Looking at the big picture
When we write a story, it’s so easy to get lost in the details. We want to be sure to include all of those luscious little bits like the smell of her hair, the feel of his skin, the warmth of the sun as it streams in through the windows. We describe the settings in which we place our characters and we remember to see those settings through our characters’ eyes so that we not only see where they are but get a feel for how that character feels about it. But more than all of that, we love to get lost in the actual story – what our characters do and how they react to things that happen to them.
We know that there needs to be conflict in our story, so we think of all the wonderfully horrible things that can happen to our characters. We put them into harm’s way and have other characters be mean and nasty creating all sorts of troubles. And, of course, we revel when our characters deal with all those problems and get themselves out of the messes we put them in with grace and dignity.
This is all wonderful stuff! Every book should be filled with all of this, but you, the author, of all this terrific writing, need to also keep one other thing in mind: The Big Picture.
The big picture is the character’s arc—their growth, their movement to and away from their goals. The big picture is the overall story structure of your work, making sure that the story advances, that tension rises, but that it also falls, and that there are times when the characters don’t move toward their goal but away from it (that conflict I mentioned).
The big picture is what the reader doesn’t see, but if it’s not right they’ll know it.
Without a solid story structure that follows what we expect in the way of ups and downs, your story will flounder. It will wander aimlessly with very little forward movement. The pacing will be off—too fast or, more likely, too slow.
If your protagonist doesn’t have a goal, the reader will begin to wonder why they’re reading this book in the first place. If the goal is unclear the reader won’t care and they certainly won’t feel satisfaction when the protagonist moves closer to their goal, feel upset or frustrated when they move away from it, or cheer at the end of the story when that goal is finally achieved – if they even get that far.
There are some writers who don’t think about the big picture when they’re writing, they just write a whopping good story. Once that’s achieved, then they can go back and analyze what they’ve got and ensure that that structure is there, the protagonist has a definite goal, and everything that happens either moves them toward or away from it. Doing this usually involves deleting or completely rewriting a number of scenes and working hard to ensure that big picture is clear and coherent. That’s fine. That is one way some writers’ process works. Writers who do it this way usually write by the seat of their pants.
There are some seat of the pants writers who start out with the big picture already in their heads and write from there. People who can do that amaze me because that’s a lot of information they’re keeping in their mind as they allow their story to unfold.
For those of us who plot first, carefully crafting our characters before we even set fingers to keyboard, we need to make sure that that big picture is there and that it makes sense. We need to be sure our character’s goal, motivation, and conflict are worked out ahead of time and we use that information to decide on what scenes to write and in what order. We do the big picture stuff first and then let all of those beautiful little details happen as we write.
Whatever your process is it doesn’t matter just so long as you keep that big picture in mind when you’re editing your work. If you don’t and it’s not clear, you and your reader are going to know it. The story won’t flow. Characters won’t be sympathetic. And worst of all, there won’t be a touch of satisfaction at the end of the book.
Working on this big picture is a vital part of the craft of writing. Don’t let it slide in the name of “story” because without that big picture there, ultimately, won’t be a story, or not a good one.
Yes, love your characters, having them do interesting things, and create that conflict, but make sure they are moving toward a goal with single-minded determination. Don’t let the fun of creating characters and writing a story distract you from the all-important big picture.