Jun 29

Sorting out the ball pit

As you work through the early stages of a concept, show or story, you’re really gathering information. You get to know your characters, how they work together and how they interact with other secondary characters. You know what you want to say with their interactions, thinking about the many important themes. You know how the environment works in your stories with each location providing so many scene ideas. You know the history, why everyone is the way they are, and where they might go from here.

This is great – you’re getting know the world of your story really well.

And it’s like you’re standing in one of those ball pits, only it’s the size of a large swimming pool. It is your job to take all those balls and stack them together in a really pleasing shape the size of a small cardboard box. With a hole at the bottom.

This is what it’s like crafting a story. All that information is helpful and often important. But it can be crippling too. It can be so hard to know where to start. When you do finally start, it can quickly become a total mess as the sides of your box split and balls roll everywhere and you can’t keep track of which is which.

So what do you do?

My method is to leave all those balls behind. Do the work, find the characters and the ideas and all that important information. Maybe put them in a document as you work through them. Then close that document and leave it behind. It’s like walking out of the ball pit. Then you start fresh and make just a few notes on the very basics. Really stripping everything down to its smallest form (like the 3-sentence characters I have written about before). A few small notes and nothing more.

That’s what you work from when you come up with your story. And that story – you write that up in a couple of lines. In fact, calling it a story should be a stretch. It will be a situation. The characters encounter this and a thing happens. Or one character wants to go here but this is a problem. Now you have a really simple, clear beginning. A focus. You only have a few colourful balls here. It’s not daunting any more.

Then you go down a level and flesh that out. Not much. Little half-page outline. At this point, you’re hoping it starts to become an actual story. Have some think time and add a few scene ideas, making a note of where they might fit in the outline. Play with that for a while and, when your outline feels good, start writing.

And here’s the thing – in the writing, your characters are going to start to live. When you get down to a scene level, the relationships really come into play and the details matter. You left that ball pit behind but having spent that time gathering all the info will pay off at this point. Then you work at those details until you have a rich yet clear story.

It’s a little like the food pyramid, which is clearly just a triangle so I’m not sure why they call it a pyramid. You start at the top, small and simple and confined, and it opens out more the deeper you go.

It should be noted that this is just my way of making sense of that ball pit. While we writers face the same challenges, our solutions often differ greatly and your approach will be your own. Find what works for you.

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