Story-a-Week: What I’ve Learned So Far (Pt. 2)

In my last post, I talked about how my friend and I decided to take on the story-a-week challenge to improve our writing and stay consistent post-MFA. The main takeaway was that I needed to slow down and focus on revision. Without revision, I found myself falling into the same writing traps over and over.

Since then, I’ve identified a handful of those common mistakes and have started working on methods to overcome them. In this post, I’ll focus on the first major mistake I found myself making.

Mistake 1: Valuing Concept Over Story

I enjoy writing in a variety of genres, but there’s a special place in my heart for science fiction and fantasy. As such, story seeds often come in the form of a speculative or fantastical idea. My internal monologue often screams, “It would be so cool if…,” and I find myself flying through the wormhole of an idea, lost in the imaginative wonder of it all. I whip up a vanilla, snooze-inducing character, shoehorn them into that scenario, and find myself with a really cool setting, scenario, or conflict, and 5,000 disposable words dedicated to the rest of the story (i.e. the stuff that really matters).

This probably seems obvious to those of you that aren’t as slow on the writing uptake as I am, but everything I’ve said thus far brings me to the second lesson I learned in this story-a-week process: the most important part of a story is the characters that inhabit it. It doesn’t matter if you create a world where scientists develop a laser that accidentally transports alien life to Earth (remember Howard the Duck?) or one where orcs, fairies, and elves live side-by-side with humans (cough…Bright…cough). If readers don’t care about the characters, your story won’t have an impact.

The most important part of a story is the characters that inhabit it.

“That’s great, Matt, but how do I focus on character?”

Thanks for asking. That exact wondering kept bringing me back to four of the dusty, age-old questions found in most craft books.

Questions to help you avoid the concept trap:

  1. What does my character want?
  2. What is preventing them from getting it?
  3. What will they sacrifice in order to get it?
  4. How will they be different after they get it (or don’t get it)?

Using these questions, I made a generic fill-in-the-blank outline to use when brainstorming story ideas, AND IT WORKED. Sort of. More on that in my next post, where I’ll share that outline as well the handful of other questions and reminders I should have included to ensure I’m combining the best of both worlds: concept and character.

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