Bones Before Flesh

This is part four of my “Draft One” series: Writing the first draft of a novel.

Strategies (i.e., Go Big) set a direction. Tactics (i.e., Pomodoro) enable the strategy to happen. Principles (i.e., Don’t Miss Two) ensure strategies and tactics are upheld. This is the framework I’m crafting for novel writing. In this post, I’m not going to discuss a strategy, tactic, or principle; but the framework itself. “Framework” is merely a fancy word for giving structure to ambiguity. Understanding this concept unlocks a degree of organization that’s critical for the creative process.

#4: Bones Before Flesh

Nobody knows what’s going on; we’re all just stumbling about, trying to survive and maybe prosper. Writing is scary because it’s unstructured: A writer has a sheet of paper and twenty-six letters to craft anything she wants. With so much gray area, freedom mutates into uncertainty, uncertainty leads to scariness, scariness leads to avoidance, avoidance leads to procrastination, and procrastination is the death of creativity.

To overcome this vicious cycle, writers often adopt one of two personas: a pantster or a planner. Pantsters are “running by the seat of their pants” as they discover ideas on the fly. It’s romantic, this spontaneous inspiration. Planning is the opposite: The writer plots out every detail of her work before penning a single word. This is by no means a binary situation (there’s a pantsing and planning spectrum), but most people lean one way or the other. I’ve experimented with flavors of each, and—while neither is right nor wrong—I’ve found pantsing hard to sustain. It’s brilliant when the Muse visits, but it’s hard to push past when the well is dry. With all of writing’s uncertainty, planning supplies much-needed structure.

Planner-Pantster Spectrum

Finding the right structure is hard. Go too high-level and create texture-less pieces or too low-level and get lost in the weeds. An effective plan seems to involve frameworks at multiple layers: High, medium, and low. If any layer is off, the story unravels. For example, in 2017, I was writing a novel about a young cannibal couple touring America by train. While I had interesting concepts and scenes (excuse my arrogance), my lack of a plotline and character arcs eventually sent the story off its tracks. Like tuning a guitar to harmonize each string, planning a novel should have each layer in harmony.

High Level

I’ve read dozens of articles that tried to classify plot structures. Some claim there are only 7 plots, others claim there are 1, 3, 20, or 36 plots. Talk about trying to define structure from chaos! There’s no Objective Truth, but these frameworks can help triangulate something useful. I used several tools to define my book, such as the Foolscap Method—structuring a novel on a single sheet of paper. It’s like a stick figure: A high-level view of the head, body, arms, and legs.

Middle Level

After filling the Foolscap, I double-clicked on the main points from the high-level genre, plot, and theme. I stumbled across more frameworks—such as a matrix for defining inner-character conflicts and a clothesline technique for scene order. These tools expanded my high-level plan and produced a chapter-by-chapter summary. The stick figure develops another level of granularity: Arms had elbow joints, hands, and fingers.

Low Level

At this point, I knew what each chapter had to do, so I could focus on the finest, nittiest-grittiest grain planning: The beats. For instance, if I knew John and Jane Doe needed to hide a body in a port-a-potty, I’d list the order of events and emotions (the beats) required with [bracketed] summaries.

[Jane cries as she loads a corpse into the trunk of her SUV, sobbing over the bloodstains on her impeccably clean carpet. She then cries harder when she realizes the desecration of her new car upsets her more than the murder itself.]

[At midnight, John unloads the body into a port-a-potty at a construction site. He curses at the full moon that illuminates his activity like a spotlight. Then he laughs inappropriately—as he did as a boy at church—thinking about the reaction the construction guys would have in the morning.]

[After finishing, Jane and John order milkshakes at Denny’s. But the guilt from their murder makes their favorite comfort food less comforting.]

The granular stick figure evolves into a full skeleton. The fingers have knuckles and lots of little bones. With this skeleton, it’s easier to write the flesh.

Most writing projects—and most creative endeavors—are self-driven. Other systems in life, such as school or work or parenting, have an innate structure. That structure, along with the involvement of other people, make these activities legitimate, so we get external validation when working on them. That external validation makes them important to us, which creates clarity (“This baby is crying, I must comfort it or fail my parental responsibilities!” or “This work project is at risk, so I must realign expectations with stakeholders or get fired!”). Creative pursuits rarely have external validation, so we must work backward to reduce uncertainty. Structure is the starting point.

That’s why I structured my story into [bracketed] segments. These segments are granular enough to supply clarity, even when the creative well is dry.