Have you ever sat through a two-hour movie, only to find out in the end that it was a waste of your time? Although you had your doubts in the first few minutes, you kept hoping that the story would turn, that the plot would develop into something more…satisfying perhaps? Or worse yet, have you ever invested days or even weeks into reading a book, only to be relieved when it’s over?
I have. Frequently. This recently got me thinking about what my expectations are toward stories—books or movies—in which I invest my time. When I think about some of my favorite stories, I realize that they tend to hit me on a few different levels. They grab my attention and feed my curiosity about the various layers of complexity that make up any human experience. I like stories where I get to experience something happening on a global scale, a national scale, and on a personal scale at the same time. After all, the life of any character has to exist within a framework or context of something larger. If it doesn’t, then it’s not plausible.
When I started writing my novel The Awakened, I set out to develop the story in layers so that I could apply the best of my creativity to each facet. If you think about it in terms of a hierarchy, I started out at the top. I sat down and put some thought into the larger story where my characters would eventually end up. Once I was satisfied with the results, I moved down a layer and worked on the immediate backdrop for the story (the geography, the cultures and their interactions, etc.), with each subsequent layer containing more detail than the previous. And when I actually got to the characters and their stories, I had a framework within which I was obligated to work. In this way, my characters were forced to react and adapt to circumstances that were mostly out of their control…just like we have to do in real life. I think this adds a realism that would be difficult to achieve if you start with the character and work your way up.
You can judge for yourself if the approach paid-off, but it was a fun process. The nerd inside me thoroughly enjoyed creating city layouts one day and choreographing fight scenes the next. And now that I’ve been through the creative process with my own story, I find myself more disappointed with bad stories, but much more excited and moved when I see it done well!