Before Page One: The World Of Your Story

© Elena Schweitzer | – Desert

By Chris Hutton

          Two weeks ago, when discussing the blank page, I touched upon how I move from inspiration to detailing out an idea. This was in a brief segment, which you can find replicated below.

Beginning the Outline

          Let’s say you have an idea. It’s great. It’s an amazing idea. Now you want to write it. How does it begin? How does it end? Who is the main character? Where is it set? What is it about? What’s the plot? The themes? How do all of these elements tie together? How do you sequence this out to tell your story? That’s a lot of work to start. As long as the page is blank, the outline hasn’t begun and once again it becomes easy to say, ‘You know what, it’s late. It’s 12:30 am and I really need to get some sleep. I’ll start this outline when I wake up.” After finishing my work day on October 27th, (a few hours before this very moment mid writing this post), that seemed like a valid excuse. I could have ended it there and put this off until tomorrow. Instead, I sucked it up and drafted out the basic ideas of what I wanted to express. Why? Because once I start typing, the blank page is gone and I can move forward. As long as I mull it over and keep it blank, it is so very easy to stop before starting.

Detailing This Out

          This week, I’d like to expand upon what I only briefly discussed prior. First, the segment above really hints at two processes – 1) drafting the world of your story and 2) outlining. We’ll be focusing today on that first process. Before I start writing any of my longer works of fiction, I try to make sure I have a basic understanding of the story that I am planning. This isn’t outline detail, but its key aspects of the story that help ground me before I write. I’ll step through each portion of the process that I hinted at last week in the featured segment.

1) The Beginning & The End

          Usually, when I’m writing, I start with these two elements firmly in place. Even in my short work, these are the cornerstone upon which I build everything else. Typically for me, my work comes largely from dreams, everyday events, or what if scenarios upon which I’ve deliberated and each of these sources typically provides me a beginning point. For Last Call, for example, I came up with the idea, logically enough, after I woke up with a hangover. I realized immediately that’s where that week’s story had to begin – in the thick of an early morning hangover. Then came the deliberation. How did the story end? I paced. I ate and sipped some water and did what I needed to do to mitigate the worst effects of my previous night’s excesses. Then, at last, the image came to me: the thing responsible for the horror of that story birthed itself as I contemplated my pounding headache. I won’t say more than that about the end – as I hate spoilers – but with those two points locked, I knew the trajectory of my story and the real work could begin.

2) Note Taking

          Now comes the data dump. I jot everything down: every thought I have on the story, any lines of dialogue rattling around in my head, and scenes that I want to play out, etc. I write down anything and everything related to that story that is even remotely being considered. This usually provides hints at what is to come. The first inklings of my characters, my setting, my themes, all bubble up in this process. Of course at this stage, they are a jumbled mess, a mass of word vomit, and still need to be sorted out. The ideas need to be rewritten in a structure that makes sense.

3) Logline

          If I have drafted out enough details, I should be able to pump out a 1-2 sentence logline around which I will base the remainder of my work. This may get altered later, after I actually write the story, but having this up front gives me a guide to help craft everything that follows. Still, loglines are an art in and of themselves. Back in 2015 I entered numerous screenwriting contests, seeking exposure for my current scripts. During that process my werewolf pilot, The Cage, took honorable mention in the appropriately named Screenplay Festival. After that placement I received some advice on crafting loglines, which I have been using ever since. It boiled down to covering the following elements:

  • Hero
  • Hero’s Flaw
  • Opponent
  • Ally
  • Life-Changing Event
  • Hero’s Battle

          Now every time I’m crafting loglines, I keep this in mind. It allows me to ground the story in my protagonist, the prevailing forces helping and hindering that protagonist, his or her character flaw that needs to be overcome (seeking to move beyond just plot points, but focusing on three-dimensional characters), the event that sets everything in motion, and the battle that the protagonist must fight (which is usually more than just a plot, but something core to that character). Here’s an example from The Cage with the elements above highlighted:

The Cage – One Hour Drama – Supernatural

          A struggling father (hero) riddled with self-doubt (flaw) crosses paths with a local sheriff (ally) as a pack of werewolves(opponent) wreak havoc (life-changing event) in a small Minnesota town and is forced to find strength and faith within himself if he is going to survive for his family (battle).

          It’s not a perfect logline, and I’m always adjusting, but it’s a good model for capturing all of those details in a succinct way. Of course, rigidity to any writing advice can be detrimental, so I allow for wiggle room if a logline flows better without strict adherence to these steps. An example of a more loose logline can be seen with Last Call.

