Writing Without Confusing Yourself (Or Your Readers)
Writing is a very personal, individual undertaking. Everybody approaches the activity a bit differently from the next guy. Some people can come up with concept, plot, characters, and everything else and just sit down and write. Others need to take time to figure out what's going on; what's going to happen in the story, and how it all fits together. Others still will find themselves getting stuck somewhere along the middle, losing track of everything or changing an idea mid-way through, or never know how to end. These are the people for whom this has been put together. Those of you who can barrel through a story overnight are still welcome to look, though. :)Intro:
There are different ways in which a writer can and will get stuck on any given piece. Motivation, immediate environment, too few (or too many) ideas available, lack of organisation; the list goes on, but life is short and I am lazy. The sticking point that we're going to focus on here are the ideas. Too many or too few ideas, and no way to piece them together.
When I first started writing, I'd get an idea, figure out where I wanted to go, map it out, decide on the characters, come up with the ending, and try to keep all that in my head. In the process, I lost a lot of points that I'd originally intended on putting in, forgot a lot of one-liners that I'd wanted to include somewhere, and eventually would just lose interest in the story and go on to something else. On one hand, I learned how to tell an entire story in under 5000 words; something which I'd struggled with my entire life, and could never do up until a little more than a year ago. On the other hand, a lot of really good ideas went unwritten, because they were just too big for a one-shot.
Late last spring, I got it into my head to buy a brand new spiral notebook and a pack of Sharpies. And then I started sacrificing some note cards that were meant for another project, and almost immediately, my writing seemed to smooth out and become more concise. I employ this mainly for what I already know will be multi-chapter fics, but occasionally my one-shots get this treatment, as well. Brainstorming:[Image 1]
The first thing I do is write down as many details and points as I can think of. This isn't necessarily done all at once. The notes for this particular story spanned about a week. This particular page was done with the idea in mind that Arthur would be my main character, so I spent a lot of time focusing on him. Anything I could think of that may possibly be relevant at one point in the narrative. It doesn't matter if you think his favourite colour might be chartreuse and you think he may like to eat spam and pickled eggs for breakfast. If you have an idea, put it down. It might come in useful down the road.[Image 2]
The pages don't have to be character-specific, either, since your ideas won't be character-specific. What you choose to write down is up to you. It could be anything, from a witty one-liner, to plot points, to just vague images you may have in your head. It's your story, and what happens is all entirely up to you. Your notes can be as messy as they need to be, because you won't actually be referring to these pages (well, you can if you want, but I find it amazingly annoying). [Image 3]
The story that these notes belonged to was a sci-fi time travel adventure. Which, of course, meant that a non-linear time line was a main plot point. The characters spent a lot of time jumping about by millennia at a time. And on top of that, there were two separate groups of people travelling throughout the whole of time and space. I needed to establish some sort of time line early on, so that I knew what all I would be doing with the story. The black lines with yellow highlight represented the travel path of one group, and the lines with blue highlight represented the second group. They crossed paths a few times, and originally, the story was going to be more complex than it wound up actually turning out. The silver lines were a major edit (long story short, after everything was written, I had to change the ending, which resulted in cutting about a third of the story out. This was one of the only times I had to refer back to these pages after starting the actual writing process).[Image 4]
More on Arthur, here. When I scribbled out this page, I was still under the impression that Arthur would be my main guy. I had an entire B story planned out for him, but when I started actually WRITING the story, it took on a life entirely of its own, as works of fiction are often wont to do, and he became almost a background character, and most of what I did manage to fit in had to be cut when I underwent my epic re-write. But, these notes are still very important, because I do intend to go back and actually write that B story one of these days. The point here is not to get attached to any of the notes you write down. You may use all of them, or you may wind up only actually using a small fraction of what you came up with. But even if you don't overtly use every little point, just writing character information down is often enough to get ideas into your head about how a character would behave, and a lot of these points will come out subconsciously.[Image 5]
