A Thousand Ways Not to Tell This Story

There are definitely some downsides of being a pantser. My first shot at stories are usually an unorganized mess. Sometimes my characters walk all over me because they decide they’d rather take a different path than I picked, leaving me to pick up the shattered plot they leave behind. Sometimes things just don’t work and I have to start over (usually in a fresh document so I can clear my mind).

But one of the things I love about writing this way is the moment the story hits its stride.

On Friday afternoon, a part of Novel #2 in my fantasy series, The Carrick Letters, hit that moment.

That’s not to say it’s finished. Not by any means. The “second draft” (which is really the seventh attempt to complete the second draft) is still building towards the climax and the protagonist has no idea just how enormous the situation is about to become. But one of the key storytelling elements has finally found its place, and I can feel it.

You see, so far each of these novels has two major layers: one is the main story and the other is an opportunity to reveal the legends and history of Carrick, the world that I’ve poured most of my life into building. This mixture of current events and history was never intentional. It emerged in Novel #1 many drafts ago because the narrator needed it. In Novel #2, it just happened because sometimes history really does repeat itself. And while Novel #3 is no more than a first draft (thanks to last NaNoWriMo), it shows signs of following the same path. I think that is just the nature of these stories.

But back to Novel #2, this second layer has been revealed all at once since the first attempt at this story in high school. (Yes, the version with the unicorns. The evil unicorns. That’s definitely one way not to tell this story.) An old legend sits in the library, and the protagonist reads it before finding herself on the mysterious island supposedly mentioned in the legend… where the same events unfold around her.

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S.B. Roberts 2014

But Friday changed everything.

For the first time, I wondered what would happen if the legend was found among the newly discovered ruins of the ancient city that once thrived on the island. And what would happen if, as the protagonist read this old manuscript, she watched the same sorts of events unfold around her. And I imagined her reaction as she learned what ultimately happened to the inhabitants of that ancient city and what will happen to her if she doesn’t find a way to fix the situation.

Finally, the tension I needed to drag this story out of the second draft blues and take it to the next level. The right level.

That’s one of the things I love about writing. Trying out different possibilities and then finding that right one for this story. It always makes me think of Thomas Edison’s famous quote: “We now know a thousand ways not to build a light bulb.” There are so many different ways to tell every story. All we have to do is figure out which one suits this story best and have fun experimenting in between.

Do you have that moment when a story feels like it “hits its stride”? What writing breakthroughs have you had lately?

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11 responses to “A Thousand Ways Not to Tell This Story

  • directorb

    Glad it’s coming together! Happy writing!

  • Anthony Lee Collins

    That is a great moment. I remember with my second novel I got stuck on a plot point about two-thirds of the way through, and it took a couple of years to figure it out. Then, one day, it all fell together. I even wrote down the date and time (though I no longer remember where I wrote it down — this was a while ago).

    I find it’s also important to remember that the way to tell one story may not be the way to tell the next one. My first novel mostly goes backwards through time, until the detective shows up to straighten things out. The second one was non-linear also, but in a very different way (more circling around, and over a few days rather than 20+ years). Since then, until the story I’m writing now, everything has been linear.

    There’s a thousand wrong ways, and the right way depends on the story,

    • S.B. Roberts

      Yeah, you definitely can’t count on the same method working for subsequent stories. The older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve realized that. And I love that your first two novels are non-linear (and especially that one of them is literally backwards). : )

      • Anthony Lee Collins

        Well, it doesn’t all go backwards (it’s no Betrayal — which is pretty much the gold standard of backwards narrative), but there are chunks of chapters set in the past. The chapter titles are there to help the readers realize where (when) they are: http://u-town.com/text/sane/ (with my second novel I gave no hints about the time sequence — readers had to figure it out for themselves :-) ).

      • S.B. Roberts

        Ah, I see. Very clever! Guess I’ll have to investigate further by reading it for myself. ;)

  • C.B. Wentworth

    How exciting for you! Breakthrough moments are like a rush of adrenaline! :-)

  • hannahgivens

    This is really encouraging. I’m on the third or fourth attempt at a first draft of my WIP, and having to go back and redo things is SO frustrating! I like conceptualizing it as finding ways not to write this story. Only one way to find the right way, and that’s to keep on looking! :)

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