Growing your story from the outside in
I’m truly glad I’m in charge of a fictional universe, because even with the heady thrill of story-telling as a motivator, an entire world is a lot to keep track of. Like most writers, I fall between plotting and sailing into the mists, but I’ve found writing arcs that extend over several books has forced me to look at how I approach planning.
A common way of beginning any story is with a character. Someone walks into my head and starts pestering me to tell their story. Or, I get a flash of a scene that tempts me closer for a second look. If my interest is snagged, I then start building a story, then a book, and then more books. In essence, I’m working outward from a germ of an idea.
But this is certainly not the only approach. It’s also possible and sometimes more effective to work the other way around—from the outside down to the core idea—in order to maximize the story universe’s potential. I do this in three stages: the world, the conflicts, and the characters.
As soon as I get hooked by something, I take a breath and look at the big picture. It doesn’t matter if you’re an avid plotter or not—this is just a landscape check. It doesn’t have to be exhaustive, but it does pay to spend at least a little time here. Look at the world your character lives in, including all the usual points of setting: the time period, the geography, the way of life, and so on.
Then—and this is the layer at least I tend to forget—look at the specifics of your character’s environment. For instance, not just “Napoleonic France” but “the tiny village of XX just outside of Paris, at the south end of the street down by the river.” Note details such as the individual businesses right in your character’s neighborhood. Is there a school? A corner store? A factory? A church? A space station? You might think that it’s far too soon to contemplate details like this—you don’t need the church until a marriage scene in book three—but I think it’s worth putting a pin in the map just to note it’s there. After all, your character lives in a community, and a church or factory or school is significant to the people nearby. The type of factory, church or school says something about the place and the folks in it. Even if it isn’t important to them, that says something, too.
Why am I obsessive about this? Character psychology—and it’s far easier to think about this right from the beginning rather than retrofit later. The community your characters spring from says a great deal about their world view. They walk on stage with a set of assumptions about life that had to come from somewhere, and home and family are universal drivers for everyone—real or fictitious. And more than just their own family matters—what are the expectations of that small town they grew up in? Their in-laws? The snobby mayor? And if your character refuses to be influenced by the community he or she lives in, usually that means expending energy on denial.
It’s all grist for the story mill, and a novel takes a lot of milling. A series takes even more. If you build a really good, rich world with well-rounded characters from the start, a bit of care up front will build a detailed environment that will support as many books as you want to set there. After all, we could all name a few story worlds that readers love so much they read and reread stories just to visit. It’s attention to detail and layers of emotional complexity in the setting itself that makes these imaginary places concrete and satisfying.
Once I’ve familiarized myself with the world around my character, I start looking for lines of conflict. Every community has them—economic, ethnic, religious, familial, or political. Perhaps the school hates the factory, or the football team hates the lawn bowlers. Maybe the little green men despise the tall blue aliens—it’s up to you and your protagonists. Conflict drives every story, and it pays to know where those tensions are, even if they remain in the background at first.
Which brings me back to that first flicker of inspiration. If you’ve taken an evening to go through this exercise, when you sit down to talk to the character yammering in your head, or if you return to that vignette that popped up like a YouTube video in your daydreams, you have some context for it. At this point, what you’ve done does not have to be more than medium to broad strokes, but you should have a sense of (a) the world your characters came from and (b) the tensions driving that world.
This may seem like common sense, but it’s all too easy to skate over the surface during those early adrenaline-fuelled chapters. We might know, for instance, that during the time period of XXX war, King A was fighting King B over trade rights, but we’ve not drilled down enough to understand the salt merchants were upset with the brandy runners, and that tore our hero’s town apart along family lines. It might never have occurred to us to think that far until we got to chapter eight, and by then we’ve missed a dozen opportunities to crank up the story tension whether or not we’re writing from an outline. And, all too often, we run out of gas a few chapters in when we get past the introduction and stall at “what next?” Knowing the deep roots of your conflicts will get you through.
And then there is our cast of characters. Once you’ve identified the underlying conflicts in your story world, you’ve got a good start on the goal, motivation and conflict of your people. What issue is your protagonist facing? Are all your point of view characters on the same side? Are some double agents or tricksters? What about your love interest? This is a great place to start planning multiple books, because how you position your characters in relation to the story world and its conflicts—and how the characters clash with each other—is where you build your plot. Resolving one collision should lead to another, and another. Character decisions make stories, and how well you set up their challenges determines how easy the book will be to write. You don’t need to plan the whole game, but you do need to start with a really interesting chess board. The rest will follow.
Again, this is a zooming-in approach: world, conflict, characters. It doesn’t have to nail down all the plot or every last detail, but it should sketch in enough to give strength to your vision. Your characters aren’t moving against a blue screen but a Technicolor set, making choices that are integrated with the world around them. This inevitably adds layers and nuances that make a story memorable.
Which is only the beginning of the payoff. Everything I’ve talked about here can be done in an evening or a weekend, but the benefits are endless. Books are like journeys—the longer or more complex the road, the more effectively the author needs to pack. Multiple-book arcs are a case in point—that little glimmer of inspiration needs a lot of fuel to grow into a mighty series engine.
And if you’re writing a series, your story community and its dynamics will need to be all the more thoroughly fleshed out. Knowing where the conflicts lie enables the author to foreshadow future plot points, perhaps books ahead of time. There is plenty of opportunity to shape and control an extended story arcs, plant themes or objects for later use, and ensure new developments flow naturally from the landscape.
None of this negates that heady rush when a great idea pops into your mind, begging for attention. This is merely feeding that spark some kindling so that it catches hold and starts to burn steadily on its own. Establishing community, conflict, and character relations from the beginning will solidify and support a great idea through one or more books. Best of all, taking the time to build a compelling story world ensures that readers will want to return that neighborhood time and again. Why work up to being fabulous when you can be there from the start?