With my most recent project, I’ve been having to reevaluate the way I do outlines and actually looking at story mechanics. Now granted this particular story is of a genre that’s not exactly easy to pin down for a formula (that being slice of life), unlike a lot of other types of stories, so that’s one of the reasons I’ve been pushing this further than I might normally with other types of stories that would be considered more run of the mill in terms of the way it’s told.
Still, I think the things I’ve come up with could be helpful with all types of stories. Plus I just wanted an excuse to talk about story mechanics at length because it’s been something that I’ve really gotten into lately and find fascinating to dissect and analyze. That said, this post is probably going to be somewhat rambly, so please bear with me.
So, I think figuring out what type of story you have really helps with the way you’re going to end up outlining. You can’t outline a slice of life story in quite the same way as an adventure novel because the story structure is going to be a little bit different. Sure, all stories have their basic “beginning, middle, end” structure, but the way events play out is different between different types of stories.
I keep saying types, and I’m not talking about genre in this case. I’m talking about the main thing driving a story forward and what it revolves around. I identified three main things for that, though I’m sure there could be others as well. Plot, Premise, and Subject.
Plot based stories are where there is something specific happening driving the story forward. There’s a great evil contained within this ring and we have to journey to this specific place to destroy it. There’s a very specific goal that must be accomplished by the end of the story, and it’s what’s driving everything forward. Get to that goal.
Premise based stories are where you have a basic premise and see what happens from there – there’s not necessarily going to be a goal driving the story forward, but rather figuring out what sorts of things can happen based on that premise. A boy finds out he’s got magical powers and is sent to a special school to learn how to control those powers. Premise stories are generally much more character oriented and built around seeing how characters react to certain situations.
Subject based stories – now this is the new one I came up with while working on my story. I thought my story was built around a premise, but the premise wasn’t really all that exciting, just someone’s experiences in college. As I dug deeper I realized that it was revolving around something very particular: the relationship built between two main characters. The subject if you will. I believe subject based stories are where you have a particular concept that is your main focus and that is what will push the story forward. Showing the relationship between two people, for instance. The subject is their relationship, and seeing how it grows and changes is what pushes the story forward.
Now, this isn’t to say you can’t mix these three things together in a story. You can end up having some semblance of a plot in a premise based story; you can have a subject in a plot based story; you can have an interesting premise in a subject based story. What makes one of these types your “core” type for your story is which of these things takes precedent and is the main driving force for the story. Harry Potter does technically have a goal to reach (plot), but we don’t see that goal until further into the story. The driving force was the premise of him being a wizard going to wizarding school and we want to see what comes of that. We didn’t know that there would be some intricate plot involving the philosopher’s stone until later in the story; that’s not what we were drawn to. On the other hand, The Hobbit might have a premise of “what happens when a person who just loves the quiet life is suddenly subjected to being pulled into an elaborate heist scheme?” Except that wasn’t quite it, it was more “we need to go here and you’re going to help us” and they were driving toward that goal throughout the entire story.
Finding your story type – what it is that drives your story forward – will save a lot of heartache. I’ve tried outlining stories before based on one type when I didn’t realize the story was actually a different type, and the moment I realized what it actually was, things went way smoother.
Breaking down your story to its base components is actually far more helpful than I ever thought it might have been, assuming you understand how the properties of a story work. If you don’t understand these things to begin with, it will probably be a lot harder to deal with, but when you know what you’re working with, this is a solid way to figure out your stories. It’s been helping me a lot recently and I feel way more confident in my storytelling abilities because of it. So for any writers out there, maybe you should give this method a try too.