Laying Story Foundations
On the surface, writing isn’t just about stringing words together. It’s much more than that, and it goes deeper than the surface. Think of a story like a house that needs to be built. You cannot build the walls or roof until you have sound foundations and the supporting structure in place. The same is true of storytelling – the foundations of any story always support the plot, subplots, themes, characters and everything else contained within the story.
Laying solid foundations for a story is vital, otherwise the core of your story might crumble. We all know that a structure won’t support itself unless it has firm foundations. The same is true for a novel. It may not hold up too well without something firm to shore it up.
The idea of laying your foundations shouldn’t be confused with creating the framework from which your story hangs. Instead, it encompasses the major building blocks required for the novel, like genre, plot, strong main characters, a main theme and a setting. From these, writers build up their stories.
So how do you lay those foundations?
Firstly, start at the beginning – know what type of story you want to write and what genre (generally writers write the genres they enjoy reading and are familiar with). Also keep a target length in mind, for instance 80,000 to 90,000 words. Novel length will determine how much you write, and how complex the plot might be. Longer length novels are often more complex than 50,000 word novellas, because they have more characters, more subplots, more twists and more conflicts. A target length also helps writers to keep on track – there’s less editing and cutting to do at the edit stage.
Another layer to your story foundations should include when your story is set, because this will have a direct impact on the type of story it is and the amount of research you will have to do. Is the novel set in the 1900s? Or maybe it’s a contemporary novel with a modern-day setting. Be sure the moment you start writing exactly what era the story takes place.
It's important to know your plot. It needs to be tight and well-thought out, so plot your novel before you start any writing. Know which direction it needs to go, and how it might end. The plot is the framework from which everything will hang, and without it, the story won’t have the strong foundation to work from.
Know your main theme. What message are you conveying to the readers? If it’s a crime novel, then the main theme is death/murder. A horror novel might be the main part of your horror story. Betrayal could be the main theme of your mystery novel. It’s important to know the central theme that will run through your entire story. Sub themes will develop as you write, but the main theme lies at the heart of your story and forms a firm layer to your story foundations.
Of course, no story is without its characters. Strong characters are memorable for readers, and every great story has unforgettable characters with whom the readers can identify. That’s why a robust story foundation requires a solid protagonist and antagonist who normally hold opposing goals, as well as a strong supporting cast. Get to know your characters well before you start any writing – build them into believable people who are motivated by the need to achieve their goals and who are, typically, ordinary yet flawed.
Each layer builds a foundation – the genre and length, when it’s set, a solid plot, a main theme and well-drawn characters. From these layers, the rest of the story elements should emerge, such as sub plots, sub-themes, conflicts, emotions, dilemmas, obstacles, twists and turns, hints or red herrings, characterisation, story arc progression and so on.
Laying story foundations helps to avoid problems later, like writer’s block, a sluggish middle section, the lack of direction with plot or characters, or a lack of satisfactory ending. What it does do is provide a solid base to develop the story, and it keeps it logically connected and consistent. This advances the plot and ultimately, it produces a tighter and meatier manuscript.