THE ART of STORYTELLING – PLOT DEVELOPMENT
The writer who shuts himself up in a room and first goes on a journey inside himself will, over the years, discover literature’s eternal rule: he must have artistry to tell his own stories as if they were other people’s stories, and to tell other people’s stories as if they were his own, for this is what literature is.
Nobel Lecture 
Raconteurs are artists. Story telling is the heart of messaging: period! End of…story! And, as Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk astutely observes, the discerning fabulist is one who embodies the dichotomy of spinning yarns. Literature revolves around plots. They are the soul of the narrative, be it factual or fictive. The characters, settings, situations – everything related to the chronicle – derive from a concept. The American Heritage Dictionary, Third Edition, defines plot as “…The pattern of events or main story in a narrative or drama…”
An uttered premise marks the birth of a literary notion – it’s the thread tying the elements together. Something seemingly as insignificant as a single word, name, phrase, date – a memory, an experience – even a full blown subconscious snapshot inspires the imagination and conjuring mental scenes encapsulating:
- The setting.
- The characters.
- The opening sentence.
- The action or event(s) forming the basis of the saga.
- An ending.
As the images gel into passages, scenarios, and dialogue, next steps include organization of two documents meant to guide the process of capturing and translating, into prose, the visions floating in the head and heart. They are the synopsis and a working outline. Scribes, take time to compile a summary of what you see, feel, or envision. Put this essence on paper: transcribe in long hand. Treat yourselves to the gift of facilitating an organic connection between you and your work. Grant the fiction of your mind the dignity of emerging in its own right and not as you wish it to be. You are the vessel through whom these belles letters will come to life. Regardless of the genre, they must be allowed to manifest as the Universe intends; not according to the dictates of your ego.
What then, is this thing called the synopsis? Simply stated, it is a concise statement of the saga conceived by the author. It is the first written account of what the final draft will become. It is by no means a strong indicator of the end product. The synopsis is a starting point comprising key characters, setting(s), and a description of the main issue(s) tackled by the protagonist.
The chronicle will unfold once the writing commences, and it may – or may not – resemble what was initially hoped for. Allow me to elaborate…I have written two novels, and one is currently in pre-production. I’d like to digress and share an aspect of my experience writing the first one. I couldn’t see the ending when I started…and I didn’t know I was in the dark, either. This tome, entitled Winston and Ophelia: A Love Story (For Men), wasn’t my seminal effort, but it became the first lengthy work I completed, and liked. The synopsis I originally wrote doesn’t look anything like what I ultimately created. The plot inhabiting my head and heart was foggy; at times, as clear as mud. I knew just enough to get started…
I don’t remember why I decided to try my hand at novel-writing. I am a veteran of short works of fiction, and nonfiction: I have self-published a hardcopy compilation of essays; an e-book of essays, and two collections of short stories. I am also a published author. Despite my accomplishments, I didn’t think of myself as a true belletrist. I was plagued with doubt about my ability to compose a definitive literary work, yet felt a yearning whose pull was too stressful to ignore. I had no knowledge of – or appreciation for – what is involved with authoring a real manuscript. My achievements suddenly paled in comparison with what I was about to jump into – feet first. My reaction to the plethora of emotions coming at me from all directions was to do what comes naturally: I started writing, and kept going.
Composing Winston and Ophelia became the pathway out of my dark night of the soul. It was my response to the loving, yet unrelenting call of the Universe demanding I embrace this dream I had spoken into existence yet continued to deny. I was precariously perched on the brink, poised for a freefall to an unknown landing. I needed to piss, or get off the pot. The answer to a fundamental question hung in the balance: was writing truly my passion? If so, was I ready to step out on faith? Up until this uninvited moment of truth, the synopsis I wrote was nothing more than a piece of paper. It could have easily been turned into a grocery list! I resolved to own this desire and trust the Universe. I wrote a story in an environment which wasn’t what I told myself I had to have: Period!!! The end!!!
Using my summary I began composing. Shortly after finishing the second chapter, Winston’s father, Sol, came to me and said, “You cannot tell my son’s story without telling mine.” I assure you, I was blown away. He proceeded to offer lovingly intuitive guidance and a plot was born – a saga took shape! As it evolved, I became engrossed. I was writing the proverbial great American novel – sort of – and it became my life! Nothing else I did mattered as much as producing this narrative. Some of my responsibilities felt onerous. I was always eager to get back to my magnum opus. I was excited about the theme – what I knew of it – and often found myself curious about where it was headed. Sol introduced me to new characters, compelling, intricate, and interconnected subplots, including events I hadn’t imagined. I fell deeply, madly, helplessly in love.
