Building the Story

After you’ve done several versions of your point form list, you’re ready to start constructing the framework of your story. You are going to let the ideas you’ve collected help you find the story you are going to tell. It’s a bit of magic.

When it comes to creating something new, planning doesn’t work. Trying things is what works. You’ll start by reading through the point form lists you’ve been making.

  • See which ideas keep catching your attention when reading them again. Those are the ones that good stories are built on.
  • Write them out again in point form. But this time only keep half of them – the best ones, those that interest you and make you want to know more. (Save dated copies of everything else in your Ideas) You’re not getting rid of anything; you’re narrowing your focus.
  • Repeat this cycle in the next few days, each time writing out a new list in point form. Save and date everything. Writing in point form clarifies your thinking without actually having to think much about it.
  • When you think you’re done, write out one more list of your updated best ideas, grouping related ideas together. Are there new connections you hadn’t seen before?
  • For example, if your project was about organizing a Thanksgiving dinner, you might put all the notes about turkey in Group 1, desserts in Group 2, vegetables in Group 3, snacks in Group 4, and drinks in Group 5. Whatever makes the most sense to you. It’s simply a way of organizing your thinking.
  • Now arrange your groups in a sequence, from beginning to end. Which groups should come first to have any others make sense? Which are the most important? Which ones should be saved for last? This process makes you sketch out the narrative arc of your story, from the beginning, to the middle, and onto the end.
  • Finally, do the same thing within each group. Arrange the individual ideas in an order that makes sense to you and would be the way you would tell your story, from beginning to end. If you get stuck, try telling a good friend or family member your story without using your notes. That’s an incredibly powerful way to realize what order things should be presented in.
  • Many professional TV and movie writers use 3” x 5” index cards. Each idea gets its own card, which allows you to easily shuffle and rearrange the order of the ideas.
  • By sorting and organizing you will create a structured, narrative outline for your story. The order of the groups and the ideas within the groups can always be changed. Indeed, it’s likely that they will But for the moment, you will have created a solid outline of your story based on your research. You are well on your way.
  • With your story outline in hand, you’re ready to begin writing.

Assembling the Pieces

You’ve established the structure of your story (ideas and research), and you’ve built your story outline (groups of notes). Now you’re going to start filling in the body of your story.

  • Get your story outline and a notepad, then turn off your phone and the Internet. Don’t think about anything except the subject of your story.
  • Pick an idea from your story outline that interests you. Write it at the top of a blank page. Then start writing down anything and everything that comes to mind when you reflect on that first idea: sentences, drawings, notes, anything. You are enlarging on the idea without editing yourself or trying to “write good.” You’re brainstorming.
  • Whether it’s one page or 15, keep those pages focussed on the one idea that you started with. One idea only. Stop only when you feel as though you have nothing more to say about it.
  • This part of your work is about writing, which means just putting words on the page. Don’t edit. Don’t revise. Don’t read what you write. Don’t try and spit fancy-pants words and phrases. Just keeping putting down your thoughts about that one idea until you run out of steam.
  • Then, when you’re ready, choose another idea from your story outline, and repeat the process. Each and every idea has its own set of pages. Those pages will begin to form the chapters, scenes, or sections of your story.
  • When you’re done, fasten each idea’s pages together and give that group a name; something that describes what connects them. For example, they might include Early Life, Family, Experiences, World Events, and Later Life. You decide what they have in common. Put those into a new file folder and label it Chapters.
  • Do this with all of the ideas in your story outline. You’ll soon recognize what your main ideas are. Those are the ones you write the most stuff about. Sometimes you won’t know this until you start scribbling. You’ll soon discover the mediocre ones, too, which is terrific. You can usually make a bigger impact by saying less.
  • Ideas that you don’t use are returned to your Ideas Nothing gets thrown out.
  • But for all the other ideas on your list, write something about them. Enlarge upon them. Add new thoughts to them. When you draw a blank, move on to another idea and keep the momentum going. That’s the important thing: keep putting words down on paper.
    Once you’ve written something about all your main ideas and they are all grouped together in your new Chapters file, take a break.
  • After the break, look through your Chapters groups quickly and sort them into a logical sequence for the story you are going to tell. No editing or rewriting, just putting them into a beginning, middle, and end type of order. Go through this a couple of times to confirm that you like what you see.
  • Once that’s done, keep that order (number them if you need to), and then put them all back into your Chapters You have completed a rough draft of your story.
  • Now you need to step back and get some distance before re-reading them. Writing is never a last-minute activity. Many professional writers let their pages sit for weeks and even months before re-reading them. That’s why you get started researching and writing as soon as possible.
  • Time and patience are your friends here. Before you go back to those pages, work on some other aspect of the project. Collecting images, working on design considerations, update your references and sources lists.

Numbers

If you plan on using charts of numbers or graphs in your story, make them interesting. Give them some personality. Keep your audience interested. Have fun with them!

Writing and (Re)writing

Writing means repeatedly returning to and re-writing until you can’t see anything more to add or improve what you’ve written. When you reach that point when you believe that it’s the best that you are capable of doing, then you’re nearly there. Only you will know when that time comes.

First drafts need special consideration. First drafts are almost always lousy. Most professional writers think of their first drafts as “Garbage Drafts” for that reason. But this is not bad news. Creating great stories is about repeatedly revising, simplifying, and making everything clearer. Take comfort in that. Don’t worry about getting it right the first time when you will revise it anyway.

Your first draft, whatever its faults, will provide you with a clear idea of what you need to do to make your story clearer, simpler, and more powerful. It’s a methodical process and requires disciplined work habits. You build a story word by word, sentence by sentence, and hour by hour. Or whatever the equivalent elements are when working with video, music, displays, or anything else.

This is a gradual process, and nothing worthwhile happens quickly. Creating a story is not something you can knock off in one sitting.  Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Mistakes are positive steps in the right direction. They move you closer to discovering what’s good. And anyone who tries to avoid making them usually makes nothing at all.

How to Write (Better)

Again, any How To on writing is beyond the scope of this website. But here are a few tips to bear in mind when you begin to revise your rough notes into crafted sentences. These only apply when you’re working on the finished drafts. Never during brainstorming and idea collecting.

  • Don’t waste words telling people what they already know. (e.g. “The Spanish Flu was really bad.”)
  • Stick to the point. Get rid of anything that distracts from it.
  • Be brief. Condense where possible. Less is more. Say what you have to say clearly and in the fewest words possible. But no fewer than needed.
  • Don’t get fancy. Use clear, straightforward language and sentences. John Ruskin, a prominent 19th-century critic, wrote:
“The greatest thing that a human soul ever does is to see something and tell what they saw in a plain way.”

That’s a lot harder to do than you might imagine.

  • If you present your ideas or points in a logical A, B, C order, that will keep your story moving forward and your audience’s eyes on what’s important.