By Sharla Rae
In our WITS crit group, we all have our individual critiquing talents: grammar, tight writing, action scenes, male point of view, description etc. And when one of us starts a new project, we verbalize or write an outline of the story so that our partners can critique the individual story elements as well as the Big Picture. That’s where my own critiquing talent pays off – I’m the big picture gal in our group.
The big picture is everything that happens from page one to “The End,” in other words, the story as a whole. While story structure is involved, I'll leave that discussion to David Morrell in his book, Lessons From a Lifetime of Writing. I’m discussing how to stay focused on the story's roadmap to the big picture.
I ask these questions:
- Do the characters stay true themselves and thus the plot’s roadmap?
- Do all the events serve a purpose toward the resolution of the story?
- Do both characters and events support the themes?
Note: To varying degrees, I’ve seen these very same questions on contest judging forms. So I’d say these questions are “very” relevant.
From the above questions the three “basic” elements of the big picture are evident:
I’ll touch on plot and theme first and since plot and theme are notoriously confused, here’s an easy clarification to keep in mind:
Theme is what the author is trying to convey. It’s woven throughout the entire story and connects to the reader on an emotional level. Short stories usually have only one theme but a novel can have several.
Sometimes writers aren’t aware of the theme(s) until they start writing. Think about the emotions evoked in your book, and you’ll realize the themes. If a story is about a woman who has lost her husband and then years later finds love again, perhaps the theme is grief, acceptance, and learning to love again.
- Coming of age
- Convention and rebellion.
See more: 101 Common Themes.
Plot is what happens in the story -- the why and order of events. No matter the twists and turns in a book, all events/scenes need to move the story toward its resolution.
Basic Plot Events:
- Opening information
- Complication/Conflict – Catalyst that starts the complication
- Climax – turning point that occurs when characters resolve complication
- Resolution – event that bring story to an end
Everything characters feel, say and do should logically fit into the big picture. Even if the characters decide to hijack the bus, the writer still holds the road map and thus controls their direction.
If an event or a character’s actions do not support the big picture, the result is a disruptive, gratuitous scene. It’s disruptive because it detours the reader right off the story's map and either changes the big picture or at the least makes it confusing.
Surprisingly, it’s very easy to write a gratutitous scene – usually because it satisfies something within the author. We’ll be writing along when wham, this crazy idea pops into our heads - what if this or that happened? Hmm, I think I like it! And we just have to write it into the story because the idea is too good not to use. On rare occasions the new event might work but often it's like taking a scenic route on a trip and then getting lost.
Other times, a gratuitous scene might occur because of a need to convey an idea or the desire to follow a commonly accepted genre format -- whether it’s right for our particular big picture or not. I could have easily made this mistake in one of my books.
Most long historicals have a love scene at least a third of the way through a book.
Looking at the big picture, I couldn’t make that happen in my latest book. My heroine
had trust issues and the plot’s roadmap called for events in which the hero earned her
trust before intimacy took place. Since the hero had played unfairly to begin with, he needed time to prove himself worthy of her.
I worried about disappointing readers, but throwing in a love scene too early would’ve
been nothing more than gratuitous sex. The reader would’ve lost respect for my heroine and the book!
I couldn’t allow that to happen. Instead, I built the sexual tension to a boiling point so
that when my characters finally hopped into bed, the sheets caught fire. The integrity
of the big picture remained in tack and the readers’ expectations were satisfied.
Another mistake writers make is adding gratuitous humor. I love writing funny scenes but writing one merely for the sake of a laugh will drive the big picture into a ditch of the ridiculous. Humor needs to be a natural occurrence. The same holds true with a blood & guts scene or even an action scene like a car chase.
So before you write that wonderful scene in your head, make sure it fits the story’s big picture. If it doesn’t, give yourself permission to write the scene, but file it in your “x-files” to use in another story where it fits perfectly.
- Seventh Sanctum - Quick Story Theme Generator
- Great list of Common Themes in Literature
- Interactives - Analyzing Themes (Great site to study theme and plot!)
Have you ever had “big picture” problems or caught a few in a book or movie? How do you keep true to your big picture?