When I go to the grocery store, I like to have a list in hand. It helps me stay on track and (most of the time) keeps me from veering off into the chip/snack/candy aisle for something I don’t really need. That being said, I like to give myself the freedom to explore the “off list” aisles for new and interesting things that may or may not find their way into my cart. When I thought about the process of structuring my work-in-progress, certain similarities emerged. I know. Sounds weird, but hang in there with me.
Keep to the List
While I don’t actually use a linear list, I do create an outline and add to it as I go along. It is my story list where I build the basic structure of the story – the characters, location details, and where certain events take place. From it, I know what people look like, how they’re related, where they live, and what is happening in their world and the world around them. I might add a specific physical trait in my outline, like a mole that may be an important feature to recall as the story’s plot thickens. I might add a bullet point or two – something like, Ring: gets lost at low point but found before story ends. That way, I don’t leave the reader wondering why I mentioned a ring if it had no significant part to play in the story. If I call it to their attention, they’re going to want to know why, and they’ll keep it in the back of their mind until it surfaces again and is finally resolved.
I compare this to the chip/snack/candy aisle of the grocery store. Sure, there’s a lot of good stuff there, but do you really need it? When you introduce an object or character into your story, they have to do more than just pop in and then disappear forever (like the ring). Unless it’s part of scene-setting that the story needs, be careful about adding too much just because you can. That being said, wander down the aisles with as much restraint as you can muster and see if anything grabs you that you know will be an amazing addition to your story. Choose carefully, make sure it has a purposeful role to play, and whatever you choose is resolved/revealed by the end of the story. If that symbol carved into the side of the castle wall can’t be ignored, take it and weave it into the fabric of your story!
Time to Shop
Your time at the grocery store has a beginning, middle, and end. So does your story. I use a hard-copy template of a plot clock to map out my story from start to finish. I establish the ordinary world, inciting incident, low point, turning point, climax, and the end of the story. Everyone works differently, and not all writers are structured like me. Hey, you pantsers! I see you out there, and whatever works for you is great! For me, I like to have a tangible, visual layout of my story from start to finish. Basic events are penciled in, and I work back and forth between the plot clock and outline.
When I arrive home and lug in the bags of whatever I’ve purchased, I equate it to the final scenes of my story. This is the denouement, where loose ends are gathered together and everything is resolved. The milk and eggs were staples and on the list. So was the lettuce and orange juice. The chocolate? Not on the list, but it ended up being an important and richly satisfying addition. Will grocery shopping ever be the same? I don’t think so!