Writing tips: Storylines

Hey everyone,

One of the most fun exercises I went through in my writing process was teasing out the storylines and weaving them together. I learned this technique from my writing mentor Mary Carroll Moore. Mary calls these storylines “themes”, and talks about them in her book on writing called Your Book Starts Here. After writing the first five drafts of The Found Child, I finally felt I knew the book well enough to identify the themes, the glue. The process that turns a manuscript into a book.

Surprisingly, these storylines didn’t leap out at me at immediately. I had to dig and ferret out what was behind the words. I knew the plot inside and out, I thought the book read well, and I thought my character, Shelby, grew and was transformed during the novel. But I was missing something: that cohesive whole.

Mary points out that themes don’t surface until they are good and ready. You can write and rewrite, but until you know the kernel your book is structured around, it won’t have that magic of a robust, multi-layered book. And it’s a chicken and egg thing: the themes won’t be revealed until you reach a certain point in the life of the book. And the book won’t fit together until you know the themes.

But curiously, as I wrote and rewrote, I realized I had created pointers to my themes without even realizing it. Shelby’s miscarriages. Revenge. Her multi-faceted relationship with her brother and her best friend Megan. Her separation from her husband. When I studied all these pointers, I identified the major theme as a person growing into wholeness, coming full circle.

Once I identified the main theme, I was able to break it into the storylines that revealed the main theme and moved the story, and Shelby’s journey, forward. I had seven storylines:

  • Home life 
  • Revenge
  • Work life
  • The twins Shelby gave up for adoption
  • Crystal (one of the cases Shelby is working on)
  • Little lab (a biotech lab Shelby tracks down in her quest for revenge)
  • Shelby’s genetic offspring

In addition, I identified backstory and setting as additional parts of the manuscript I wanted to know more about. Not quite themes, but definitely integral to showing Shelby’s inner and outer lives.

What I did next was a deep dive into those themes. In a file separate from the manuscript, one for each storyline, I followed the arc of that theme from beginning to end. Then, I opened the manuscript. I color coded each paragraph: for example, pink for setting, orange for backstory, blue for home life, yellow for work life, red for revenge.

Here’s a sample of that coding from an early version of Chapter 1:

As you can imagine, that took a long time. Then, I created a spreadsheet and, for every page in the manuscript, noted what themes appeared on what page. By examining the entire spreadsheet, across manuscript pages, I could see where storylines, or themes, fell out. I could make adjustments to pacing, to the reveal of Shelby’s inner and outer lives, to tension.

I was able to get a window into what I had written.

Here’s an example of the spreadsheet:

This technique might not be for everyone, but I was really amazed by how much it improved the structure of my manuscript. If you think it’s too much work, I suggest giving it a try on just a few chapters. You might be surprised by what you discover.

Until next time,

Nancy

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