Story Treatments and the Future

A couple of weeks ago I sent the revised version of Jupiter Pirates Book 1 back to my editor at HarperCollins. The revision addressed the comments and requests he’d made — all of which, I’m happy to say, were very wise. But I also had my own goal in mind for that revision: setting up the rest of the story.

When I wrote the first Jupiter Pirates manuscript, I of course had some idea of where the story would go in later books, and I developed a one-paragraph summary of Book 2 as part of the pitch to interested publishers. But I didn’t think too much about the story beyond that — if anything, I discouraged myself from going too far down that road for fear of winding up disappointed if Jupiter Pirates came to nothing.

I wrote the first Jupiter Pirates manuscript on spec, as I knew publishers probably wouldn’t take a chance on a relatively untested author without one. That didn’t bother me, because my work on Star Wars and Transformers: Classified had taught me how to develop a workable story treatment and turn that into a young-adult novel relatively quickly and efficiently. I used the gaps in my winter schedule to plan and write Book 1, knowing that if it didn’t sell I’d be discouraged, but not out an exorbitant amount of time and effort that I could have devoted to paying gigs.

When Harper acquired Jupiter Pirates, I was able to move the rest of the story off the back burner where my subconscious had been stirring it and poking at it. And I quickly developed a plan of attack that I think has proved successful.

While waiting for notes back from my editor, I dug into Book 2, expanding the one-paragraph overview into a detailed story treatment that included not just the twists and turns of the plot, but also bits of dialogue and notes on the characters’ motivations. When finished, that treatment weighed in at more than 12,000 words. I haven’t started on the manuscript for Book 2, but I bet those 12,000 words will represent about 20% of its ultimate word count.

I know some writers see story treatments as drudgework, or think they sap the wrting process of its vitality and interest. I can’t disagree strongly enough: Planning in this way has revolutionized my writing, making the process much more efficient and improving the results.

Here are this convert’s four arguments for a detailed outline/story treatment:

1. Writing a novel without one is like driving to a place you’ve never visited without a map — you will get lost, sometimes hopelessly and/or irretrievably so. The treatment is your map, not a prison — as you drive, you’re free to take side trips, eliminate stops, try alternate routes and so forth.

2. Finding and fixing plot snarls, uncertain motivations and places where characters have too little to do is much simpler in an outline — you’ll save yourself lots of pain and toil by seeing the problems there, instead of when you’re two chapters into a narrative box canyon and have spent five stressful days looking for an alternative to retreating and scrapping those chapters.

3. Don’t regard the treatment as mere preparatory work, because it’s not: When you’re writing one, you’re writing the novel, with the treatment your down payment on the rest. Some writers think of treatments as scaffolding for what they’re going to build, but I think you’re building a foundation.

4. Plans change — you may have to put a story aside for months or even years. I have old story treatments tucked away, and when I read them I can feel the story come back to life inside my head in a way that wouldn’t happen from looking at scrawled points in a notebook. That will prove valuable somewhere down the line.

I completed the treatment for Jupiter Pirates Book 2 before I turned my attention to my editor’s notes on Book 1. This was deliberate on my part: It meant I’d be returning to Book 1 knowing in great detail what would happen in Book 2, and that allowed me to revise Book 1 to set up Book 2 better.

In writing the treatment for Book 2, I thought up characters and institutions I hadn’t had in mind when I wrote Book 1. I also realized I wanted historical events referenced in Book 1 to unfold differently than I’d first imagined them. And I thought of a good reveal for later in the series. Lining all this stuff up better didn’t take an enormous amount of work: Book 2 characters got included in a list of folks in a crowd, or institutions/events were briefly referenced in dialogue. Sometimes the effort was even less than that — it was rewriting something in a way that kept a narrative door open instead of shutting it. (And, in turn, having revised Book 1 I can now return to the Book 2 treatment with fresh eyes.)

I’m a huge Star Wars fan, so I kept a specific scene in mind during this process. In the original Star Wars, Obi-Wan Kenobi tells Luke Skywalker that Obi-Wan’s former Jedi pupil Darth Vader betrayed and murdered Luke’s father — only to have Vader reveal in The Empire Strikes Back that in fact he is Luke’s father.

That revelation is the pivot point of the entire Star Wars saga — the lightning bolt that turns a nifty Flash Gordon homage into something much more. It’s one of the great moments in movie history, but it requires some awkward backtracking: In Return of the Jedi, Obi-Wan answers Luke’s understandable questions by explaining that when Anakin Skywalker fell to the dark side, he became Darth Vader, and this new persona destroyed the good man he’d been.

“So what I told you was true, from a certain point of view,” Obi-Wan concludes.

Luke isn’t particularly convinced, and truth be told neither are we. That moment doesn’t sink Return of the Jedi, let alone the whole saga — the conflict between father and son is so elemental and iconic that we acknowledge the bumpy patch and get on with it, eager to find out what will happen.

But we feel the bump nonetheless — and a little more narrative ambiguity in the original Star Wars might have prevented it, allowing us to conclude Vader had killed Luke’s father, be shocked by the revelation in Empire and understand in Jedi how we’d made an incorrect assumption.

I’ll be an enormously happy writer if anyone thinks the revelations in Jupiter Pirates are one-tenth as good as Vader’s iconic reveal. And I know I’ll think of developments for my larger story that I’ll wish I’d set up better. But my hope is that more rigorous planning now will mean smaller bumps encountered later — and fewer certain points of view.