Finding your story’s controlling idea, and a whole lot more.

6 Jun

(Image via here)

What is my first novel really about or as Robert McKee puts it, how do you find your story’s controlling idea? This is the question I have been mulling over for the past three weeks. Now, I do know the story, as I wrote the whole thing in virtual solitude over 3 months of constant writing – not quite Jack Torrance from The Shining, but solitude nonetheless. When I stood back from it (via the failed editing attempt of May/June), I was unable to put my finger on what the story was fundamentally about.My head reeled with the messages that filled the pages and I knew that all these messages had to sum up to something of importance. But what? What exactly was I trying to say and what did I want to tell the world??

When I found myself in my local book store in a last ditched attempt to salvage the remaining shreds of my writing confidence, I needed something that would spell out to me in layman’s terms the fundamentals of telling a story that readers like to read. My fear was that my manuscript was a jumbled up brain-dump of unstructured narrative that failed miserably to understand what it was really about or what it was trying to say?

I left my local book shop with Robert McKee’s ‘Story’ – the only book in the entire store about how to tell a story, albeit in the guise of screen-writing, but I figured the principles would transfer to novel-writing. The book was like a god-send, mapping out the elements of story-telling as if I had wished for the book to be presented as such. And then there is was, on page 117 – How do you find your story’s controlling idea? In other words, what have you been writing about for the past 80K words?

McKee advised to look at the ending, the climax of you work and ask two things:

1. ‘As a result of this climatic action, what value, positive or negative charged is brought into the world of my protagonist?’

2. ‘Tracing back from this climax, digging into the bedrock, ask: What is the chief cause, force, or means by which this value is brought into his world?

The sentence you compose from the answers of the two questions becomes your controlling idea.

After I finished this exercise I left my writing desk and went out to sit in the garden, reading the sentence I had written over and over again. I don’t think I was prepared for what I had written down. Fifteen minutes later, when I re-opened McKee’s book and read the remaining paragraph, McKee talks about how this exercise works as a form of ‘Self-Recognition’ and that you can be shocked by what you see reflected of yourself in your storys climax. I was floored.

This tiny exercise was both incredibly insightful yet also quiet unnerving but it has given me a whole new outlook and perspective on what I have written. It has opened my eyes to strong elements of my story that I was unaware of, I guess mostly because the book is about me. Thanks Mr. McKee, finally I think I understand something about myself that I could never quite put my finger on!


8 Responses to “Finding your story’s controlling idea, and a whole lot more.”

  1. Jilanne Hoffmann June 6, 2012 at 6:14 pm #

    Ya gotta love those Eureka!! moments. I’m so glad you found what you needed–or maybe it found you. And thanks for giving us a peek into the book. I will ask those questions of my own stories from now on. Thanks!

  2. Phil June 9, 2012 at 7:53 am #

    Oh – like this a lot. ‘As a result of this climatic action, what value, positive or negative charged is brought into the world of my protagonist?’

    I and my co-writer have been feeling a bit lost with our novel recently but you’ve made me realise that we do have a climax right at the end of the book and we have managed to build to it. What we’ve been doing is take a helicopter view of the story and yet if you look from the end of the tale, just like a reader who reaches the last page will do as they close the covers, it makes sense. I can see a thread running through the words again.

    Maybe we are doing something right. Maybe it is worth plugging away.

    • What's it All About and Other Stories June 12, 2012 at 11:42 am #

      Hi Phil – thanks for your comment and I’m glad you found some inspiration in it. It is definitely worth plugging away and trying to find where the soul of your story is. I’m so glad that you can see a thread running through the words again – it is so easy to lose perspective of what you are trying to tell the world; to read between the lines of what you have written and understand what you are really writing about!!

      Good luck and let me know how you get on!!

  3. mypenandme June 21, 2012 at 11:53 pm #

    I have nominated you for the One Lovely Blog Award. 🙂

    If you accept this award, please copy and paste the award icon onto your blog and follow the instructions. Best regards, -Mary Ann

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