At the beginning of this year, I taught an English camp in Spain, where I spent most of my daily commutes focused on memorizing the unfamiliar streets. If I took a wrong turn, I might not have been able to reroute myself, so several days passed before I looked beyond the signs and noticed the gorgeous mountain backdrop.
Sometimes I slip into the same habit when I’m writing and editing. I miss the big picture because I’m preoccupied with all of the complicated, troublesome scenes. You’ve probably fixated on parts of your manuscript for so long that you’ve become disoriented too. Although a novel can’t function without individual plot points, the purpose you’re aiming to fulfill sets the trajectory for every event you include. You’ll fail to maintain cohesion if you don’t step back now and then to get a wider view.
What inspired you to start your current project? What drives you to continue increasing your word count? And what do you hope the finished, published version will accomplish? Keep the answers to those questions at the forefront of your mind. If you’re a pantser, don’t panic—you don’t need to prepare an outline or even record your preliminary ideas, but pausing to reflect on your motivations can give you a deeper understanding of your premise that’ll prevent your momentum from stalling. Asking yourself about two specific areas can clarify your goals even more.
1. Emotional Impact
One of my former writing teachers claimed that I shouldn’t begin drafting a story until I knew where I would end it. I disagree, but since all writers dream of their books leaving a lasting impression, I think they do need to define the feelings they want to evoke. Should the story spur readers to action? Encourage contemplation? Arouse empathy? And do the characters convey that? When readers’ and characters’ experiences seamlessly blend together, you’ll reinforce your theme, making it seem personal and therefore memorable.
Scenes do not exist in isolation. Each one leans on and supports the surrounding context. This is true of both plot and tone. When you’re excited about a climatic moment, breaking the thread tied to the previous scene can be an easy mistake to stumble into. But when you treat scenes as stages in an emotional journey, not just coordinates on a plot diagram, you’ll remember to be consistent.
2. Characters and Thematic Elements
Characters and themes may seem like separate components, but a close examination of beloved stories will reveal the opposite. Characters make choices, face consequences, and learn lessons that embody the theme. Characters without a theme are empty caricatures, and a theme without characters is a motionless banner. The two need to work in tandem, and the places where they collide should be intentional, not haphazard. That means being attuned to how your characters will grow and change.
Gaining that much foresight may sound impossible if you prefer to discover your theme through exploration instead of advance planning. But don’t dismay. As you write, pay attention to your protagonist’s false beliefs, worldview, and pivotal decisions. The patterns that emerge will likely guide you toward a relevant theme.
You’ve climbed to the pinnacle of your story so you can see in all directions, but what happens when you descend into the valley again? How do you avoid forgetting the layout of the terrain after you’re knee-deep in the muck of a scene? The solution is simple: you sketch all of the landmarks onto a piece of paper and carry it with you.
1. Mission Statement
Describe the joy, the aspirations, and the passion that your story sparks in you. Then prominently display this essay in your workspace. Maybe you tape it to the wall beside your desk. Maybe you slide it into the front pocket of your notebook or binder. Wherever you stash it, if you reread it before you open up your manuscript, you’re less likely to doubt or deviate from the ideals you’re trying to live out.
2. Story Aesthetics
Create a scrapbook, computer folder, or Pinterest board and fill it with visual representations of your setting, characters, theme, and tone. I recommend designating sections for each character so you can attach important items and symbols, as well as quotes that portray his or her personality. You can even illustrate entire scenes or enlist someone who is more artistically inclined to draw for you.
Compiling all of these images gives you a chance to evaluate the characterization and development of your themes throughout your book, whether you’re on page ten or two hundred. Whenever you get stuck or go astray, you can compare your latest draft to your original ideas and realign it if necessary.
I listen to music whenever I write, outline, or edit. I choose songs that capture the emotions, pacing, themes, and characters in my work-in-progress. With millions of tracks available on sites like Spotify and iTunes, you can summon any mood you need within seconds. So if you’re struggling to hear the rhythm of your story because of all the noise inside your head, pulling up the right playlist might help you reset your imagination.
Staying on Track
When I admired that mountain view in Spain, it rejuvenated my passion for the trip and reminded me that God is in control. Zooming out and reassessing your reasons for throwing yourself headlong into a story can have a similarly invigorating effect.
Getting absorbed in your favorite (or most challenging) scenes is natural. But no matter where you are in the process, your overarching goal to intertwine truth and beauty remains the same. If you keep your eyes trained on God and the concepts He’s laid on your heart, you can craft a story as breathtaking as a peak that brushes the clouds.
Allison Raymond has been captivated by stories for as long as she can remember. She was only eleven years old when she came to recognize writing as God’s purpose for her life. Although many years have passed since that moment, she has never doubted this purpose. Instead, she chooses to spend her time working hard to make her dream of becoming a published novelist a reality.
Allison grew up in Virginia, Illinois, and Oklahoma. She now lives in Missouri, where she is attending college in pursuit of a degree in Secondary English Education. In the future, she hopes to become a high school English teacher to share her passion for storytelling with aspiring young writers. Currently, she shares this passion on her personal blog and in a large number of her daily conversations.