The Story Corpse: How to Raise Your Novel from the Dead
At this year’s annual YALLWrite (a conference for YA writers) V.E. Schwab led a writing process masterclass. In it, Schwab likened the writing of a story to necromancy, to the creation of a person, a la Frankenstein. There are four major parts to the “story corpse” as she calls it: bones, muscle, flesh, and clothes/makeup. Starting with the skeleton, the parts guide the order in which one drafts and revises.
Schwab’s method easily applies to different long-form writing projects. Additionally, her method intuitively describes story elements and their importance at different writing stages.
You start with the “story skeleton,” the foundational pieces that frame the body’s shape. This is the plot that will help writers map their way through the difficult first draft.
These bones are scenes or moments, ones that make your story unique. To identify these, Schwab asks: What 5-10 moments can this story not exist without? These original 5-10 ideas should be special and specific to your story. They should be moments that you cannot imagine your story existing without.
This list will guide you through the difficult moments of writing. Its skeletal nature gives you structure, but still room to experiment and find your story as you write.
Although you may end up with anywhere from 50-200 bones throughout the book, it’s good to not have them all written out at this point. As you revise, you’ll likely get rid of, change, or move around these initial plot points, so don’t overthink the list. It’s designed to act as a series of lighthouses, of signposts, to organize your creativity without being overly prescriptive.
At the bare minimum, however, try to include a clear beginning and end. The former, for obvious reasons, and the latter so you have something to work towards throughout the first draft. Defining your ending ahead of time also allows you to work backwards from the end on plotlines and character arcs.
This is the most basic of stress tests for your story idea. By starting with the beginning and the end, then filling in a series of bones between, you start the process of writing with assurance that your story ideas is big enough, that it has enough space, to fit into this one book. And if you can’t think of the story bones, or other problems, this prevents you from discovering that 10,000 words in.
Story Bones Checklist
- A short, descriptive title
- 3-4 sentences that describe the bone and its importance
- 1-2 sentences that explain how this is connected to the scenes (or bones) before/after
Be as specific or general as is useful to you, but make sure you have enough written for each bone to remind you of your initial idea when brainstorming it.
Muscle & Tissue
The muscle & tissue accord with the first draft process. When you add words to the page, you’re adding muscle and tissue to the body that represents your story. In this stage, there will be a lot of unexpected development, and that’s good, as it keeps the story fresh and exciting for you and your reader.
Schwab offers the following technique to keep your story bones and story draft clearly organized:
- Create a master doc with your skeleton bones all in order.
- When it is time to write a scene, grab the bone paragraph from that document and paste it into a new word document.
- Write the scene or chapter in that other word document with the bone at the top, using it to guide your writing.
- When you’re done, slot the newly written scene or chapter into the place that the bone was, before.
This keeps everything neat and prevents stagnation from the immensity of the work you have done or still have to do. It also mechanizes the more stressful parts of the writing process to save energy for actual writing.
Schwab doesn’t actually talk about skin, but I added this to discuss voice and tense, a subset of the drafting process. Schwab points this out as part of the aesthetics that need to be an early concern. Deciding what tense and point of view you’re telling the story from has a massive effect on the bones and the process of creating words.
When it comes to skin, it’s worth it to write in different tenses/POVs to make sure you’re picking one appropriate to your story. If you’re on the fence about what to choose, try writing small snatches of scenes in different tenses and POVs. Combine them in obvious and unexpected ways, and give yourself room to experiment. Not only will this help you learn more about your story, but it will exercise your writing muscles and assure you that whichever you finally decide on is the right choice (at least for this drafting stage).
After slapping a bunch of muscle onto the story bones, you must now make this a specific person rather than a generic human-size blob. You’ll be adding or carving out pieces of story to give the draft shape and body.
This can also help you actually organize the revision process. For me, I know I get easily overwhelmed by the immensity of the revision process. Separating it into different rounds can help, but it can still feel overwhelming when you’re talking about novel-length revisions.
Instead, think about each revision aspect as a part of the story’s body that you’re designing. You visualize the process of revision much more clearly this way.
This will be different for everyone, but I used the (admittedly crude) diagram below to set up the revision process for my current novel draft. It’s quite basic and I have no pretensions that it covers everything necessary in the revising process, but it’s an example to help me (and you) organize the importance and order in which to revise aspects of the story.
Makeup & Clothes
Makeup & clothes refers to the actual prose of the story. At this point, you are done with major changes, so you can focus in on the sound, style, and feeling of the words you’ve written.
This may involve cleaning up the words, to make them consistent in tone and voice. For some, it may involve hours meditating on whether a single word should be swapped out for two. Whatever works for you is fine, but I do recommend taking the time to consider “beautifying” at least a bit.
Even if that means distilling your prose to be simple, clean, and clear, that’s perfectly fine. Everyone and every book has its own sound, but you should make sure you spend a little time to find yours and make sure that your book’s sound is serving the story.
Like any metaphor or method of writing, this won’t resonate for everyone, but I hope that it gives you more ideas and more tools to make it through the writing and revision process. I’ll be using it to revise my NaNoWriMo project, for sure. If you try it out, tell us about in the comments below!