Story Design: Keep the Hay Out of Your Needle Stack
Imagine my senior year of undergraduate. I’m studying philosophy, preparing to go to law school the following Fall. For the past year or so, I’ve been writing a collection of stories that I believe will form a uniquely awe-inspiring novel for the world to read, the same story I’ve discussed previously, killed by fire with the assistance of my first editor.
That first draft, and its corresponding second draft lacked polish. They were terrible. Here’s an example of a line from the first chapter:
There is one more significant gain from natural processes that people should consider. The loss of creation from the realm of the divine places creation firmly in the hands of mortals. Through creation, humans have made marvelous things. Humans make marvelous things and will continue to do so until the end of time. If we can say that God created anything truly important, it is that he created the ability to create. I do not pretend to make a claim regarding the existence of God, but if the universe finds its origin with a divine being, certainly creativity was an ultimate goal to coalesce within the universe.
Seriously. What the hell am I talking about? I dive into so many tangents in the first chapter that any sane reader would put that book down immediately. My mind was so far up my own philosophy degree that I couldn’t see the light of day, injecting useless anecdotes that I wanted to say rather than what was necessary to tell a story.
At some point, I plan on sharing many of the writings from those early drafts (especially the first chapter), both as an example of what not to write for your first novel, but also to show the evolution of First of Their Kind from its earliest roots. Especially once my novel is in the hands of (hopefully) many of you, it’ll be fun to take a trip down memory lane. Those original chapters will provide numerous teaching moments!
But more importantly, those initial writings form the core design behind First of Their Kind. Well, sorta.
When I approached my third draft, I started from scratch. I only kept the content of one chapter, and even that chapter was significantly transformed. I had failed to stick to the core design of my book. I had failed to keep the hay out of the needle stack.
I’m sure you’ve all heard the saying “searching for a needle in a haystack.” Well, I’m proposing the reverse as a metaphor for your role as an author. When you design a story, you’re constructing a stack of needles. The needles are your chapters and scenes. Together, they build a coherent picture. The hay is the fluff; the words that distract readers from your story. Its core, its plot, its characters, its setting.
Everything must connect back to your story’s design. If it doesn’t, kill it with fire.
So what’s that look like in practice? Here’s the step-by-step process I used when rewriting First of Their Kind from the ground up.
Identify your story’s original needle. What drew you to this story in the first place? Was it the main character? Was it a particular question in science? Was it a setting you wanted to explore? Make sure you know your story’s core. You must build around it.
Identify the hay, or identify the other needles. Depending on the state of your manuscript, one or the other might be easier. In the case of First of Their Kind, I identified the hay, aka, every chapter in my book. Scratched it all.
Arrange your remaining needles so they connect with one another. When you’re writing your first or second draft, do you notice that you take your story down tangents and side quests? Diversions aren’t necessarily a bad thing, but in the end, they must serve your story’s core. Remember when everyone critiqued the escapade to Canto Bight in The Last Jedi? They thought it didn’t serve the central conflict and distracted viewers from the real story!
Now burn the hay. If you’ve identified the parts of your story that connect with the core juxtaposed against the excess, your path forward should clearly present itself. Eliminate the pieces that will distract your readers. You’ve all heard the term “kill your darlings.” Well go beyond that. Eviscerate them, remove them from existence, recognize why they shouldn’t be your darlings.
Let’s dive deeper into my logic behind reformulating First of Their Kind. Why did I rewrite the entire story starting with the third draft? The entire book was hay. I was searching for the needles in a haystack, not the other way around.
In my naive college brain, I thought I could tell a coherent story using a narrator analyzing a series of events occurring over the course of three hundred years. Essentially, the book was a collection of short stories loosely connected in the same timeline.
Yet in writing those stories, I lost focus. I dove down tangents to serve my own writing curiosities. The book would have bored readers to death, for it lacked a real plot, consistent characters, or identifiable setting.
So I burned it. But the thing about hay? It’ll burn much faster than metal needles. After setting my book ablaze, I was left with three hooks.
First. The synthetic intelligence of that tale was the narrator. I thought I’d written about them but I’d actually written them out of the story entirely by the end! Starting the third draft, the narrator became the main character. Every chapter is through their eyes.
Second. I’ve kept its scale. In First of Their Kind, I’m telling a tale that spans multiple generations. The first book will take place between 2048 and 2052, while the second book occurs in 2078 and 2102. Future tales will go well beyond. The plot grows, pulls in new characters, and expands in scope.
Third. The final chapter. What eventually became the epilogue of book two, my final chapter of that old, old draft was the only chapter my editor actually liked. It remains, acting as a guiding post for the rest of my story. When outlining, I asked, “how do I get the plot to that point?”
After four additional drafts, I think I’ve succeeded, but I guess I’ll need to wait until its in front of readers like you.
So remember, keep the hay out of your needle stack. Find your story’s core, and keep your vision straight and narrow. When you take winding side-paths, make sure you bring it back around to main street.
Otherwise, you’re just adding fluff to your story, ensuring your readers will burn your book like I burned my original drafts.
Until next time,
C. D. Tavenor