Writing Your Way Into a Story

21st December 2021
Article
7 min read
Edited
22nd December 2021

Finding what's at the heart of the story you're working on isn't always straightforward. Author Clare Povey looks at the process of developing the nugget of an idea into something bigger. 

The Unexpected Tale of Bastien Bonlivre

Sometimes, the story that you think you want to tell isn’t actually the right one for you. I’ve been there. I’m guessing you, fellow writer, might have too. (Or if not, sorry for making assumptions on your behalf and please do tell me your secret!)

When coming up with a new idea it can be hard to immediately grasp what is at the heart of your story. 

When I started writing the first draft of what would, one day, end up becoming my debut middle grade novel, The Unexpected Tale of Bastien Bonlivre, the plot was completely different. Most of the characters were different. I didn't have many children characters in it and the ones that did mainly had ghosts for friends. These ghosts were former famous authors and there were a lot of scenes and phrases that weren't really suitable for a children's book. But because I am about as patient as a toddler in an ice-cream shop, I decided to send it out on submission. In my defense, I genuinely did think it was the story I wanted to tell. I had spent so much time working on it that I felt certain I could do no more.

As it turns out, children’s literary agents don’t really want a children’s book where there aren't many children for characters, but a bunch of adult ghosts who make literary jokes. Thankfully, though, in among all of the mess my brilliant agent Kirsty saw something in the story and we worked together to make it better than before. 

A snapshot of my messy Google Drive shows you some of the many iterations that Bastien went through. And every story I've written ever since - the ones that are sitting in their own folders, dreaming of their own publication day - has turned out exactly the same way. 

Old drafts

 

Although I am an advocate of writing chapter outlines and planning before I sit down, the story still grows with every draft. It changes (usually for the better!) with each re-draft as I do another layer deeper into the story.

I'm aware, however, of the privilege and luck I had in working with Kirsty - then the brilliant eagle-eyed editing team at Usborne - to shape this story. So I wanted to write this article for writers at the beginning of their writing and publishing journey and talk about writing your way into a story. This is when you have that nugget of a story idea, whether that takes the shape of a 'what if' question, a character name, setting, or even a theme. How do you learn how to trust your own instincts? How do you know that you're taking your story in the right direction?

Writing your way into a story is like cracking into a safe without the combination, but here are four things that I've learned about a process that can sometimes feel impossible but always turns out to be achievable.

  • Ask yourself questions
    Whether you're a plotter or a pantser, you should take the time to interrogate your story idea. Why is that happening at this point in the book? Would you main character really do that? How will your character outsmart your villain? When I'm at the beginning stages of a story idea, I think of my 4 year-old nephew Joseph who always asks me "Why" and "How did that happen?" in response to every single thing I say. Be your own inquisitive child and have an answer (even if it does change!) for why things are happening the way they are in your story.

     
  • Read & watch stuff
    Reading other people's stories is one of the best ways to find out how and why you want to tell your story. Dipping into your favourite books is like a mini masterclass on how and why we write. Some writers don't read books in the same genre while they are writing for fear of copying the story, which I can understand. But at the same time, there are a hundred different ways to tell a similar story, and writing in a vacuum can make it all the more difficult. Or it does for me, anyway! 

    Watching TV and films is also a brilliant way to further your story idea. I was inspired by a lot of great films, which all added to my patchwork plot. I watched Metropolis and the opening scene of workers cramped together in a metal lift, descending into the city's underbelly stuck with me for such a long time. I made a note of it. When I decided that the kidnapped writers in my story would be held in the catacombs, that film scene immediately came back to me and I weaved it into my story.

     
  • Thinking time is just as important as writing time 
    As soon as I am done with a draft, I want to move onto the next story immediately. I write a few thousand words in a complete frenzy and then I hit a wall. Why? Because I haven't really taken the time to think about who my characters are or why I want to write this story. I do this every single time I get the kernel of an idea. Don't underestimate the importance of doing nothing and letting your ideas percolate. Go for a walk or run yourself a bath and stay in there until the water turns cold.

     
  • Notes
    Be better at note-taking than me and try and keep your notes for the same story all in one single notebook or at least the same note on your phone. I jot down anything and everything that sounds or looks interesting. Whether it's the name of a street, a weird object I saw in a museum once, or a historical fact, these notes often come together to give me a plot point or a character trait or an obstacle for my main protagonist to overcome. Writing my way into a story involves a lot of 'note collecting' and putting them all together until they make sense.


What are your methods for finding your way into a story? Share your ways of working in the comments below!

 

Get your copy of The Unexpected Tale of Bastien Bonlivre now

 

Clare Povey is an author and the editorial and communities manager of the Writers' & Artists' website. She fell in love with France as a child, inspired by the stories in her local Barking & Dagenham Library, and by discovering the vocabulary in Usborne's First Thousand Words in French. The magic of speaking another language eventually led to her living and working in France, and writing her debut series, the Parisian-based The Unexpected Tale of Bastien Bonlivre.

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Comments

Hiya Clare,
What stuck out most to me was this "How do you learn how to trust your own instincts?" and the fact that you basically answered that question in the first line "Sometimes, the story that you think you want to tell isn’t actually the right one for you." In my own words "If you think you're right, you're wrong. If you think you're wrong, you're right."
My answer to your question: through lots of failure and honest reflection - and over time that question becomes a statement: learn to trust your own instincts.

Many years ago a manager easily twice my age said something awkward to me. I asked "what are you trying to tell me?"
Her answer was simple: you got good instincts - you should learn to trust them more.
It took my about a decade to wrap my head around that.

About 2 years ago I thought I had the best idea ever and wrote 'something'... it was brilliant and whatnot... a few weeks later I tried to read it, and it made me feel horribly uncomfortable - like experiencing a nightmare I could only vaguely remember...
After listening inside (and some experimentation and certainly more failure), I finally found my story or it found me (might've been stuck inside me all along...).

Whereas nothing you wrote above was profoundly new to me (my instincts say 'hi') it was both interesting and reassuring to read the same conclusions from someone I never heard of (until a few hours ago).

Thank you!
Simon

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17/02/2022

Hi Simon,
Thanks for your reply! I can't imagine there is ever any writing advice that feels profoundly new, but you're so right that it's reassuring for writers to share their own experiences...writing can be a solitary act so it's nice to hear from other writers.

Trusting my instincts is most definitely a work in progress! A story rarely ever comes fully formed...it might not be the most straightforward process to finding the story you want to tell, but we always get there in the end don't we?

Best of luck with your writing journey :)

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In reply to by SimonDeayelle

22/02/2022

Thanks Clare - it took me while to find this conversation again (I looked in all the wrong places - and there's no notifications...)
I am sure if I read your post two years ago (yes - it didn't exist at the time) I'd have had to admit that it was indeed profound & new! Make no mistake :-)
It's just that I figured that stuff out on my own in the meantime...

Having said that, it would mean the world to me to receive some feedback on the few things I published here. My friends aren't really the (English) book reading type - and whilst their opinions are generally nice - they're not the most critical.
I gladly take a 'not interested' for an answer from you - but I would not get that if I didn't ask you in the first place...
Cheers, Simon

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In reply to by Clare ADMIN

03/03/2022