How Do Writers Organize Their Own Writing?

Not well, if you ask me. I still struggle with the concept myself, at least when it comes to including backstory in a scene. A writer may feel inclined to exposit some necessary information, but she might not push along the plot when she does so. So instead, we have to pause the interrogation to find out about a tidbit that won’t matter for another ten thousand words. Can you include information in a way where your story won’t come to a halt?

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Pictured: The Inside of a Writer’s Mind

 

Before I give more technical advice on the subject, let me state this: each scene in a story should necessitate the scenes before and after it. Let’s say your audience needs to know that your protagonist, Gum-Gum, hates liars. Maybe she’ll throw a fit later on when someone claims to know her, but can’t remember her unique (and stupidly unique) name. Your readers need to know why, because such a fit will cause problems for her later on, and readers like their protagonist stupid only if on their own terms. You’d like to introduce this information as late as possible, because that’s all-around good advice.

If you flashback to a scene where Gum-Gum’s third grade teacher lied to her about reporting her bullies (which might explain her hatred), then something must happen in the actual scene (the “real world”) that triggers her feelings. Perhaps the checkout man scanning her food right now has the same walrus mustache as her former, lying teacher. Here’s the important part: now that you have a lead-in, this flashback now must lead to an immediate result— otherwise, why tell it? Note that this follow-up doesn’t have to be the final payoff for your planting. We see the mustached man, we learn why Gum-Gum associates mustaches with dishonesty, now we know why, back in the present, Gum-Gum treats the checkout man’s price check with suspicion. The backstory becomes a vital link. Remember, you’re focused on Gum-Gum at the grocery store, not Gum-Gum in third grade. Flashbacks should not be used to tell the story; they should be used to comment on it.

These types of analyses, I think, end up difficult to undergo until you have an entire draft laid before you. I have some advice to help you there, and guess what, it’s another spreadsheet! Yay!

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Word Salad Spinner: Why craft stories when you can create spreadsheets?

Here’s how to make your Excel table. After a column that numbers your list in order, you should catalog, in the next column, each scene that changes focus from the previous section. I use the term “scene” rather loosely here— each row might discuss a paragraph, or even just a sentence. Whatever the case, each row represents a “jump” in focus. The next few column headers will record any plot threads that run through your story. Conflicts and themes tend to be listed here. Now that you’re all set up, mark each column with whatever plot threads end up advanced by the scene in that table’s row. Ideally, each plot thread column receives its own color for marking. The silly story we’re talking about here might have a row dedicated to Gum-Gum’s Third Grade Flashback, which might get a mark for “Lying” and “Gum-Gum vs. Mustache,” but not for “No One Remembers Gum-Gum’s Name.” When we do get to that upcoming scene, where Gum-Gum’s name is forgotten, then you’ll denote it with a green bar, or with whatever color you choose.

Once you’ve listed and categorized all your scenes, you should be able to reorganize your story based on where the colors appear. Personally, I like to make sure that each row has something in common with the previous and following rows, so that the transitions become cohesive. This process will illuminate which scenes don’t add anything to your story, or don’t fit in where it’s currently placed. Maybe, after a grand overview, you decide you don’t need to know about Gum-Gum’s life in third grade, at least not yet. Once you find such scenes, repairs become as easy as moving a row somewhere else in the graph before cutting (or pasting) the paragraphs in the story proper.

I’ve attached below my own work organizing “I Am A Mountain (y estoy hundiendome).” Pay special notice to the scenes separated from the main table, which I chose to cut. But fair warning, it does list every plot element in “I Am A Mountain,” you, you know, spoilers and shit. Check it out, and see how this organizational tool can revolutionize your own fiction!

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10 thoughts on “How Do Writers Organize Their Own Writing?

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