Getting ready to write: figuring out your framework

One of the challenges writers often face without realizing they’re facing it is the challenge of trying to write a story without understanding your framework for evaluating the success of that story.

By this I mean, how do you know if you’re on the right track? How do you know if your work is any good? We often only vaguely understand what we mean by this and we often ask others for input – friends, family, beta readers, freelance editors.

But before you do any of that, it helps if you think about your own critical framework for the kind of story you’re trying to tell.

Suppose you’re working on the first chapter or two of a romance. You have a situation and some characters in mind and you know that you need to have a happy ending because romance. But how do you know that anything that comes between is any good?

You have to develop your own critical framekwork. What is your theory of literature? How does fiction work? What makes it successful?  What does successful even mean? How is this different from what makes it good?

You already have at least part of this framework in place because you make certain assumptions about the books your read and the projects you work on. Maybe an assumption you have about murder mysteries is the dead body needs to show up in the first chapter. Now, there’s no rule about this; nowhere does it say this must be so. But it might be an assumption you have, and therefore you lose interest in murder mysteries where the dead body doesn’t turn up right away.

Now, some of these assumptions will be helpful to you and some will not. No one is requiring your murder mystery to have a dead body by page fifteen. But on the other hand your romance needs to have a happily-ever-after or it’s not a romance.

No one says you have to write a romance; if your story is turning out not to have a happily-ever-after maybe the thing to do is just call it something else.

The best way to understand your assumptions about fiction is to state them. The best way to see if these assumptions are accurate is to test them.

Although I’ve given some genre examples, assumptions aren’t just about genre, although that can be a place to start. They can be about things like character development or how plots work, and so on.

So, think about a time when you didn’t finish a story. For me, that recently happened when I didn’t understand why any of the characters did what they did. Therefore, one of my assumptions about stories is that characters should have rational, understandable motivations for their actions (even if people in real life often don’t).

This is an assumption shared by many. As readers, we care about the causes of things. This helps us make sense of the world. It’s how we establish meaning. So we can say that generally this is a valid assumption.

Notice that this statement – “As readers, we care about the causes of things” – implies that readers have certain expectations of characters and that for readers to engage with those characters, to invest time in them, they have to understand them.

Establishing motivation is a means authors use to help readers understand character. This is an important part of the framework of the assumption we’re making (the assumption being that it is better to show character motivation than not to show character motivation).

Once we’ve established these assumptions, we can also see that they are, in fact, assumptions and not givens or hard-and-fast rules like purple is spelled p-u-r-p-l-e.

If, for example, you’re working on a manuscript in which you’re trying to show that we do actions and then make up a story to explain them afterward, “Show Joe’s motivation here” isn’t the right framework to use.

Recently, I was re-reading Terry Pratchett’s The Color of Magic, a comic fantasy, in which the main character, Rincewind, is something of an anti-hero. His main goal in life is to avoid anything distasteful, unpleasant, and/or painful—so of course all kinds of dramatic and interesting things happen to him, which he hates.

Every now and then, though, he does something brave, gritting his teeth the entire time. He never knows why he does these brave things. If we were to say, “Terry Pratchett really ought to have shown Rincewind’s motivation here,” we would be misunderstanding the framework of “Readers want to know why characters do the things they do.”

In this case, the comedy of the story is because Rincewind has no volition, no goal; he is acted upon and not acting. He is a plaything of fate and he truly resents it—as do we all. So we readers identify with him not because we are told his motivations but because we feel his essential humanity. In the story, it may be implied that fate is the reason why Rincewind sometimes does brave things to save other people, but we as readers know it is because he is human. There is no need for the author to state this anywhere.

By unpacking your assumptions about story, you will learn when to apply various frameworks to the mss you’re writing, which will help you to be a more intentional writer – and tell a better story.

Think about the assumptions and framework you bring into your storytelling and give your NaNoWriMo ms the benefit of your careful consideration.

how to write a story
How to write a novel. This four-lesson, self-paced class, written by a developmental editor, shows authors how to apply developmental editing principles to their own work. You’ll learn what concerns like “lack of a clear central conflict” and “poor character development” mean, how to find out if your novel has such story problems, and, if so, what to do to fix them.
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