Last Call – Short Story – Horror

          Teagan (hero), a foul-mouthed, rock enthusiast (flaw – not really), and her boyfriend (ally) find themselves hungover, struggling to remember the night before, and unable to reach their friends (life-changing event). But as flashes of the previous evening bubble to the surface, Teagan begins to suspect that something may be very, very wrong.

          As you can see, I am missing the opponent and the battle on this one, which I have eschewed in favor of a little mystery that hints at the danger. For this story that seemed a better path, avoiding spoilers. I also provided a character trait more than a flaw for the main character. These traits define her perspective in the story, but I don’t find them to be an inherent issue needing to be overcome. Were this for a novel or longer work of fiction, I likely would have set out establishing a longer character arc in my notes and thus called out a flaw in the logline. As is, I feel it does its job.

3) Setting

          This step, and steps 4, 5, and 6, are highly integrated for me, usually being developed simultaneously. It is key to me that the setting reflects the same themes that play into the protagonist’s emotional arc and that it fits within the tone & style (typically determined by theme). So as I draft out setting, I contemplate a place that emotionally resonates with a theme, which is critical to the protagonist’s journey, and matches the tone being established.

          For this, let’s look to a previous pilot that I drafted – Forgotten. In this script my lead is a former detective with retrograde amnesia (Character). I’m exploring perspective, how our memory shapes our perspective and defines us, and how those things that have been forgotten impact our lives and alter that perception (Themes). I knew that I wanted high contrast with extreme brights and darks and a scorched feel steeped in grit, tension, and mystery, and all grounded in a realistic world with some light comedy (Tone & Style). Setting wise, the tone & style told me I needed to be in the desert, with a past set in large city (playing on extreme contrasts and the scorched and gritty elements). Furthermore, thematically I needed to deal with the idea of the forgotten, and thus chose to set the story around Salton Sea, in a town once planned to be the next big resort city, but whose path shifted as the salinity rose causing mass die-offs and leaving much of the development a ghost town. For a big city, the logical leap to match geographically with Salton Sea was Los Angeles. This duality of the Salton Sea and Los Angeles, of the desert and the big city, of a city that became forgotten and a protagonist suffering from amnesia, all provided for me the resonance I find critical in setting a story.

4) Themes

          For this element I look for items that resonate with my notes around the lead characters. What journey am I exploring? What emotional arcs do I wish to follow with each? What is the age group of my characters? Matching with this, I look at tone & style. Is this a light-hearted show? If so that is going to impact the style of themes I explore. Is a dark story aimed at mature readers? If so, again my themes will shift. We’ll stick with Forgotten to help see this out, as steps 3-6 are heavily integrated as I mentioned.

          In Forgotten I knew that my lead character had retrograde amnesia. This idea was central to the whole concept of the show. I also knew that I wanted a gritty tone with extreme contrasts and that I would be setting the story between Los Angeles and the Salton Sea. With these elements in mind it was easy for me to work out the necessary themes. This was a series about the forgotten (the title came later). I knew that I would be looking at cultures, histories, and people that have been left behind. The show needed to tell the stories of cities that have been forgotten, memories that have been lost, and mysteries that went unsolved. It would be about the world that we choose not to see, a seedy underbelly hidden in the middle of nowhere, and it would play with our sense of perception. Can the past be trusted, or even our memories? The viewer would be forced to question the perspective with which they are presented to weed out truth from biased viewpoints and in so doing the story could explore themes of the forgotten and hidden, the gaps of our own memories and how our perception of a past partially forgotten shapes our culture and our individual selves.

5) Tone & Style

          This element often pulls most strongly from the characters I have chosen to explore, though I perform a balancing act to make sure it matches as well with the themes and setting. Are my characters young or are they mature adults? This could make the difference between a light coming of age angle, or a dark and seedy tone. What about themes? What do I have in mind? If this is a TV series that could impact the network upon which I can air the show, which itself has some mandates on tone & style. If this is a book or a short story, what genre am I exploring. Much like a network that can have its own ramifications on tone. So now, back to Forgotten.

