Thursday, August 11, 2011

Changing Scale: Looking at Your Story From Different Angles

By Janice Hardy, @Janie_Hardy

At World Fantasy a few years ago I was sitting in artist John Picacio's session, learning about how he illustrates his covers (very cool by the way). He said something that really resonated with me.

John started off in architecture, just like I did. He said in architecture, you're taught to create in different scales, so you never get so enamored with your design it keeps you from developing and improving it. You do rough sketches, small models, blueprints, renderings, large scale models, etc. It made me wonder if this would also work with writing.

One common writing pitfall is that writers can get sucked into their worlds or their words and find it hard to change anything once it's on the page. But what if you changed scale? Looked at it from macro and micro angles, studied the details as well as the overall plot, looked at the characters as a whole as well as individuals. Is this something that could help keep writing looking at the story and not falling in love with one small aspect of it?

If the macro story is all you can think about, what if you zoomed in and looked at the micro aspects. Personal traits of a character, how a neighborhood runs, a motivation, a secret. Explore the minutia and see if anything shakes loose. Don't worry about the big picture anymore, but let your mind wander and see what the details take you. Narrowing your focus could help you see aspects you hadn't thought about before, and let you learn more about a character or a place that was just a placeholder before.

If the micro details are where you lose yourself, maybe zoom out and look at the bigger picture. Paint with big brushes and broad strokes and get a more solid sense of how pieces connect. Explore the world, the overall plot, the far reaching consequences. Look at the goals and dreams of minor characters. You might find yourself learning how those micro details fit into the larger story, and even see places your story can go you hadn't thought about before.

I think this could also work in the early plotting stages when you're trying to determine stakes. What scale are your stakes at? Small scale? Large scale? A little of both? Can they scale depending on who you talk to? Maybe the stakes are small for one character, but huge for another, which could present some interesting conflicts down the line. Perhaps from one angle, the stake seem insurmountable, but from another they're more manageable, and that's a direction the protag needs to head in.

Same with character goals and motivations. What's important to them on the small scale? Day to day wants that might urge them to act, or even get them into trouble on the large scale. What are their large scale goals? The things they dream about but don't expect to have happen any time soon. Can the small scale goals of one character trigger a large scale goal of another? Do any goals intersect in any way along this scale? Characters might find themselves in tandem at certain times, and at odds other times based on the level of goal and how much they want it.

Like any good building, a story is full of pieces that make up its whole. The smallest details add to the overall facade. Next time you're stuck, try changing scale and see if that lets you see things in a new way. And shakes loose the creativity.

Do you change scale when you write? Where so you start -- large or small?


  1. I love how you related writing to architecture. My best friend for, well all of my life, really is going into architectural design and I want to write and it made me think of her and me as being more similar...

    great post! With some really awesome advice.

  2. I love the comparision. I'm currently going through my WIP on a micro-scale, so we'll see how it turns out.

  3. Thanks! There's really a lot of similarities between buildings and stories. People need to be able to move through them well, find their way, they need to entice people to come inside, the whole is built up by the smaller parts, a solid structure is underneath no matter what the outside looks like. Looking at art as a writer was an interesting experience.

  4. Great ideas and some very useful analogies to help writers maintain a handle on all aspects of their books as they are written.

    It actually reminds me of another saying I've heard several times before - "The operation was a success; unfortunately the patient died."

    I believe many writers are guilty of getting drawn into the characterisation, environmental description and whatever other detail, and forgeting the prime purpose is to tell a story.

    Good post and thanks for the tips.

    Chris Warren
    Author and Freelance Writer
    Randolph's Challenge Book One - The Pendulum Swings

  5. Right now I'm small scale via chapters. Next I go large scale to the whole novel when I'm completely done draft one. Then back to small scale. (And probably back to the big picture. This is like a lather, rinse, repeat thing, I gather.) Yikes! But you definitely helped me prepare myself mentally.

  6. Great quote, Chris. Yeah, writing is sometimes like that. We do everything right, (or write? hehe) but the story dies.

    Donna, I do pretty much the same thing (though I do summarize in my outline when I'm working through stuff). I think I'm going to add a character "outline" now too to work through character stuff as well. It works for plot, so why not character?

  7. Cool! I've done some of this...but I'd never really thought about it before in these terms. I love how my writing group takes a chapter at a time, so each chapter has to be interesting in its own write. I've also written two different novels where I started by writing a 20k novella as an "outline," then went back and filled in scenes, subplots, etc. It was kind of a fun way to write a book -- I had the framework and structure, and could focus on making it all come alive.

  8. I loved this post. Loved it, loved it, loved it! Thank you so much for posting.

  9. I have no clear answer… and in that might lay the problem.

    I pause to think

  10. Most welcome! So many times I've found that changing how I look at something (ever if it's just a different term) really helps shift my thinking. It's so easy to get caught up you don't look beyond what's right in front of you.