Principles of Building a Story

Read "Principles of Building of a Story" from From First Draft to Finished Novel.
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In his book The House You Build: Making Real-World Choices to Get the Home You Want, architect Duo Dickinson suggests several crucial principles in successful planning and building, such as using standard materials creatively, not hurrying, preparing an on-spec budget, building in phases, and designing something you would want to own for a long period of time.

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The process of planning and writing a book shares many of the same principles. When an author builds a story, he doesn’t need fancy tools. He just needs to creatively use the tools he has to come up with his own unique design. He writes what he knows and feels. While a story will be written on its own timetable, this doesn’t mean the author shouldn’t be goal-oriented and disciplined. After all, just as a house that doesn’t get built never gets lived in, a book that doesn’t get written will never be read. Additionally, building a story in phases, adding layer upon layer and making sure that the layers cohere, is the most productive, efficient way to complete a story. Certainly all writers want to offer a book that they’re proud to call their own indefinitely.

When Building a House

Even the steps in building a house are similar to those in writing a story. When building a house, the designer (or the one who will be living in the house) comes up with ideas for his dream house, makes very specific plans to lay the groundwork for the project, and only then breaks ground in order to lay the foundation. Framework is done inside and out, then electrical, plumbing, and ventilation systems can be installed.

The making (and breaking) of a house is based on the solidity of the foundation and framework. I remember when my husband and I were looking at houses in hope of purchasing our dream home. Our realtor showed us a house that had been decorated beautifully—the very best appliances, cabinets, carpeting, even a hot tub. But there was quite obviously something not right about the whole package. There were deep cracks running throughout the walls and ceiling, and the structure seemed to be slanting—not simply because it’d been built on a hill.

The realtor told us that the builder had been inexperienced and, initially, cheap. When making the foundation, he poured a thin layer of concrete in a slab, the way it would be done for a sidewalk. What he should have done was dig footings below the frost line and then build the house on the solid foundation of those footings. Because he didn’t, when the ground under the foundation froze in the winter, the water in the ground naturally froze as well and expanded, lifting the house in the places it froze. The frost heave caused violent cracks to form in the walls and ceiling. Other problems occurred as direct or indirect results of the shoddy foundation, including pipes bursting (because the house lacked a properly heated basement) and water damage. Additionally, there were major problems with the cheap heating system installed on the main floor.

In order to sell the house, this builder attempted to go back and cover up the problems by filling the house with an irresistible selection of decorations, like expensive furnishings and appliances (that whirlpool bathtub turned my head more than once in the walk-through). Ultimately, for my husband and I, nothing could change the fact that this house wasn’t solid enough to live in.

The builder had three options to fix what he’d done. The first wasn’t truly a fix since it essentially meant tearing the house down and starting from scratch—this time with a solid plan, quality materials, and a solid foundation.

The builder could have opted to jack up the main house and go back under to build a solid foundation. This option would have eliminated future problems but nevertheless brought a lot of unpredictability. He must have surely realized that the lack of a good foundation was the crux of the house’s problems—one that could never be fully corrected unless he went with the first and best option of starting from scratch and doing it right this time. But jacking up the house and making himself a good foundation wouldn’t fix the issues the bad foundation had already caused. At this point, the house had become a money and time dump, considering how few people would want to live in something so flawed. I honestly don’t know how the house passed inspection.

This builder didn’t choose either of the first two options. Instead, he chose an option that shouldn’t have even been an option. Out of cheapness (because he’d already poured so much cash into the house, trying to fix and cover up underlying problems), or maybe even sentimental reasons, he felt that the main level of the house was salvageable and he could sell it cheap as is. Hey, let someone else deal with the problems that’ll plague this house for years, he must have thought. And then, of course, the guy got lucky and someone bought the sinkhole, which means this builder probably thinks he got away with not doing it right the first time and might not have learned his lesson for the next time he puts a house up.

A quality builder stresses the importance of laying the groundwork right the first time. Only then can building begin with framework, the installation of drywall, cabinets, and interior trim. Decorating the house is the final step in the process. The layering steps must be done in the right order—and ideally not simultaneously—to complete a solid, pleasing home someone would want to live in for the rest of his life.

When Building a Story
When building a story, an author dreams up ideas through a process called brainstorming. When he has sufficient ideas to warrant actual physical work being done, he makes very specific plans to lay the groundwork for the project, and only then will he break ground in order to lay the foundation. Essentially, he creates a blueprint in some form—pre-writing or an outline—and this is the true solid foundation for any story. Only rarely will a job done right turn out wrong.

If a writer opts to skip the solid foundation of pre-writing, he’ll probably have trouble all through the project, especially at the end, when he has a massive stack of pages that somehow have to be fixed. An experienced writer may well be able to correct the crux of a story’s problems without starting from scratch, but this won’t necessarily make the problems caused by the initial, bad foundation go away. Without a doubt, the writer will dump a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into re-working and revising the manuscript, possibly many times.

