You know how your favorite fantasy characters like Geralt or Aragorn or Uhtred tuck their sword into their sheath and it feels so epic when it’s unsheathed? The same thing happens in construction.
When a building finishes framing, that is the wood studs are installed on bottom and top sill plates, it gets covered by sheets of plywood also known as sheathing. Get it? ‘Cause you’re tucking something (the studs) away? Ah, construction. So punny.
The average house is 2,000 square feet (SF). A sheet of plywood is 4 by 8 feet and needs about 70 nails to secure it in place over the studs. Let’s say we have 45 foot long walls that are 8 feet tall, equalling 720 SF needing to be covered. Divide that by 32 SF for the plywood’s size means we need 23 sheets of plywood. Multiply the number of sheets by nails and it takes about 1600 nails to install sheathing. And that doesn't even include the nails for the actual framing or any pop outs or structural beams, roof trusses, or subflooring.
Similarly, for every second of a video, whether it’s YouTube, TikTok, or a full-length feature film, every second of footage equates to one minute of editing. The average film is 100 minutes long. That’s 6,000 hours of editing and when divided by 40 hour chunks of time for a work week, it’s 150 weeks.
Granted, hollywood runs on caffeine and sleep deprivation and they edit films in 6 months to a year (unless you’re Avatar), but that amount of time doesn't include everything that came before it from preproduction’s script writing and logistics planning and casting and costuming and do you see how exhausting it is to create something?
Those scattered bits of effort, those minutes that slip into every facet of creation, those nails that hold the building together, are impossible to see within the finished product. We look at end results and compare our small offerings to them and it puts our creation to shame. Except, we’re not seeing what’s on the cutting room floor or what’s piling up in the dumpster. Or the literal blue dumpers on the jobsite.
Construction is ugly. Every single one of my paintings goes through an ugly stage. All of my stories have made me cry with frustration that I’m not smart enough or don’t work fast enough to make the story come to life and the manuscript ends up looking like a war zone of colored highlights safety-pinned together with half-baked thoughts and random musings.
All art, anything worth creating, goes through ugly stages until it comes together at the end. And it’s not a miracle. It’s not by luck or talent. It is through construction for there is art in construction and construction in art.
And as a woman with a Bachelor’s of Science in Construction Management and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, I’m rolling out the blueprints to show you how to build your story.
The Six Elements to Story Building
There are only six things you need to know to build your story: concept, character, theme, plot, scenes, and voice.
Writing Tip No. 1 - Brainstorm a Concept
In construction, concept is often seen in rough sketches and renderings. Concepts form after reviewing a client’s program to develop the drawings contractors will then follow to build. It’s having an idea then trying an iteration of it to see if the idea works. It’s a lot of trial and error, and it’s the same for writing.
Concept is the culmination of two ideas. Concept is born from a character having a goal while another character, or antagonist, or antagonistic force, stands in the way of that happening. Humans are wired for conflict and looking for battle plans to use in our own daily wars. So drum up some ideas, think about what story you want to tell, the story that needs to be told, and see how the ideas can build into a concept.
Author Larry Brooks writes, “Isolate whatever edge makes the story compelling to you, and then elevate it to a level that it will become interesting to a reader who doesn’t.”
Writing Tip No. 2 - Craft a Compelling Character
Now, floor plans are only one part of a set of construction drawings. Additional disciplines like topographical surveys, grading, and foundation plans are needed for the building to sit snug and secure within the site. In terms of writing, character is the foundation of your story. Concrete footings support the building and everything else that comes after it. So make sure it’s strong.
Creating characters is less about creating them and more about unearthing them. Like clay from the soil, authors will work with their characters and mold them into who they need to become. And oftentimes, the character will reveal their personalities, ambitions, hopes, fears, and dreams in a symbiotic process. Writer Gabriela Pereria states, “Your story exists because of the decisions your character makes.”
In tandem with concept, characters must have a goal to achieve by the end of the story. The goal cannot be something far off in the future. It cannot be vague or abstract. It must be a legitimate concrete goal that progress can be made in incremental steps over the course of the story. This goal sets the foundation for a concept to form and a plot with obstacles to take shape.
Writing Tip No. 3 - Turn on the Light with Theme
Every modern building has these three things: mechanical (HVAC), electrical, and plumbing. Often referred to by their acronym of MEP, or utilities for underground work, they’re crucial to building a fully functional structure.
