Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Broad Stroke

I spent the past week thinking, “AH! How am I going to finish my story in the next ten thousand words?!” And then I discovered the secret to completing my stories in 50K. It’s what I have come to call the “broad stroke.”

First, some background…

I wrote the first 40K of my story, outlined the rest, and came to the realization that I was far from done. Pretty disheartening for trying to come up with a full story in 50K in one month (thanks a lot, Nanowrimo, you’ve consumed my life.) My concern was mostly that I’d hit my goal of 50K and then lose the steam I had since I technically did what I set out to do (hit the 50K word count.)

In my desperation, I thought “Why, god? Why isn’t writing more like painting? Why can’t I just splash huge blocks of color onto the canvas and noodle the details out later?” After several days of brooding on this with little to no progress on the last 10K, I argued with myself that an outline was technically like a block of color. But it was too general. There wasn’t enough meat on an outline to satisfy the story’s needs. I needed to find a better broad stroke.

So, experimentally, I started writing cliffhangers for the remaining plot points.

Voila! Interest and excitement for the story started to boil up! It was like I’d discovered some kind of magic writing potion. The pages finally became the canvas and my ideas the large blocks, with as much detail as I was willing to put in and all the mood I was trying to capture. Plot points went down like birds in duck hunt (pewpew,) settings and characters came to life complete with dialogue and description, and I still had the word count left over I needed to finish the story!

This broad stroke revelation is very likely not an original idea, but it took me forever to figure it out. To potentially to save even one writer’s pain, I’ll tell you what I learned…

Here’s how the Broad Stroke works:

Say you have a plot point such as “Thisperson and Thatperson fight.” This scene is an important plot point but you don’t have the time or word count to write it all. The Broad Stroke style says, “You think this plot point is worth writing? Prove it.”

So, under the heading of “Thisperson and Thatperson fight,” write three or four paragraphs that highlight the dramatic tension of this scene. You might not use any of this writing in the next draft, but this is a very important elaboration on the plot point that will capture the essence of Thisperson and Thatperson fighting. It’s similar to writing a mini mood piece.

But the key is to leave off on a cliffhanger.

By leaving on a cliffhanger, you’ll recapture your interest in the scene when you come back to edit and fill out your work. Chances are you know Thatperson wins the fight, but if you have the cliffhanger, you’ll still feel a sting of freshness when you return. Also (and more importantly,) it’s likely that the cliffhanger will be a climactic moment in the scene. By highlighting that climactic moment, you’ll know that each of your scenes has a rise and fall of dramatic tension. That, in my opinion, is one of the most important parts of first-draft writing.

Anyway, I just wanted to share this technique with my writing buddies. Now I’m off to finish getting the broad stroke of my story! If you have any tips for completing first drafts when you’ve run into writers block, share in the comments!

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