I develop my stories similar to the development process of a movie studio. My process has five major phases:
2) Story Beats
3) Character Reports
4) Chapter Cards
If you start with a great concept, even a poorly written manuscript can be salvaged with strong editing. If you start with a weak concept, even a well-written manuscript will be found lacking. To ensure I have a great concept, I start with my pitch rather than creating one after I’ve finished a manuscript.
I spend a lot of time working out, then reworking the “tweet” version of my story. Yes, 120 characters, no spaces. I then expand this version to less than 90 words for pitch-ability.
The pitch or logline is the essence of the story. It’s THE concept. It answers the question “What am I trying to write?”
After I’ve worked out the story concept, I create a beat sheet. My beat sheet consists of the 15 major turning points of the story.
If the concept is the story’s soul, then the beat sheet is the story’s skeleton. Each beat is connected by change in the hero’s fortune, a cliff hanger, or a decision.
The beat sheet gives the story its structure. I gravitate to a standard three-act movie structure. It doesn’t mean I can’t go off on a tangent or experiment. It does mean I have a map of how to get back to my story if I get lost.
Breath to Breath is inspired by a true story, so there was a lot of research performed before the story development process began. My biggest obstacle was figuring out how to bring the horrific events suffered by young William forward in the timeline to occur when William was 17. The second obstacle was pulling the adult William’s wisdom and insight backward in time and in an appropriate way for a teen, and then shaping it to where he was just beginning to understand.
Once I’m satisfied with the structure, I define the characters.
Characters should have “7 Dwarves of Separation.” What I mean is that each character should be recognizable and different from each other on the page. Even if you took away their names, they would be recognizable by their voice, personality, quirks and motivations.
I generally define the hero first, then place characters around the hero that show off the hero’s spirit. Some have opposing beliefs, while other characters are overzealous in their similar beliefs. The hero’s choice to follow or oppose others gives the hero three dimensions.
The process is like modern dating. I create character reports akin to an eHarmony profile. The difference is, I’m not concerned with how attractive they look. I’m concerned with their character traits. The most important traits are their biggest dreams, their worst nightmares, their super powers and their flaws.
With Breath to Breath, the hero is based on a real person, so honoring him while allowing the fictional events to shape his character was a challenge. I spent a lot of time becoming friends with William before delving into the research phase. Building trust takes time, losing it takes only one misdirected sentence.
So at this point, I know what I’m trying to write, I know the major turning points of the story and I know my characters very intimately. This next phase is where I fill in the details.
I take 3 by 5 cards and lay them out into chapters. Screenwriters might call these scene cards. This exercise allows me to view my story in its entirety. I see where each character enters, where they exit and how they shape the hero’s journey. Each card can represent three scenes or, if I’m writing in verse, one poem. The cards help me create subtle set ups that lead to long pay offs. I recommend numbering your cards, perchance you receive an uninvited guest.
Once I have reviewed my chapter cards, made adjustments to characters, tested the story structure and compared these results with my original pitch, then I write.
I write until blue smoke rises from my keyboard and blood drips from my eyes. Every morning I wake up and mediate on the story, on the next scene, on the hero. I write at least ten pages a day but with Breath to Breath I discovered I could write seventy-five pages at one sitting but zero pages the next day. The issues in Breath to Breath were and are so dark, I had to give myself time to recover.
My writing isn’t an intellectual exercise, it’s an emotional journey. I live my characters, I dream their decisions and I exalt in their victories and cry at their failures. If writing your story doesn’t move you, then reading your story won’t move your audience.
I often write a ninety-page screenplay and novelize from that. It’s not a shooting script. It’s for my eyes only. A shooting script should have cut aways and multiple Points of View creating the visuals that drive the story forward.
Breath to Breath was written in first person and only through William’s eyes. In the novel we are allowed to experience not only what he sees, but what he feels, smells and tastes. We can read his innermost thoughts. In a movie we can only watch or listen.
I have lots of help in my daily writing process. Tina, my partner in life, makes me double espressos throughout the morning, which help kick my mind into drive. Incense helps clean the air and clear my senses. Smittens, my cat, helps keep time with her tail, I call it her fuzzy metronome. I must admit that yoga is also very helpful to fight any writer’s block you might encounter.
I hope you find something of value in my process. I wish you great success in your writer’s journey.
“To hear the poetry of your heart, you must silence your mind.” – Craig Lew
About BREATH TO BREATH:
Uprooted from his home and sent to live with his estranged father, seventeen-year-old William's world is feeling tenuous at best. When he's unexpectedly dragged into a situation in which he has no choice but to help an abused four-year-old boy, William’s world is rocked to the core as he discovers the truth behind the mysterious young boy’s stories of extreme sexual abuse. He and this boy are connected in ways William can't even imagine and as horrible memories begin flood his consciousness, William’s rage drives him to steal a neighbor's guns, convinced he must kill those responsible for causing a boy so much pain and betrayal. How William finds the love and compassion he needs to make the right choices is the heart and pulse of this riveting verse novel. Inspired by a true story, BREATH TO BREATH explores what hurt and healing really mean: to survive you hold your breath, but to live you must exhale.
Craig Lew’s storytelling career began even before he had learned to write. As a child, he used his father’s tape recorder to capture tales about strange planets and scary creatures. His favorite story openings at that time were, “Once upon a junk yard heap …” or “It was a dark and stormy night.”
A movie producer, director, award winning author, illustrator, and screenwriter, Craig still favors a Hitchcockian thriller over a broad teen comedy. Regardless of the genre, he believes the best stories involve a hero who is either seeking love or giving love. At heart he’s a big, mushy romantic.
Craig spends his days with his fiancé in a house on a hill with the corgi land seals Yobo and Zeekie, a three-footed Boston Terrier named Moogie, and Smittens, the kitten with the marshmallow mittens.
I strive to spread good karma. Artistically, I enjoy pushing the envelope because I believe this makes more room in the middle. I believe the keys to success are dreaming big, working hard, and being nice.
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