Integrate the characters with the chronology

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Janet McKnight (CC/Flickr)

We have the elements of the story. We know who the characters are and what is going to happen. The next step is to integrate the two. This needs yet another version if the chronology. It will differ from the previous versions because the stick men who creaked their way through the last version are now, if not fully rounded human beings, at least fully programmed robots.

It may be that the characters you have built are not the sort of people likely to do what the chronology demands of them. In that case, something has to give. It could be that the chronology needs to be changed, or it could be that a character needs to be remapped. More often than not, I find this improves the story. Planning a story involves a lot of creative destruction.

It’s impossible to come up with a full list of issues to look at here, because there are so many different shapes the chronologies and character maps can take. The general theme of this process is to make the chronology as much about the characters you have now built as around the events that the last draft contained.

Characters arise from chronology and take it over

Most importantly, a better understanding of the characters often leads to a better resolution to the story. That’s why it’s worth persisting with character mapping even is the last version of the chronology was unsatisfactory.

Understanding the characters a bit better often fills in the gaps in the chronology, or just push it toward the basis of a better story. Perhaps something happened in a character’s past that’s so pivotal to the decisions they will make that it will need to be described in detail, in which case it should be slotted in at the beginning of the chronology. Perhaps one of the characters now looks so different that they may do something more interesting than originally intended. Perhaps the chronology employed a bit-player to dash in with a piece of information and dash out, which now looks as though it could be said by one of the more major characters.

It may be that no changes to the chronology are necessary at all.

Combining plot and character

The important thing is to blend the events and characters. When I developed this part of the process, my thinking stemmed from the everlasting debate over whether stories should be plot-driven or character driven. That argument probably started when the first scribe wrote ‘once upon a time’ of a sheet of papyrus, and it’s been impossible to spend any time around writers without it being rehashed ever since. I found myself thinking that a story required both, so why was there a need for the primacy of one over the other.

Michael Shaheen (CC/Flickr)

The process of integration I’m describing here is this particular writer’s response to it. When the events of the story are fully integrated with the characters, plot and character become the two halves of a false dichotomy. They are both subsumed by story.

A brief caveat is probably in order at this point. I’m describing story development as a one way process, one step after another. That is due to the constraints of the medium. Blog posts are sequential and reading is unidirectional. In practice, story development allows for a lot more back and forth. When I run into a problem, it may well be due to the way I set it up at an earlier stage. Then I go back and change things. Everything is still in short enough form to be highly malleable at this stage, and I take full advantage of it.

As this post has rather a link drought, here’s an entirely gratuitous link to Stephen King’s six rules for writing a bestseller. Whether or not you like King’s work, he knows what he’s talking about. It’s an extract from his book, On Writing, which is the only book about writing I can recommend to anyone because it is the only one I’ve read that acknowledges that different writers have different approaches.


Exercise:

For each of your tripods, put the chronology and character maps next to each other. Now revise the chronology again. And again. And as many times as you like until you’ve pushed each of them as far as possible. Put them aside for at least two days, come back to them and do it again. As before, the aim of the exercise is to come up with at least one that you’re satisfied with, but the more the merrier.

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Posted in Story development, Writing

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