Yes, I'm showing you my entire brainstorm for this story (at least, those pages which I still possess, or aren't mind-numbingly geeky), because each one of the pages gives a little bit more information about the process. Up until now, all of the pages have been an individual clusterfuck of information, but I don't actually do my idea pages like this very often. I'm not sure why five of the six pages were formatted like that. More often, I write in list format, just writing down page after page after page of ideas and information about the plot and characters. This entire page, however, was not used in the story, in part because I got some of the canon wrong, but mainly because this was all B story; every word of it. Again, it's still important to me, though. But you don't have to do your brainstorming in one particular format at all. Sometimes, I'll use a whole bunch of different colours, writing out lines or making little marks and symbols in rainbow colours to tell myself that this stuff is important, and I'd better remember it. I find this to be most effective sometimes, especially in projects where there's a lot going on at once.[Image 6]
This page is "incomplete" when looked at next to some of the other pages. Hell, Arthur had two all to himself. The reason behind this, is by this point, I'd already written Nicholas dozens of times, and felt that I had a strong enough grasp on his character that I didn't need a full study on him before setting out on this pan-fandom adventure. I'd never written for either of the other two fandoms, though, and I wanted to try to flesh out the characters' motivations behind their potential actions. Missing from this collection is pages upon pages of technical notes on time travel, space travel, canon and source material, astronomy, and several score other topics. Like any good sci-fi writer, I wanted my fiction to be scientific (yeah, there was some REALLY BAD science in there, still, but I was dealing with source material that was soft-science, often ignored science, and could barely count to thirty), but I do epic amounts of research for a lot of my stories.Cutting Down:
So, you've filled up half of a spiral notebook with notes about everything you can think of. Now it's time to turn those notes into something useful. Really, this is easier than you might think. I promise.[Image 7]
Once I'm done with the brainstorming, I go over all of my notes, and decide what I can cut, what's not needed, and what I want to include in the story (these note cards are from a different project, because I tend to lose my note cards more easily than I lose notebooks). What you put on the cards doesn't have to be uniform between them. There's no minimum or maximum length, and they don't all have to be plot points. A fair amount of the cards for this particular project are ideas, because that's a lot of what this story is about. Some of the cards have plot points written on them, and then, as the pacing picks up, the cards get more specific, down to exact lines that I want said, and exactly what actions lead to which reactions. I spent about two weeks perfecting the ending in my notes before writing out my note cards, because I did not want to go through the hell of a rewrite that I went through with the previous project.
This one has a lot of note cards. 47, if I counted correctly, which is a little more than usual (but not by much). But the brainstorm for this was about eight or nine pages. Not even close to everything made it this far, because as I went back, I realised that a lot of it was either un-needed, or just saying the same thing as a previous note, but with different words. Some of my note cards still do this, actually, but it doesn't matter. It'll be taken care of in the next step.Organising your Thoughts:[Image 8]
While not particularly necessary, I like to go this one extra step, just in case. It's perfectly possible to just organise your note cards into a specific order and just refer back to them, but I dislike this. Mainly, because I'm an uncoordinated klutz, and will drop them and lose them a dozen times over before I've finished my story. So, I organise them, figuring out in which order I want the events to happen, and put them to dot points. This particular outline (from a third project) is colourful, and cannot count to four without help. I don't know how I managed that. In this particular story, I was telling two mirroring stories, where the A story was a direct result of the B story, which happened entirely in flashbacks (which is why I highlighted in pink, so I didn't confuse myself).
In moving things to the outline, I assimilated a few note cards, and tossed a few more, still, until I got something streamlined and efficient, which I keep near my computer so I can easily refer back to it when needed. By having the entire story in front of me in concise dot points, it makes it easier to know where I'm going, and how to tie the scenes together.In Conclusion:
Without question, the brainstorming step is the most tedious. But even writing down your ideas before you start puts you at a tremendous advantage. By getting your research out of the way, it allows you to write more freely. However, the last thing you want to do is let your outline hold you back, though. Sometimes, mid way through your story, you'll get an idea that's new, and never showed up in your notes anywhere. In this case, save your work, and run with it. If it works, you can always modify your outline (the one above is a modified outline. A character weaselled his way into my story without my permission, and wound up adding about 10k words all on his own) and work your new idea into your work. This is why I type my outlines, rather than hand-write them; it's easier to add and subtract things after you've finished.
This process doesn't work for everybody, but I personally find it immensely helpful. I suggest trying it out, and if it doesn't work, find something else. This is just my way of doing it; there's no right or wrong way to go about it.