Story concepts are very real for inditers, both experienced and aspiring, thus it is important to warmly welcome what the Universe provides. The belletrist’s role is to give expression – full, complete, and substantive – to the saga taking shape in her, or his, head, heart, and subconscious. The process is intimate, personal, introspective, and evocative – it isn’t to be taken lightly. Should the weight of what is revealed prove frightening, overwhelming, or disorienting, make time to be alone – strive to maintain an open mind and a receptive heart. Unobstructed, unclogged lines of communication with THE source are a necessity! Imagination is the purest form of artistry and it’s a gift: savor the emerging awareness, be grateful for how it shapes, molds, and enriches. Be confident about your endeavor. Inditers, treat the basis for your tale with the utmost respect, for you are the steward of this excursion into the depths of your capability for fancy. The Universe has chosen you to give it a voice, a face, a presence, personality, and a framework in which to blossom. Your body of work will outlive you – it’s your contribution to posterity – it isn’t your property to do with as you please.
The synopsis is useful for all kinds of writing – this includes composition of personal tales about overcoming adversity; which are often more difficult to create. Autobiographies deserve, in fact, demand, meticulous attention to detail and brutal honesty. For the individual who feels compelled to share a life experience, it’s your responsibility to make certain you’re ready. Trust your intuition rather than your memory. Be gentle with yourself: when confronting painful memories, let the Universe guide you. Obtain written permission from everyone you intend to name. Develop a publication strategy which outlines options for moving forward in the event of family feuds. Don’t delude yourself: your recollections may not jibe smoothly with everyone else’s. Resist the temptation to change – in any way, shape, or form – what comes forth. Avoid assuming a judgmental stance: don’t write out of anger.
If you’re unable to make peace with your past; if the retelling is a struggle threatening to swallow you whole, take time to reassess your decision. No amount of energy or effort will bring you to the place you feel you ought to be in order to tell your story. Does reliving the trauma still take you through major changes? Do the memories paralyze or tear you apart? If you can’t talk about what you’ve been through, don’t mislead readers by omitting facts you find painful, humiliating, or distasteful – it’s unfair to both of you.
Synopses change once the saga is committed to paper. Belletrists who are receptive to the sway of their imaginations, and the pull of their plots, will attract new material. Accept and utilize what is offered: incorporate this data into the summary and use it as a reference source. Once written, date the document, and keep it with your manuscript. I have never written a story which flowed precisely as originally envisioned, and I am most grateful.
Research is a vital, sometimes crucial component of writing, whether literary, technical, or informational. It’s conductivity to plot development lies in its purpose. A good story, an effective message, a succinct explanation – efficaciously prepared documents which succeed in achieving their stated goals and objectives include data derived from a focused inquiry. A compelling read – one which is enticing, tantalizing, suspenseful, entertaining, plausible, and hard to put down – has a number of common elements:
- A beginning, middle, and ending.
- Well-developed portrayals with whom readers can identify.
- An attention-getting, compelling, internally consistent plot.
The investigative inquiry is, or should be, a focused search for definitive answers and clarity. How the results are utilized impacts the quality of the narrative both implicitly and explicitly. It is an exercise which lies completely within the author’s control. Legwork assumes many forms and covers an array of subjects such as:
- History and background.
- Names, titles, and data on individuals or groups.
- Word choices, phrasing, clichés, adages, and proverbs.
The search for useful information empowers, and enables, the belletrist to frame her, or his, literary offering appropriately and accurately – according to the bidding of the narrative. The plot may guide the inquiry, or, the inditer may have questions which must be answered before the first word is written. Research is often a necessity in developing a tale. It yields information capable of adding another dimension to the evolving storyline. The results may re-route the original vision allowing the saga to be layered with subtlety and nuance. It determines the difference between ho-hum, banal content and soaring, graceful, stylishly written prose which is memorable for its distinctiveness.
“Contrariwise,” continued Tweedledee, “if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn’t, it ain’t. That’s logic.” Through the Looking Glass – 4.
