one of the best things I have ever done. Getting into the mindset of the reader and grilling myself on the questions they might ask helps me to develop the story. Plus, when I read my manuscript, as a reader, I find myself quickly moving through the story–wondering what is going to happen next. Of course I already know what will happen, but to enjoy reading what I have written always seems like a good sign!

    As for telling myself the story, I have never tried this with my entire manuscript. However, I have told myself the story of a scene or the story of a character. Fleshing out these details, first with only characters and action, and then steadily increasing the detail until I have an interesting and well-rounded scene is extremely beneficial for me as a writer!

    Great post! Very interesting!!

  2. jodimeadows Sep 4 2013 at 8:25 am #

    Great tips, thank you! There really is something almost magical about getting a friend to say, “And then?” and “But why?” when talking out a plot. 😀

  3. Leigh Smith Sep 4 2013 at 9:56 am #

    This post couldn’t have come at a better time. I’ve been stuck at around 65k for a couple of months now, granted, those months have been insanely busy, but still. You’ve motivated me to sit down and write on actual paper, what I have so far, like what’s actually happened, and what needs to happen a la telling-a-story style. Thank you!

  4. Cheri Roman Sep 4 2013 at 8:03 pm #

    I recently ran into the dreaded roadblock and synopsized around it. Basically that’s the same thing you’re talking about here, only I started from slightly before the roadblock instead of at the beginning. Works. I just finished the rough draft.

  5. stephanie garber Sep 5 2013 at 12:24 am #

    Great post! I totally struggle with endings. I could relate so much to everything you were saying. I loved your advice about telling the story as if it were a fairy tale. Next time I get stuck I’m totally going to try that!

  6. Biljana Sep 5 2013 at 11:55 pm #

    Love this. Critique partners (or even just people willing to listen) are gold when it comes to this. I’m the total opposite about endings, though. I always have to know them or else I won’t care about writing the journey leading to them. I’ve known how my current WIP will end for years now, just never knew how to get there until recently. It’s almost like a backwards puzzle for me, with the “and then” questions. Great post!

  7. Valerie Sep 12 2013 at 6:55 pm #

    Nodded my whole way through this post. Whenever my writing slows down, it’s because I haven’t plotted this far–I’m drawing out the scene I’m in because I don’t know what the next one is. Bad habit! Next time I’m stuck, I’ll definitely conjure up a little brother. Thanks for sharing!

  8. Annie Nov 2 2013 at 6:49 pm #

    I actually write my entire novel like this. I start with that bare bones story to get myself from the beginning to the end and then I go back and start adding layers – giving the scenes flesh and depth and then refining my prose.

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