Six Ways to Stay on Track with Your Story
Stories don’t grow themselves – or do they? Are we partners in the process, co-conspirators, or something else entirely? And how do we stay on track when our writing wants to veer off in all sorts of directions?
My second book has been planned out more than my first – albeit in very broad strokes – but even with a plot in mind, I still allow for plenty of organic growth. I want to keep the joy of surprise when I write, but I also want to finish my second novel in a few less years than it took to write my first! Here are some strategies for staying on track:
Stick to the spine of the story
After years of meandering in my first novel, I found it helpful to remind myself to stick to the main objective. For me, this was the central goal of my protagonist: Esme’s desire to find her mother. When I strayed too far from that path, I would stop and ask myself a hard question. Is what I am writing adding or subtracting to the main thrust of the story? Enjoy the byways, but keep the ultimate goal at the back of your mind.
Write a long summary
If you are feeling a little lost, try writing a long summary of the story. This is a different form of writing, but can be just as valuable in gaining a different perspective. It can also be a quick way of spotting imbalances or plot holes, giving you the opportunity to fix them in advance.
Become a story sleuth
Develop a critical eye in your reading. What works in someone else’s story might also work well for you. Conversely, some stories can show you what not to do. Writers are observers, and we can apply this same skill to the books we read. Pick apart the stories you read – analyse plot, subplots, character, and more, paying attention to how each thread weaves into the whole. But remember to enjoy yourself, too. Admire the author’s sleights of hand, the way they master the art of pacing, or the way they subtly foreshadow events yet to come. There’s a secret delight in watching how an experienced author knits a story together.
Imagine your work in a different medium
After a few drafts, try visualising your book being made into a film, or a play. If a scriptwriter or playwright had to cut scenes due to time constraints, which would they cut first? Of course, novels aren’t screenplays – we don’t need to squeeze our book into a ninety-minute timeslot. At the same time, this exercise did help me to see some of the dead wood in my book, and made the story a little more cohesive.
Let someone else read it
Give your story and/or plot summary to trusted critique partners, who can tell you what is working and what isn’t. Ask for their absolute honesty – taking criticism can be painful, but it is an unavoidable part of the process of bringing your work to publishable standard.
Back to the idea of stories growing themselves. No matter how much you plot in advance, always allow for the unexpected, especially when it comes to your first draft. This will keep your story fresh. Don’t limit the power of your subconscious, which might have a good reason for going off track, no matter how tangential that track may seem. Resist judgement until the time is right, which is not till after your subconscious has worked its magic.