Every week, my daughter Freya and I have a “storytelling class.” Really, it’s just a fun opportunity to chat about writing stories. In our first class, I asked her if she had any topics she wanted to cover. She said, she sometimes has trouble finishing stories, something that I think many of us can relate to. So this week, our topic was how to finish stories.
The Two Questions
Each class, I start with two questions: what did we read, and what did we write? Then we talk about how we felt about those things, and if we learned anything.
What Did We Read?
Freya has been reading a lot. She’s re-reading the Bone graphic novels and Harry Potter (currently on The Order of the Phoenix). At school, they’re reading The One and Only Ivan.
I had just finished The Martian. I’ve also been reading the ongoing bloggy adventures of Ela the Expert and Grace. I’m also in the midst of reading The Lord of the Rings to the kids. We just finished the Battle of Pelennor Fields.
I explained that I really appreciated the Martian as a great example of the try/fail cycle in action. Freya had a hard time thinking of specific things that she liked about the stories she had read. I suggested that when she reads, she occasionally try to think about what she likes or dislikes about what she’s reading. As a writer, this is a great way to learn from what you’re reading, and pick up new ideas and techniques.
What Did We Write?
Freya wrote about The One and Only Ivan in her writing journal at school. I wrote a chapter of Razor Mountain. In keeping with the theme of this week’s class, I’d been procrastinating getting that chapter done.
I also wrote four or five blog posts, including a reblog of Cory Doctorow’s “The Memex Method.” We talked about his idea that a blog can serve as an idea incubator, growing those ideas until they’re ready to be stories.
Freya said she often has fun ideas, but isn’t sure how to make them into a story. We talked briefly about saving those ideas in a file or journal, and how sometimes the key is to combine a couple different interesting ideas into a story. Turning ideas into stories is a big thing, so we decided this would be a good topic for a future class.
On to the main topic: what are some ways to finish stories when we’re having a hard time?
1. Write Shorter Things
As a general rule of thumb, the shorter the story, the less time and effort it takes to write. It’s harder to finish a novel than it is to finish a short story. That doesn’t mean that writing a short story is easy. It just means that if you want to try to finish more things, a good strategy is to write shorter stories.
2. Have a Plan
We talked a little about outlining vs. exploratory writing, and G.R.R.M.’s categorization of writers as gardeners and architects. I’m more of an architect, and Freya is more of a gardener. Either way, we all sometimes get stuck in the middle of a story because we don’t know what happens next. It can help to have some sort of plan. It doesn’t have to be a full outline. It may just be knowing the beginning and ending of the story, or knowing a handful of stepping-stones we want to land on.
3. Make a Schedule
A lot of writers are procrastinators. As the famous phrase goes, “I hate writing, but I love having written.” Sometimes what you really need is a reason to put butt in chair and pen in hand. Personally, I often find that the biggest effort of a writing session is to get myself to write the first sentence. As soon as I start, I remember what I love about the story, and the words flow.
One of the reasons I love having a blog is that it makes me write on a regular basis. If I want to post something every Monday and Friday, then I have to sit down and write something at least a couple times per week. That doesn’t necessarily mean I’m working on other projects, but at least I’m writing.
4. Switch Back and Forth
Sometimes we just need variety in our lives. While there are a few authors who are content to write book after book in the same world, with the same characters, most authors I know have so many varied ideas that they’d like to explore that they’ll never have enough time to work on them all.
It can be incredibly refreshing to take a break from a project that you’re struggling on to work on something fresh and new. One of the oddities of human brains is that they’ll often solve problems in the background, when the conscious mind is focused on something else.
This is another great thing about having a blog. If I’m having a rough time working on a novel or story, I can always take a break to write something for the blog. I can switch from fiction to non-fiction, or from one story to another.
Of course, if you’re switching between things, you need to make sure you’re coming back to them. It’s not a helpful technique if you start ten things and finish none of them. Then you’re just telling yourself you’re taking a break, when you’re really serially abandoning writing projects.
5. Be Accountable to Someone
I’ll be honest. My ambitions are usually far bigger than my work ethic. I’d love to finish that novel, but dang it, there’s another Steam sale and I’ve gone and bought five new video games for $3 each. For a lot of us, our own internal motivations don’t always get the job done. Being accountable to something or someone beyond just ourselves can give us that motivating boost we need.
This is yet another place where having a blog helps me. If I know I have readers, it makes me want to keep writing for them. Even if, realistically, nobody is going to be terribly disappointed if I miss a week of posts, I still feel a little bit like I’m letting someone down.
A writing partner, writing group or class can also be a great motivator. Schedule a regular time with a helpful reader to go over new work, and you’ll suddenly be far more reluctant to show up with no new words in hand.
6. Set it Aside
This may not sound like a great way to finish things, but it can be, occasionally. Sometimes you start writing a story and it’s just…missing something. No amount of brainstorming or reworking seems to fix it. In that case, it may just be that you’re not ready to write that story. Maybe it’s missing some crucial idea that will pull everything together, and you haven’t thought of it yet.
If a story just isn’t working, you may need to set it aside. Again, your subconscious can keep struggling with that problem while your conscious does something else. The key is to keep coming back periodically. Re-read it every once in a while. Look through your idea journal and see if there’s something there that breathes new life into that old story. Eventually, inspiration may strike. If not, you’ve hopefully been more productive writing something else.
7. Check for Something Missing
Many stories don’t work because they’re missing something structurally. Make sure you have at least a main character who has a problem or wants something. A character without a goal is rarely interesting, and a goal without complications or road-blocks usually doesn’t make a very good story either. There has to be a source of conflict or tension.
I told Freya a little bit about chapter five of Razor Mountain, and how it wasn’t very interesting until I added some conflict between God-Speaker and other members of the tribe. We also talked about the characters in the Harry Potter series, and how each of them has their own goals and challenges, even though Harry vs. Voldemort is the central conflict of the series.
First, we have the standard weekly homework: we need to be ready to answer the two questions, what did we read, and what did we write? How did we feel about it and what did we learn?
Second, we’re going to finish a story! Each of us will write a story two pages or less. This will help us practice some of the techniques we talked about: writing shorter things, making a schedule, and being accountable.
Next week, following Freya’s suggestion, we’ll look at ways of turning ideas into stories.