It’s been a few weeks since my last FAQ Friday post about the need to start books with a prologue, as my travel schedule has been quite extensive as of late. As before, this post will take the same format as the previous one, where my answer is written in direct response to the original questioner. But as always, I hope it can help my fellow writers who have the same question.
Question: As a beginner, I would like to ask your advice on how to narrow that gap between my storytelling and story writing. (I have watched your online lectures on fantasy and sci-fi writing). Question from P. Lavy
You phrase this in a great way, as the writing and the storytelling are two distinct skills that often intertwine.
Reading into your question, I think that what you’re asking is how to make the things in your head (the storytelling) work on the page (the story writing). I have to warn you, however, that a lot of times there’s a little more going on than I might have mentioned in my lectures.
The metaphor I often use in the lecture is how, as an early trumpet player, I could hear some music I wanted to play in my head (specifically when doing improvised jazz) but didn’t yet have the skill to make those sounds come out the front of the horn. This is a good metaphor, but it leaves something unsaid.
A lot of writers can imagine a perfect story, but then have trouble writing it down. My experience tells me, however, that much of the time, that story isn’t actually perfect in our heads. We pretend it is because we can’t see the problems with it when we’re imagining it—we gloss over the difficulties, the issues that are quite real but invisible until we actually try to put the thing together on the page.
So you have two potential problems. One is that the story in your head isn’t, and never was, as flawless as you imagined. The second is that your skill in writing isn’t up to telling the things that ARE working in your head. Both are eventually resolved through practice.
To finally get around to some practical advice like you wanted, however, there are a couple of ways to bridge this gap. One is to practice outlining. Now, I’ve often been clear that there is no one right way to write a story, and non-outlining methods are valid. However, if you really want to start looking at the structure of your story critically, forcing yourself to outline it first can really help. Plus, one big advantage of a solid outline is that you’re able to keep less in your head while working for the day. You can look at the outline, know what story beats need to be accomplished, and focus your mental energy on things like showing instead of telling and really nailing character voice/motivations instead of worrying if this plot point will end up working or not.
These fundamentals are another really great way to bridge that gap. Few new writers fail because they lack vision, originality, or ambition. They fail because it is difficult to write a character that is compelling. Or they fail because it’s tough to evoke a sense of wonder in exploring a new world while at the same time not bog the story down with unnecessary details. Practicing things like voice, showing instead of telling, and evoking setting through character can let you make the page-by-page writing interesting and compelling, which then serves to make your story work long enough for you to get to the grand ideas.