No amount of decoration will fix a story that’s seriously flawed. In Novelist’s Essential Guide to Creating Plot, J. Madison Davis calls this kind of fixing “patching” the story. The writer relies on patching rather than a good design. The patch drops out of nowhere into a story and forces things to go where the author wants them to. The outcome is never convincing.

Rejection from agents and editors is inevitable when a story is fundamentally flawed. Even if the author is “lucky” and actually sells the work to a publisher, reviewers will then probably do what they always do—without mercy—and perhaps the author will learn his lesson. For a published author with a supportive publisher, we can only hope that, when readers don’t come back for more, the author doesn’t give up but instead endeavors from that point on to build soundly from the get-go.

It’s never productive to plunge into a story and write endless pages that either get discarded or have to be laboriously re-shaped. If you know your story and conflicts before you start writing, you can focus on scenes that work and advance the plot. Knowing your story will allow you to convey the character’s emotions more clearly through whatever he faces. Knowing your story gives you the edge to create tense scenes because you’ll be aware of what’s at stake in the end. Additionally, effective foreshadowing is done best when you know where the story is going from the first word written. You’ll know your character so intimately, you’ll have no doubt how he’ll react to each obstacle you put in his path.

First, make certain you have a story foundation that can support the framework you build onto it afterwards. Don’t move forward into writing the first draft until you have that.

Revising a story, like decorating a house, should be the final step in the process. These layering steps should done in the right order—never simultaneously—to complete a solid, pleasing novel that is fully realized and irresistible.


We’ve established, from comparing the process of building a house to the process of building a story, that there are three distinct layering steps. In building a house, these are:

Stage 1: Planning for and laying a foundation
Stage 2: Building
Stage 3: Decorating

In building a story, there are three distinct layering steps:

Stage 1: Planning for and laying a foundation
Stage 2: Writing
Stage 3: Revising

Each stage in building a house involves a variety of steps, such as picking out a plot to build on, working plans around the unique aspects of that plot, excavation, and a variety of installations. In writing, each of the three layering stages is distinct, and also consists of several steps. The first layer, planning and blueprinting, has four steps:

1. Brainstorming
2. Researching
3. Story blueprinting
4. Setting the story blueprint aside

Writing, like framework, is the second layer, and also involves four steps:

1. Building a cohesive story with a Story Plan Checklist
2. Evaluating the blueprint
3. Writing the first draft
4. Creating a punch list

Revising, the third layer, again requires four distinct steps:

1. Revising
2. Involving critique partners
3. Setting the final draft aside
4. Final editing and polishing

Then we get to Layer IV—which involves preparing your work for submission. This layer isn’t about crafting your story, per say, but it’s too important to ignore. Think of it as preparing to sell the house you worked so hard to build.

The Merits of Layering

Without layering, a story is one-dimensional, unbelievable, boring. But with proper layering, the characters will become so lifelike, readers may believe they’re fully capable of stepping right off the pages into the room. Layering means strength in story-building just as it does in house-building: stronger plots, suspense, intrigue, emotions, motivation, stronger everything. More reason for editors to love you and for readers to come back again and again.

Layering has another component that writers should take into account. Layering a story produces cohesion between all of the story elements.

The word cohesive brings to mind many concepts. You might think of the cohesion of a symbiotic relationship. The symbiont becomes one with its host. Separating the two is difficult (if not impossible) and, in some instances, unwise, as both may lose something vital they can no longer live without. The elements of a story work together in symbiotic cohesion.

Some dictionary definitions that really show the perimeters of the wonderful word cohesive are: “logically connected, consistent; having a natural agreement of part, harmonious; the act or state of uniting and sticking together; the molecular force between particles within a body or substance that acts to unite them; of or pertaining to the molecular force within a body or substance acting to unite its parts.”

I particularly like that last part because it so perfectly describes what happens when all the elements of your story fit together. It’s as if some elemental force draws each part of a story together and then fuses them until they become one and are unable to be separated.

The amazing part of this process is that it works uniquely for every single writer. In other words, if you gave the same basic idea to writers in every genre, each would come up with something different. In Breathing Life Into Your Characters, author Rachel Ballon says, “There is nobody else in the world exactly like you, and nobody but you can write the story you want to tell.” We’ll test that in the exercises included in Appendix B.

A builder knows the best supplies to use to produce a sound house, just as plumbers and electricians follow the guidelines and regulations of their professions. And a home decorator would never put together elements that are grossly at odds. His job is to create something that’s both pleasing to the eye and perfectly suited to the individuals in the home.

In the same way, the three main story elements of character, plot, and setting must be cohesive and work together in such a way that taking away a single element would be impossible because all of the elements have seamlessly become a part of each other. They complement each other.

The best reason I’ve ever heard for building cohesion into your story is from Debra Dixon in Goal, Motivation & Conflict: If characters, conflicts, goals, and motivations don’t intersect and collide, you’re writing separate books in the same manuscript. The process by which a writer builds cohesion is one of layering and building up and bringing together the strengths of all aspects within his story.

For more check out From First Draft to Finished Novel

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