In my previous blog post on this topic, I explained how stories are analogous to computer simulations, in a way I thought might help people who think like me. In this post I explain how to set up the “initial conditions” for a new story.

I vividly remember trying to plot a full novel using different post-its for different characters. I wrote up drafts for the first scenes of each character, and they stayed on my wall for a month. I didn’t get any further with it, because I hadn’t written those scenes. I just had my initial conditions, but I hadn’t let the simulation run. Once I wrote up those scenes, the next steps became apparent.

What do good initial conditions look like? To me, it’s notes on plot, character, theme and setting.

(Research is often a big one for me, and a big competitive advantage: few people do the initial-condition due diligence required to start writing something heavily researched.)

What do I know about these characters? Who are they, were they, etc? Where will this story take place and why? What is going to happen? What do I think this story is about?

I answer as many of these questions as I can before I’ll get to typing out anything of the first draft.

I don’t see how someone can write a good story without knowing more about the characters than appears on the page. When it’s done, all a reader’s questions must be implicitly answered by the resulting text. Better to answer as many up front so as to minimise work later on.

And this isn’t a rigid, systematic approach: I don’t know if your story takes place on Earth, if your characters are human or a collection of bitter shoeboxes, or if the plot takes the path of a fractal. There is still infinite scope within this methodology. After all, there are many types of reactors: plug-flow, continuous stirred-tank, semibatch, catalytic. They’re different shapes, and mix different reagents, but they all contain reactions and operate on the same basic principles, which underpin the great machines and chains thereof that lead raw material to product, from beginning to end.

You may want to add “structure” notes, but nothing irks me more these days than cleverly structured stories: lists, FAQs, whatever. I try to avoid anything that reminds me that this thing didn’t really happen, and anything so calculated and transparent just never resonates as much as it could.

(Side note: I think list stories sell so well because readers know when the thing is going to end. I have to imagine they’re written for people who can’t wait to stop reading.)

And if you’re anything like me, you most certainly will not make any notes on genre or audience, what market you will send the story to when it’s done. I mean, you may wish to add certain definite components to the initial conditions if you’re writing for a specifically themed submission—but anything more specific and you can correct it later.

So, when you write a bit about the plot, or the setting, more characters appear. They need characterised. Details of backstory appear. They need added to the plot. They have settings. Those settings have characters. And so on and round and round.

How do you know when you’ve done enough? Because nothing more occurs to you. It sounds, through my outline above, like it will keep going indefinitely—but background characters don’t need as much work. Some scenes take place in the same setting, and so on. There are definite limits. A story itself, no matter how big, is finite.

Next time I’ll write about re-drafting 😊