Underground utilities is the work of install storm drain, water, and sewer pipes to bring and deliver… substances from the building. (Remember what I said about construction being ugly? Yeah.) Once the pipes are in the ground, that work will never see the light of day again but is crucial to deliver power from the main distribution panel so that it turns on the light.
Just like MEP utilities, theme is the live wire that goes throughout the entire story, from beginning to end and is essential for a compelling, functional story. And while there’s a lot of mixed opinions about planning for theme in your story, theme comes from character. Your character wants to achieve a goal but something within them, some value, some moral line, independent of the external antagonistic force, cannot be crossed.
Example: you want to open your own business, but you risk being seen as self absorbed and materialistic. You want to save the galaxy, but you risk your own safety and security.
This inner conflict is challenged through plot over the course of the book. External events are not the book’s purpose (unless your purpose is to entertain then that is a whole other conversation). The inner war your character battles is the purpose of story. It is theme.
Author Donald Mass writes, “All stories are moral. All stories have underlying values. If they didn’t, we wouldn’t listen."
Writing Tip No. 4 - Frame Out with Plot
Just like wood studs or steel columns that are fastened together and give the building shape, plot is the structure that is built upon the foundation of your character. Going vertical is the most exciting part of construction, the most anticipated, and requires the most coordination for installing MEPs.
Larry Brooks breaks down plot with a four-act structure: The Setup, The Response, The Attack, and The Resolution. Each of these four acts has their own milestones to pace the when and how the character and their internal conflict are challenged. Plot is the vehicle by which readers are guided through the home, brought in through the front door, given a tour of the house, climb the set of stairs, before making it to the surprise backyard barbeque.
If a character stays in the same mindset at the end of the book as they are when they started it, if they have not been fundamentally changed, then there was no theme and therefore no story.
In Larry Brooks' Story Engineering (2011), he drops this major writing tip: “Organic writers who develop their stories using multiple drafts are, in fact, searching for and fleshing out the [story] as they go, along with the initial idea itself. Story planners go deep into all four elements ahead of time, creating a linear structure and then rendering their first draft as much an exercise in structural execution as it is a search for character and theme.”
Writing Tip No. 5 - Structure Story Using Scenes
With our blueprints in hand, utilities installed, foundation laid, and framing taking shape, we move from engineering to the architectural side of building. In writing, we’ll move from elements to the execution of those elements. Sheathing and drywall smooth out the framing and so scenes will smooth out the implementation of plot, character, and theme.
While the overarching plot has 4 acts and 7 milestones in its macro-structure, each scene has 5 milestones in its micro-structure. Each scene needs a goal, conflict, consequences, and a realization that furthers the story all while narrowing the character’s chance at obtaining their goal.
Lisa Cron explains in Story Genius (2016), “Scenes are not individual at all, but part of this escalating cause and effect trajectory. Each scene will be triggered by the one that came before it, and will trigger the one that follows.”
Writing Tip No. 6 - Stylize Pages Using Voice
And finally, arguably the best part of construction, are the finishes. Finishes include paint, wallpaper, light fixtures, carpet, and furniture. Finishes can be in an Art-Deco style, Farmhouse Chic, or Mid-Century Modern. It’s up to the designer. Or if you’re an author, you.
Finishes is the voice, or style, of your writing. It’s prose and every choice you make when putting words on the page. Choosing the word “stumble” versus “careem” sends a message. Choosing “shut” versus “slammed” provides context, imagery, and insight.
A mansion can be dressed as decrepit and decaying or glistening like The Great Gatsby, but it depends on the character and their past and hinges on every other element that’s gone before, all the work underneath the finishes. Paint is rolled onto drywall which sheathes framing which is bolted into the foundation.
As Eudora Welty says, “Prose is a structure in its every part, that the imagination is engineered when we write. A sentence may be in as perfect control as a church or a bridge.”
I grew up building LEGOs. Heck, I still do. I enjoy taking things apart and putting them back together to understand how they work. It’s why I started my undergrad studying mechanical engineering. Studying what came before you allows you to do it better. So it’s our job to reverse-engineer the stories we love, those things that are done well, and figure out what makes them tick so it looks effortless when we start building.
All it takes is conceptualizing the blueprints of your story, setting your character’s concrete goal, roughing in the live wires of their inner conflict, framing up the plot, sheathing it in with scenes, and stylizing the page with a voice only you can speak.
How will you use these six writing tips to build your story?