There’s a thing we do in my writers’ group, The Writing Journey, called a story wall.
Here’s the idea: you come to the meeting prepared to talk about your story with a few other people. You provide a general idea of plot, characters, setting, genre—all the usual elements. If you’re having problems—say, you’re stuck and can’t seem to write after a certain point—you see if anyone has any helpful ideas. You also give people a chance to say whether they have problems with the story. Maybe they don’t believe the premise of a certain scene, or have difficulty seeing why a character would behave in a certain way. It’s not all negative, however. People are also allowed to tell you things they like about your story.
At the last Journey meeting, Elaine and I each did a story wall. I think it was the first time for her; I know it was the first time I ever presented a story.
Elaine provided excellent visual aids, creating a kind of mind map of her story, with various locations and characters each having their own color-coded card or sheet of paper. I did not provide great visuals, though I did read out a synopsis I’d written (hours before!) and provided a spreadsheet of the scenes, which included the location, characters (including whose POV I used in the scene) events, and any issues I was worried about. In my case, I asked for help with the magic system and with one of the characters.
So. What did I get out of the story wall?
- I got an idea I think will work well for a character I was finding difficult to write.
- I got reminders about the cost of magic, which I definitely needed. There’s still work to do along those lines, but other people’s ideas definitely helped.
- Since I’m using more than one POV character, I need to make sure I spread around the viewpoint a bit more than I had. Otherwise, when someone other than the protagonist has the viewpoint, it might seem like a mistake, or just plain sloppy.
- I need to work on my synopsis-writing skills!
- I learned I need to make sure my protagonist can carry the book. There was some concern over whether he “protags” enough. It takes him a long time to do the right thing, to break through and realize what he’s capable of. I don’t feel the situation is hopeless, but I do want to make sure the reader cares enough about him to keep reading.
I definitely need to keep an eye on the 3 “prongs” of character development, an interesting concept I recently heard about on Writing Excuses. Briefly, when you have a character you want people to care about—say, your protagonist—you have three dimensions which are especially helpful in creating reader interest: sympathy (how nice/relatable is he?), competence, and agency (how proactive is he?). The character doesn’t need to be all of these things, but he should be at least one of them if you want to keep a reader interested. So, what needs to happen with my protagonist? The way I think of him right now, Slim needs to learn a lot, and he’s quite gifted, but stunted. He’s not particularly admirable, but he’s not a total jerk either.
So the question is, how do ratchet any of those settings higher? He doesn’t start out competent, he’s lacking in agency, and he’s not that high in sympathy, either. Hey, he grows as a person, okay? I guess sympathy is where I have the most wiggle room, but does putting him in jeopardy automatically make him sympathetic? Does having him do the right thing, or try to do the right thing in a few places, does that help? I’ll do what I can with those ideas for now, and then see what beta readers think, once I round some up. (If you’re interested beta reading my Western historical fantasy novel, please leave a comment below, tweet at me—@cmbrennan09—or contact me however you usually do.)
Finally, what did I learn from the whole exercise?
I learned that being the victim—er, focus—of a story wall wasn’t as scary as I feared, and that I should absolutely do it the next time I come up with an idea for a novel. Heck, maybe I should do it whenever I come up with a story idea of any length. It’s excellent to get help spotting potential problems before you bury yourself too deeply.