The universe is vast, but the further we look toward the outermost edges, the more we see the overall structure, the way patterns are repeated across the enormity.
Think about it – the universe contains all we can measure and know, all of space and time and their contents, including planets, stars, galaxies, and all forms of matter and energy. It likes balls and spirals and has a structure that repeats itself. This is reflected in the shape and behavior of the smallest particles to the largest quasars.
The universe began.
We don’t exactly know how it began, but we are here, so it must have started somehow. The universe emerged from somewhere as an infinitely small singularity, so named because it is singularly unexplainable.
From that unfathomable beginning, a mysterious dark energy pushes things apart, expanding the cosmos to what we see as the observable universe. And on the sub-galactic level, we who live on this rocky island in the center of that vast sea of space and time go about our lives, having no effect whatsoever on the universe at large.
First off, no matter our conscious thoughts regarding the universe and God, writers don’t exist in reality. We exist in what we think reality is, and collectively, we create it as we go along, for good or ill.
No matter the genre, whether it is fiction, non-fiction, a textbook, or a technical manual – books are universes, static and frozen at a finite point for us to read and ponder their meanings.
Books begin with an idea, the singularity that bursts into existence. As it grows, the universe that is that proto-book takes on a recognizable shape.
A projected series featuring the lives of people set in a unique world is a cosmos unto itself. It is the story of that universe, told over the course of several books.
Many people are blinded by the quasars of inspiration, can’t conceive of that universe’s structure, and can’t imagine how the molecules of inspiration can become a universe. The brilliance of that first revelation blinds them to how attainable it is.
But if you make a map of what you can see, your own intelligent design, you can create your series of books with less struggle.
First, I tell myself how I believe the story will go. This takes a little time and is relaxing, a matter of sitting in a tranquil place with a pen and pad of paper and visualizing the singular idea of the story.
As I ponder that idea, finite events will come to me. I write them down, and they become major plot points. By the time I have to go back to other household tasks, my notes will have the rough shape of the story, in only five to ten handwritten lines.
A current work in progress takes place in a world I began writing in in 2008. This subseries began on a sunny day, while sitting on my back porch, watching the scrub jays, and laughing at their avian marital squabbles.
Out of nowhere, an idea went nova, and I wrote it down. These are my very first notes for the first book in that subseries, copied word for word from my yellow notepad:
A shaman. A person with a life like everyone else. They make mistakes, but they learn from them.
That led to another thought:
Divorced, single parent, struggles to be a good father to his son. What is his line of work?
A blacksmith who creates a magic sword. Who cares for his son while he works?
And that last thought led to my contemplating his family. “Who is his support group?”
His grandfather, father, and brother.
How do they come into the story?
My protagonist starts page one as divorced. I asked myself, “Does romance wait in the wings?”
Why this woman, and who is she in her own right? Where is she, and why does he have to go there?
She is highly respected, a woman with some power. Healing? He’s a shaman, so his reason for going there must be something spiritual.
Vision quest at someplace dangerous and difficult. Atop a mountain?
I contemplated those few notes for several days, during which I began creating a stylesheet/storyboard. I noted each random idea, which eventually became scenes I could visualize.
That’s when my imagination took over. The God-view zoomed in until I could see the story at the atomic level, and the words flowed.
As I wrote, the outline for that first book took its shape. The written universe is in constant flux, and the storyboard records the changes and keeps the fabric of time from warping.
First, I decided how many words I intended for the novel’s length and divided that into fourths. I took those fourths and turned them into acts. I wanted to keep it at about 90,000 words, so this is how I planned the arc to go:
Act 1: 10,000 words, the beginning: We show the setting, the protagonist, and the opening situation.
Acts 2 and 3: 60,000 words. Two major hiccups, combined to form the novel’s center, starting at the first plot point or the inciting incident. The tension grows to a mid-point confrontation. We show the hero’s dire condition and how they deal with it. By act 4, there is no going back, no changing course.
Act 4: 20,000 words: Resolution. We try to end the misery in a way that feels good and rewards the reader for staying with the story. It must end as if it were a standalone novel, but a minor sub-thread will be left unfinished. That sub-thread is the real core of the two-book series.
Once I have decided the proposed length, I know where the turning points are and what should happen at each. The outline ensures an arc to both the overall story and the characters’ personal growth.
This method works for me because I’m a linear thinker.
I have mentioned before that I use a spreadsheet program to outline my projects, but you can use a notebook or anything that works for you. You can do this by drawing columns on paper by hand or using post-it notes on a whiteboard or sticking them to the wall. Some people use a dedicated writer’s program like Scrivener.
Everyone thinks differently, so there is no one perfect way to create that fits everyone.
A storyboard/stylesheet should have a separate page for the glossary to ensure consistency. I wrote a post on creating a stylesheet, a.k.a. storyboard, for little or no cost, and the link is here: Designing the Story.
The workbook shown below is the stylesheet for the Tower of Bones series and has been evolving since 2009.
As we add to it, the written universe is constantly expanding. Sometimes, we have to adjust our ideas of how many words we will end up with, in total. The cosmos is a violent place. Even if we begin with a plan, we never really know how a story will go until we have written it. The outline keeps us mindful of the story arc and ensures the action doesn’t stall.
Try to get into the habit of writing new words every day. When you write every day, you develop strengths and knowledge of the craft. Give yourself the gift of half an hour of private writing time every day.
You’ll never know what you’re capable of until you try.
Again, the post discussing making a cost-free storyboard/stylesheet is Designing the Story.
I think you’ll find a storyboard is a valuable tool.