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B&N Week 161: How Do You Approach Your Stories?

| January 21, 2014

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It’s another Tuesday, and that means that I’m still asking questions! [What, you thought I’d forgotten already? Another question!] Let’s just get to the Bolts & Nuts of it, shall we?

This week’s question: How Do You Approach Your Stories?

I find that there are stories everywhere, and most of them I can reconfigure to fit into a universe I’ve created. [A superhero universe, go figure.] But then there are stories that I want to tell that won’t easily fit in that universe. When that happens, I have to go back to the drawing board with my approach to the story.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I don’t start a story until I know it backward—that is, until I know how it ends. If I know how it ends, I can find a beginning, and I don’t worry about the middle, because what happens in the middle is just me working toward the end.

I have one story idea that is eluding me. Every time I sit down to think about the characters and the setting and the story itself, it comes out as something different. I have what I believe is a great idea, and I love the backstory  [which is the most interesting part to me], but since I don’t know how it ends, I can’t move forward, and that’s frustrating to me.

On the opposite side of that, I have a story that I recently pitched and dug some gems out of, and am wating to put into production this year.

The first thing I did [which my publisher isn’t thrilled about in the least] is I took a common word that struck me as interesting, and would be interesting as a both a title and as a last name, and then started thinking about it some more.

The problem with common words are that they are so common, you run the risk of someone doing it first. At least the name, because it is extremely unlikely that someone will have your exact idea to go along with the title.

The next thing I did was I started to think about what powers I wanted the person to have. And while this isn’t superheroics, it isn’t something that people can’t do, either. Now, since I deem myself to be a junior scientist, I also have to work out just how I want the powers to work. Stan Lee gets fired up about Superman not seeming to have a motive force to his power of flight, since I grew up reading Marvel comics, I have something of a problem with vague power descriptions. [The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe was as specific as possible for their characters, and the DC’s Who’s Who glossed over how characters powers worked.] So for me, in approaching the story, I need to know as much as I can about the power aspect of my characters.

Next, I populate. Do I want a male or a female as my protagonist? What about my antagonist? How would the sex of each character affect the story? Would changing the sex of a character affect the story in some way? What about the sex and the race of the character? Does that spice anything up? After that, then I have to think about motivations.

Here is where I can run into trouble.

For the one idea I have, the one that keeps changing, I don’t know what the antagonist wants. I have an idea, but it’s murky, and it doesn’t come across as a problem that needs to be opposed. I also don’t have a protagonist that I feel is worthwhile, so this story languishes in a hammock and tortures me as it swings back and forth.

For the other story, after kicking it around with Tyler, the motivation for my antagonist has changed [and it’s also tied in to the “power” that they have]. The motivation before was just survival, but now, it’s changed, and with the change in motivation, the ending is now stronger.

Now, I did have an ending when I started. After getting a few ideas and discarding them, I had an ending that could have been unsatisfying, but it also worked. It was something I could live with, and also left the door open for sequels.

Well, talking with Tyler changed that ending. I was resistant at first—not because it was coming from someone else, but because I didn’t want to close the door to possible sequels. I’m not so arrogant or full of myself that I won’t take story help when offered. But the proposed motivation change changed the ending, and while stronger, it could have closed a door.

After thinking about it, as well as reading some timely words of Seth Godin [marketing guru and forward thinker—if you’re not reading Godin on a daily basis, you’re missing out on a lot of good thoughts that could help to affect your career], I acquiesced to the change. It’s about the story, and if there’s a sequel, it’s easy enough to do. It means doing something I didn’t want to do, but it’s easy enough to pull off.

Because I now know what my characters want, and have put obstacles in their way and have an idea as to how they’re going to overcome them, as well as having some strong visions for panels I want in there, the only thing left for me to do is to finish populating it, do some research on a few things, and decide what voice I want to have/give. First or third person? Second person is a really tough gig, and the last time it was done with anything near success was Steven T. Seagle’s Alpha Flight. I’m not that talented, but I’m working at it.

But that’s how I approach stories. I have a slight idea, and then I think about it and work it until I know it backwards, with a backstory that interests me.

The backstory is important, but don’t bog your story down with it. Don’t bog your pitch down with it. Not if you don’t have to. Allude to it, but don’t bore your audience with it. Know it so you can answer if you’re asked about it, but don’t bog the reader down with it. Tell the story, not the backstory. A lot of times, backstory is nothing but the reason for the story to exist. You want to give it, but don’t mistake it for the whole story.

How should you approach your stories? The way that seems best for you, of course. Populating the story with believable characters and motivations can be a challenge. Then you have to know the story beats, and be able to stick the ending. These are the three most important things of writing.

This is the way that works for me, and hopefully, it provides you with a starting point for your own stories.

And that’s it! Let’s talk about it in the ComixTribe forum at Digital Webbing.

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Category: Bolts & Nuts, Columns

About the Author ()

Steven is an editor/writer with such credits as Fallen Justice, the award nominated The Standard, and Bullet Time under his belt, as well as work published by DC Comics. Between he and his wife, there are 10 kids (!), so there is a lot of creativity all around him. Steven is also the editor in chief and co-creator of ComixTribe, whose mission statement is Creators Helping Creators Make Better Comics. If you're looking for editing, contact him at stevedforbes@gmail.com for rate inquiries.

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