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3 Steps to Give Your Story Focus

September 29th, 2012 Matt Leave a comment Go to comments
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Feel your story is bloated or confused? Maybe that was your last story, and you don’t want the same to happen again. Try these easy techniques to keep your plot on track.

If you’re like me, despite planning, your story changes as you go through your first draft. By the end I am left with the task of figuring our what my story is really about, and then having to go through the text and get rid of the other “stuff” that gets in the way.

Vision Of Eyechart With Glasses

Does your story lack focus or vision? Image from Ken Teegardin. Also check out his site www.SeniorLiving.Org.

Perhaps it’s because I am knee deep in this stage at the moment, but a couple of posts from K.M. Weiland’s blog (yes, her again) have drawn my attention recently. I’d like to draw your attention to them as well, to see what we can learn about giving a story focus.

The techniques that follow are not just good for “correcting” your first draft. They are also excellent tools to use at the inception of your story, or during your first draft, as the pen scratches the paper (real or metaphorical).

1. The question and answer method

This is a variation on a post written by K.M. Weiland called Why Story Beginnings and Endings Must be Linked. The focus of the post is on giving your story a through-line and ensuring the ending is satisfying to the reader.

But the ideas expressed in the article can also be used to give your story focus in a second draft, or even to start you off in the planning stages.

The crux of it is you pose a question at the beginning of your story, and answer it in the ending. “Can our hero overcome his injuries and fulfil his footballing dream?” might be an inspirational question for a story. “Can our heroine win back the love of the handsome prince?” might be another.

It’s clear to see how this can be used as a good starting point. Before you sit down to plan you usually have an idea of the protagonist, setting and plot to varying degrees (even if some of these are rather nebulous). These snippets of info are enough to form your question.

Be strict – keep it to one question (don’t make it three by adding “and…and…”) and keep it somewhere you will see it, so you get a constant reminder as you write or edit.

2. Write the blurb first

Another one from K.M. Weiland’s blog, this time penned by Nick Thacker. In it he references Dwight Swaing and his book Techniques for the Selling Writer.

This particular technique describes how to boil your story down to just two sentences – sounds like focus to me!

I won’t go through the technique stage by stage – you can do this yourself by following the link – but I want to talk a bit more about what this method does for the focus of your story.

Basically what comes out the other end is something similar to the blurb for the back of your book – a summary of your premise. It doesn’t answer specific questions like you may do with the above technique, but it can certainly ask them and give you that jumping off point.

book focus

This fantastic image courtesy of D. Lee Peffer II on Flickr

At the same time, this goes a little further than the first method I mentioned, in that it specifically details your main character, their aim, and the antagonistic force they are striving against. The question and answer method can do this too, but here it is more prescribed.

Because it will definitely include these elements, I think it makes a great starting point to practice something a bit like the snowflake method. Once you have your two sentences, riff off it with a couple more for each element – so a couple of sentences to describe your protagonist, their goal, what stands in their way etc.

You can include rules similar to the ones in the two sentence method to make sure you include certain elements if you like – experiment.

After you have your “branched-out” sentences, why not take elements from them and branch again. You could keep going until you are happy you have enough information to start. But be careful – don’t use it as an excuse to procrastinate, and always keep the initial two sentences in view to provide focus.

3. Applying this to scenes

I briefly mentioned keeping your question and answer, or your two sentences in view while you write. That’s one way to do it. But you could also use them to plan each scene.

If you’ve got to the stage where you have a rough plan of the scenes you want to write, why not apply these techniques to each one?

It is unlikely each scene has its own question to answer (although it might), but you can at least write a sentence to describe how this scene relates to the overall question for your story. Ideally each scene should contribute in some way to answering that question. If not, why is it there? Keep that focus!

Technique two can be applied almost verbatim to each scene. The important thing to note here is each scene needs some kind of conflict (in fact each scene is some kind of conflict). The two sentence method provides that.

Scrivener has handy synopsis cards for each scene, which would be a perfect place to put such notes. If you haven’t checked out Scrivener already, I heartily suggest you do so. Or it could be what you write on your post-its or flash cards in the feely real world.

Over to you:
However you do it, let us know! Do you have trouble keeping your scenes focussed during your first draft? Do you even know what your story is about in your first draft (I rarely do)? Don’t keep it all bottled up inside! Put it in the comments – think of it as therapy.