Whenever I’m asked why southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one. Flannery O’Connor, Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction 
Overambitious projects may be objectionable in many fields, but not in literature…Only if poets and writers set themselves tasks that no one else dares imagine will literature continue to have a function. Italo Calvino Six Memos for the Next Millennium Multiplicity
Where and how does a scribe conduct an inquiry? Libraries, museums, historic sites, and archives are excellent resources. Avoid total reliance on the Internet. Understanding the role of research is crucial for an inditer. It may be the first step in composing the saga. Very little good writing can be accomplished without some kind of study or preparation. The beauty of it emanates from what is gained: edification, inspiration, and education. It enhances the author’s base of knowledge; improves existing skills, facilitates further development, and adds to the value of the work product.
Based on the summary, I always refer to mine as a working document for I’ve come to appreciate its value. I seldom produce any type of document without organizing an outline. It’s an activity through which I further define whatever I’m working on. It provides a framework for structuring the substance of the synopsis. Among the common components in literary writing are:
- A chronology of the summary as originally conceived.
- The characters.
- The setting(s).
- The action, or issues, on which the saga is predicated.
- A listing of events as they unfold from the beginning.
- The ending.
The outline exists to aid the inditer in setting up the context within which her, or his, saga will come to fruition.
- Restate your synopsis here.
- Use this section to delve more deeply into the story idea. Information contained here will reappear under other headings. Redundancy is not an issue in developing an outline.
- Indicate where various data obtained through research will go.
- Use the outline to further define your initial vision.
- Use your outline to identify the characters in your chronicle.
- Are you using a narrator? If so, introduce this person. How does he, she, or it, fit into the plot?
- Use your outline to provide names, physical descriptions, ages, infirmities, personality traits, flaws, and personal histories.
- Are your characters inanimate? Further define each one in your outline.
- Use your outline to identify the major characters and the minor players.
- Use your outline to establish interrelationships and summarize each character’s backstory.
- Are any of your characters slated to exit the scene before you reach the conclusion? Use your outline to identify them and make notes regarding what happens, when, where, how, and why.
- Incorporate any research you’ve done which is pertinent to your characters.
III. THE SETTING
- Use this heading to elaborate on when and where the tale takes place.
- As you expand on these two elements, your research may come in handy.
- Define the timeframe for your tale. Does it take place in one day, over a year, or does it span a longer time period?
- For autobiographical, biographical, and historical sagas, timeframes need to be accurate. Avoid statements such as “The mid 90s…” or “Sometime around…” unless your documentation indicates a precise date is unknown.
- Are there locale changes? Clearly define each one. If you’re employing existing sites, note actual physical attributes – readers appreciate inclusion of familiar landmarks.
- For autobiographical, biographical, and historical sagas, discussions centering on the culture, politics, lifestyles, and physical boundaries of a locale add to the tale. They provide a backstory which should be linked to the plot.
- The outline is the author’s tool for turning generalities into specifics.
IV THE ACTION
- Who does what to whom in your masterpiece?
- Discuss the why and how as you understand it NOW.
- Discuss where and when.
- Incorporate relevant research.
- For autobiographical, biographical, and historical writing, be specific. Annotate, where necessary.
- Feel free to make notes about possible changes. You can do that with this document.
V. THE ENDING
- What does your ending look like as you’re crafting your outline?
- Are you writing a prequel or a sequel to the piece you’re working on now?
- Is this story part of a series?
- Do you have more than one possible ending in mind?
- Each one of the foregoing questions can be answered, in detail, in your outline.
- Is any of your research relevant to the ending?
Use the various headings to incorporate scenes, passages, quotes, data, research, or dialogue you are currently aware of. The more detail you put into your outline, the better. You may be able to lift content directly from it for placement in the tome. Keep this document handy as a reference tool while writing your masterpiece. There are no right or wrong approaches to the development of an outline – it’s something the scribe creates specifically for her, or his purposes. Use it to consider new ideas, make changes, add, or delete characters, scenes, dialogue, passages. Devise headings as needed. Do not invest time editing the synopsis or the outline. While the outline is fluid, the summary is static. It’s an overview of what the writer envisioned. The outline can be revised whenever needed, if the belletrist so chooses. Stories revolve around plots. They, in turn, are dependent on synopses, investigative inquiries, and outlines to further the literary cause.