As we have discussed previously, all stories need a beginning, a middle and an end, even if they don’t appear in the story in quite this order.
All stories also have a narrative thread or journey that they take. This journey will shape how you create and write your beginning, middle and end of your story.
The narrative thread or journey is where you as the writer take the reader on a particular journey through your writing. It does not have to be an ‘actual’ journey. Not all stories tell us about your day at the zoo, or the time you climbed the Himalayas with your Gurkha guides. It might be a journey into your imagination. You could be thinking, for example, about how toothpaste gets its different coloured stripes. You might know how this happens for real, or you might prefer to take your reader on an imaginative journey into a fantastic tale of invented machines, or strange lands or magical spells to explain how this happens.
You might want to take your reader onto a journey into the past. You could be fascinated by the idea of what it was like to be a Victorian street urchin, or a drummer boy following the army in the war, or a Roman gladiator waiting to go into battle in front of a crowd baying for your blood. Your imaginative journey will take the reader under the skin and into the life of one of these characters so that, by the end of the story, we as the reader feel that we know something new and satisfying about the character or characters you have let us inhabit. These characters may have had an adventure, or you may just have taken us on a journey through their daily life. It does not matter. You as the author set the terms of the narrative journey we take.
It might be a description of a physical journey across the desert wastes, or a deep sea exploration or about the time you were stranded on a desert island. It might be a description of a journey to an alien planet, or through the jungles of a mythical country you have made up.
It might be a story about a particular experience which has changed your life forever, something like the birth of a baby brother or sister, the death of a beloved pet, a major birthday, or even changing schools.
It could chart the history of a friendship between you and your best friend, or you and someone you thought was your best friend and how they turned out not to be.
It could be about how your memories of the past have made you who you are today, or how something that happened to you will affect your future and what you think might happen.
It really doesn’t matter what your journey is, internal or external, real or imagined, as long as you write about it in a way that takes us, the reader with you every step of the way. As we have talked about before, it is important that the details of your narrative make your story ‘real’ to the reader. It is also important that the individual ‘steps’ or ‘plot points’ in your journey make sense.
When you are planning the journey that makes up your story, you could use your beginning, middle and end points to anchor the story, and then fill in whatever steps you need to include to get from the beginning to the middle and the middle to the end. Then use these like stepping stones to guide your descriptions to fill out the spaces in between.
You can do this by making notes, or holding the information in your head, or creating mind maps, whatever works for you.
I like to write what I have and then go and rewrite and rewrite, filling in all the gaps and refining my story as I go. This is a very time consuming way to work, but it works for me.
One famous children’s writer, Frank Cottrell Boyce, who wrote Millions and Framed amongst other books, and who also wrote the opening ceremony for the Olympics, talked in a short film about creating this narrative journey. He mentions a brilliant technique, which could help you if you are looking for a way to plan your narrative journey.
He suggests pinning up a washing line in the space where you are working (string would do just as well. It just has to stretch like a washing line). You then get some pegs, and pin all the information you have about your story, and all the pieces of information you want to put in your story, onto the washing line, using the pegs. You pin the information in the rough order you think it needs to go, and then as you add information you can move the pegs about until your story makes sense. Remember that you can take pegs off the line if you find that a bit of story no longer works because of changes you have made.
What you take out of a story is almost as important as what you keep in.
When your stories become more complex, you may find that you want to tell two different stories and weave them into each other. You can keep track of them using the same techniques. The washing line trick will be particularly helpful here, as you can use it to test how the two stories you are telling connect, and think about where might work better, or if they need to connect at several different points. If you are using pen and paper to map your narrative journey you may want to use different colours for different journeys characters and narratives take.
When you have finished your journey plan test it by reading it to yourself or someone else. If it makes sense, and there are no gaps in the narrative you will know it is finished. If someone starts the story in Venezuala and ends up in Swindon and you have forgotten to show how they get there, the map or washing line will show you, and you can fill the holes in accordingly.
Remember that not all journeys have to start and end neatly though. And not every journey is entirely explicable. You may want to leave certain things out on purpose to create an air of mystery or tension. You might want to deliberately confuse the reader so that they are left at the end of the story with questions that will make them think again and again about your story and keep them coming back to it. If you want to do something like this though, you will have to be very careful that you are doing this because you want to, and because it works, and not because you can’t be bothered to fill the gaps in.
If in doubt, when you think you have finished, imagine that you are the reader, not the writer of your story. Read the narrative journey to yourself and think about whether you are satisfied with the story. If you aren’t then you need to think what you need to do as the writer to change that and make the narrative journey as good as possible for your reader.