Beating Your Drum

In my effort to tackle, wrangle, and tame some of my longer works—especially when working on multiple projects—I’ve developed a new-found appreciation for story beats.  While I’ve long used them (without realizing it at first), it’s only recently that I’ve been using them to show both the big picture and the moment-at-hand simultaneously.

This combination has definitely impacted my writing process.  There’s a lot less of the going back and saying, “Well, to accomplish this, then I need to do that there, too.”  I can see how the pieces or beats or moments go together to create a more elaborate whole.

For example, every story has fluctuations in its emotional tenor.  There’re the ups.  There’re the downs.  And often, which is which depends on the other moments in the story.  One moment could be a big downer in one story, while in a different story (a darker one) it’s a high point.  Besides, if you have too much darkness in a row even the writer, that being you, would struggle getting through it to the next bright spot.

Every story also has fluctuations in its pacing.  Some moments go by very quickly—and should be written accordingly.  Other moments are more leisurely, giving the writer the opportunity to explore the moment in depth.  Seeing all your moments at once can help you select which ones should be quick and which ones should be slower.  While the moment itself influences this decision, it’s also a factor of everything else you have that goes around the moment.

At the same time, a moment is a unit of story in and of itself.  Sometimes it’s a scene, but a moment may be a portion of a scene or the filler in between two scenes.  It’s a moment or a piece of information, and you need to be able to concentrate on delivering that little bit all by itself.

In my new office, I now have cork boards.  I purchased a total of six board, but only put up (okay, so my mom put them up, but only because she didn’t like my solution) one set of screws to hang them on.  So, I have a board for each project, but only one visible project at a time.  This improves concentration.  It also allows me to take down a moment from the board, to have close by me, front and center, while still having the board visible with the big picture up all neat and clean.

Now, with the right tools in place, I’m ready to really get some work done!  So, here I go, beating out my stories.  I can now more easily beat each story—and each moment—at its own tone and pace, to its own tune.

About Stephanie Allen Crist

Stephanie created and produces in answer to a call from God to use her experiences and gifts to help others. Stephanie is also the author of and two books that can be found on that site. Stephanie strives to share her love, faith, and talents in an inclusive manner to help others who know spiritual pain and who know the bitter taste of the dregs of despair.
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8 Responses to Beating Your Drum

  1. acflory says:

    Is this the same as story boarding? i.e. what they do for movies and animations etc?

    • It’s similar. It can be the same, I suppose, if you tend to think in pictures, but the way I do it is a bit different. Okay, take a large cork board. Write down key words for each moment (or beat) on post-it note or index card. (I wrote down the key words/beats for a whole chapter on a single card, after much trial and error.) Use some kind of single (I used different colored markers) to express the tone or significance of a piece of information. (For example, the “Golden Age of Therapy” was written in golden yellow. Then, at the bottom of the card, the moment that sets the story back into problem-mode was in bright red.) Put the pieces in order.

      There you go! You have an entire “book” set out by index card (without the seem straight-jacket of the outline). The thing is, the board is only going to make sense to you, because there are a lot of details that don’t make it to the board, details you don’t even have to decide on at this stage in the process.

      As you know, I’m working on a memoir. It covers roughly six years of living in 50,000 to 60,000 words. As I was writing, I was getting bogged down by details that wouldn’t contribute to the whole I’m going for. By laying it out like this, I’ll save time by not writing things that aren’t going to fit, while also knowing which is the relative high points versus relative low points in the story. It also showed where I needed to jump the timeline to work in information that was important, but was actually spread out over years–so, had I just said it all in order, the significance would have been lost.

      And the great thing is, if something doesn’t work, then I lose an index card or a bunch of index cards, instead of thousands of words of writing.

      • acflory says:

        Aaaaah. I see! I used to do something vaguely similar when I was doing tech writing. I’d start with screenshots of all the functions then actually ‘tell’ the story of the program in terms of tasks that users would most likely want to perform.

      • Yes, that’s right. Of course, with a novel or a memoir there’s a lot more going on then the step-by-step information, but it’s basically the same concept.

