How to Figure Out What You’re Writing

I’m sure some of the writers I coach become frustrated when I ask them, “What are you writing?”

They eagerly launch into detailed descriptions of their characters and every moment of action taking place in their story.  Until I stop them and ask, “In no more than one hundred words, what’s your story about?”

Most of them can’t describe their plot in less than five or six paragraphs.  They want to include every character and his or her backstory, the interrelationship between each of those characters, and every subplot.  So I stop them again.

When they start over, I call a halt as soon as their description raises a question in my mind.  And I begin drilling into their story with a series of questions that unfold from the answers the writers give me.

It goes something like this:

Writer:  “Joe Smith discovers aliens from a planet called Turbul, which is located fourteen light years away from Earth.  These aliens are known as Turbulators, and they’re taking over the earth, turning humans into slaves and forcing them to mine the deep-earth minerals the aliens need to power their planet.  Joe has to save the world before the aliens enslave everyone.  While he’s trying to kill the aliens, he runs into Sam Bygone, a crotchety miner, who moved into the mountains after he accidently killed someone at a mining site where he used to work.  And he has a cache of old dynamite that could explode just from moving it.  So Joe asks the old guy to help him blow up their central hive.  But Sam isn’t excited about getting involved as long as the aliens don’t mess with him.  Joe has to convince him that it’s in his best interests to eliminate the threat before the aliens expand their territory.  And then they meet a runaway teenager who’s living in a tent because . . .”

Me:  “Stop.  Why does your main character think he has to save the world?”

Writer:  “Because the aliens are evil and he doesn’t want them to take over earth and make everyone slaves.  So he . . .”

Me:  “Why is this character the only person on earth who can defeat the aliens?”

By now the writer is scratching his head.  Hasn’t he answered this already?  No, actually he hasn’t.

Me:  “What skills or knowledge does your character have that make him uniquely qualified to defeat an invasion of aliens?”

Writer:  “He’s an ex-soldier trained in subversive warfare.”

Me:  “Lots of people are ex-soldiers trained in waging war.  What else makes him qualified to save the world?”

Writer:  “Well, he’s discovered their central hive.”

Me:  “Way to bury the lede.  The facts that he knows where the aliens are hiding on earth and that he’s experienced with warfare are really important.  Okay, with that knowledge, what’s your first sentence?”

Writer:  “Joe Smith is an ex-soldier fighting the alien Turbulators who invaded earth . . .”

Me:  “Don’t get too fancy yet.  Do we really need to know his name or is what’s happening more important?  What’s the hook that keeps your dentist listening after he asks, ‘What’s your new book about?’”

The writer eventually realizes he needs to take a sharp scalpel to his description, carving away everything except the Who, What, When, and Where.  I end up reminding him that the How is what he wants the reader to discover when she reads his book.

This writer may end up with a description like this:

An ex-soldier camping in the Rockies stumbles across evidence that aliens have invaded earth and enslaved humans, forcing them to mine deep-earth minerals needed to power the alien planet.  When he discovers the alien hive hidden deep within an old mining system, he enlists a crew of talented, anti-social misfits living in the mountains and takes the fight to the aliens.  Before his tiny army can save earth they have to save themselves by learning to trust each other.

Me:  “Congratulations!  You now have an elevator pitch.”

Writer:  “Whew!  Man, that was hard.”

Me:  “Yes, but you did a great job.  Now, tell me what genre you’re writing.  In which section would a library or bookstore shelve your book?”

Writer:  “What?  Well, I guess it’s adventure, but it’s military because he’s an ex-soldier, and it’s sci-fi because of the aliens, but there are parts that . . .”

Me:  “Let’s find the one most essential element that makes your story work.  If the adventure aspect is removed, would the story still work?”

And we’re on a journey of discovery once more, refining the writer’s understanding of exactly what his story is about.  Once he’s done this, he’s the proud owner of an elevator pitch, plus he knows exactly which genre he’s writing.

Now it’s your turn.  I hear you’re working on something new.  What’s your story about?  Tell us about it in the comments—see if you can do it in one hundred words or less.