          My lead was a former detective with amnesia, so I already knew that this was a show that could deal with crime, murder, and mystery. The amnesia element had already helped me form ideas around exploring themes of the forgotten and memory and how this defines our perception of the world. Those themes meant I wanted a slower, thoughtful take on the story, and with the crime element, I knew I could take this dark. This made me think to aim for a FX-like cable network, or, with some loosening of the grit, shaping it for a USA style network. At the same time, if the idea of the forgotten was so central, than genre here became key. It needed to reflect on this concept of people, towns, and cultures that had been forgotten, which made me think to explore both the western and film noir. Now with my character age under consideration, a knowledge of my networks and genres, and a decent grasp on the slow and darker tones of my themes, I decided on a high contrast style of lights and darks (noir) with a scorched look (Western) and a tone steeped in grit (Western/FX), tension, and mystery (Detective show), all grounded in a realistic approach to the world with untrustworthy perspectives (themes) and some light comedy (USA network).

6) Central Characters

          Admittedly by this point so many ideas around my protagonist have been feeding into my themes, my tone, and my setting, that character has really become this ever evolving concept, birthing new ideas, then reabsorbing those ideas to shift and establish new takes on overall characters, which itself is now feeding back into those same three elements, until I have revisited this section over and over again. This is why it is the last of my four highly interconnected world-building elements. Until the previous three have taken final form, I can’t fully flesh this one out. Once that’s done, however, the dominoes usually fall into place pretty quickly.

          With Forgotten I always knew my protagonist was a former detective. But by the time I finalized steps 3-4, I also knew it was a show about contrasts. So my lead needed to fall. He needed to be on parole, which meant I had to have a parole officer. She quickly became my co-lead. I wanted to explore the Western, I wanted to examine other cultures, and I deeply value diversity in my stories, so I chose for the female lead and many of the characters to be Native American. Also due to the parole, I had to find a new job for my lead, which meant exploring his new town and peppering in local characters that helped define that setting and with the noir aspects to the story politics had to be involved. From these two strains, I evolved the co-lead’s brother, a shady politician and part of her own dark past, and the protagonist’s boss, an optimistic small town mayor firmly believing in second chances (for his town and for our lead). Crime would feature heavily, so I also needed a local sheriff. As a noir and a show about memory, this series had to delve into our lead’s past, which meant populating the Los Angeles portion of his life. As a detective he needed a partner that acted as his foil, other officers at the station, and a grounding figure, his fiance, who is no longer in the picture in the present, leaving him unmoored. We also needed a bridge character, someone tied both to past and present, someone to aid our protagonist but also be in constant friction with him. This birthed his ex-brother-in-law, who became a third lead, and established a central love-hate bromance into the series concept.

7) Plot/Story

          After I have laid out all of these concepts, I develop the story. How am I going to get from that beginning to that end grounded in this setting, exploring these themes, maintaining this tone, and building that progression from a place of character with the cast that I have created? Bear in mind this is not an outline, but broad strokes direction of the story. If it is a TV series I’m likely looking at some major act outs for the pilot, then logline level descriptions for the first six to ten episodes, along with end points for the first few seasons and the series. If this is a short story, I bare bones it with major elements that the characters are going to hit. Finally if I’m working on a novel, then I think about chapters. Here I look at which characters are point of view characters and determine a balance of pacing out chapters between each character. From there I think of each character’s arc, it’s beginning, it’s end, along with a few major beats along the way. Typically with a novel, I like to start with an idea of ten character beats, each defining a chapter for that character (more if my cast is smaller). Based on this information I draft out one to three paragraphs summarizing the story.

8) Finalizing

          Now, if I have been constructing this all in one document, I have a mini-bible for my story, or a pitch one to three page pitch document for a series. I make sure it is clearly articulated by section, I proof it thoroughly, I sit on it for a few nights, then I go back and re-examine it. Over the course of those few nights or a week, I can sculpt this down to its core, make sure all elements are aligned and proofed, and come up with a reasonable document that is the foundation for every element of the story moving forward.

That’s a Wrap

          And, well, that’s my world-building process. This is how I go from the inkling of an idea to the basis of my stories. But as mentioned its not an outline. So, before I put word to actual story page, I still have to hit the outlining process. That, however, is a post for another day.

          Hopefully this can prove helpful to any of you out there looking for tips on how to sculpt your ideas and mold them into something more concrete. That being said, I would reiterate that holding to any advice rigidly is a recipe for disaster. This is just one approach, one that is the basis for my work, but one to which even I won’t adhere every time. You have to be malleable, but you also have to have a framework from which to deviate. In the words of Pablo Picasso, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”

          Anyway, Happy Writing All!

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