        The trick is to do it so it keeps you on track without feeling formulaic or like it’s keeping you back.

      • acflory says:

        Easier said than done. I had about 30K words from the original first book that I took into the new first book, plus I basically knew a lot of what had to happen because I’d used it as backstory in the original. God it was hard. I did not want to write that story. In fact I couldn’t really come to grips with it until I stopped thinking of it as a prequel and started wondering about how the characters got from point A to point B. Then things began to flow but I still ended up changing a hell of a lot.

      • I do understand. But think of it this way: What if you had it mapped out as moments and effects (points of character develop, for example) instead of 1000s of words of story? Easier to change and easier to grasp.

        But, again, it’s easier to *start* a story that way instead of doing it after you’ve already written the story and are going back to try to fix it. I tried the last bit with my first novel, and it didn’t work so well. Eventually I realized I’d have to re-write the whole darned thing from scratch after I figured out what it’s supposed to say.

      • acflory says:

        “Eventually I realized I’d have to re-write the whole darned thing from scratch after I figured out what it’s supposed to say.”

        lmao – I’d better not tell you how many times I’ve done just that. Not on this one but on the whole story arc that encompasses the series. I don’t regret it though because I could not see where I had to improve both the story and my telling of it until I had something tangible to look at. So for me it was a huge learning curve, part of my 10+ year apprenticeship.

  2. My story of storytelling differs, but only because I realized (after a lot of effort) that I’d have to do my learning on something else or risk losing my project.

    I got the initial idea for my story when I was seventeen and started writing it while I was still in high school. I was desperate not to “lose” it. Three kids and four drafts later, I realized that if I kept going then the limits of my craftsmanship would bleed away the artistic vision that was locked in my head. I was wise enough to see this (and to stop), but not wise enough to understand why.

    Now, looking back, I can understand that the limits weren’t just a matter of craft, but also maturity and worldview. Laria, the main character of my first (albeit unpublishable) book is a fairy who is fated to save her people. Fate–an actual being–has guided events for this outcome, for Laria’s birth and studies, for generations. But the time to act has come and Laria’s training isn’t nearly complete.

    As an adolescent myself, I saw this as a way to “empower youth,” to show that young people can accomplish great things. It was very important to me that Laria, despite her youth, doesn’t make any mistakes. Which kills a story pretty quickly. As a mature adult, I see the story as something different. In so many stories, particularly in this genre, we read about youth (beautiful, energetic, untried, ect.) who accomplish great things despite their youth. It’s the whole coming-of-age meme that attracts so many readers. And, yes, they make mistakes, but it all comes out right in the end.

    But is the beautiful, bright, vibrant youth really the best “tool” to use to change the world? Every generation (at least for the last several) has tried, and though they’ve made progress, they always fall short of the big ideals they espouse. They grow up, grow “realistic” and mellowed with time and the accumulation of wisdom, and they become the target of the next generation.

    This pattern of reality is solid. When I first started to write this story, I wanted to deny it. Now, I want to work it. To see it’s flaws, the flaws of youth and the flaws of adults who try to hold down their vision, and to see the flaws of Fate, a god-like being, trying to manipulate outcomes.

    The trick to telling the story I want to tell, that I’ve always wanted to tell, is to use Laria’s point of view as the base, but as somewhat unreliable, to overlay Fate’s vision and her goals (another example of imperfection), and then (to maintain consistency with my worldview) to overlay over that a grander (perfect) vision. The idealism of youth meets the incoveniences of reality, and it works through the clarity of the truly divine, not through mechanisms of the slightly less finite.

    And its far more complex than I was able to produce in my youth, but captures that initial vision far better than I would have understood at the time. It also creates an earthly parallel of prophet/church/God, where all the things we do to try to “tame” God and make Him understandable, including the churches we build and the religions we fight for, fall short, because they’re just as imperfect as we are.

    By setting the story aside, “finding” one that was within my limits, “finding” another that stretched those limits, I was able to let life teach me what my first story needed to be. Seventeen years later, and I’m still not ready to tell it! And I’m really not a patient person. 😦

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