The Fifth Element Approach to Process

There’s a scene in The 5th Element (one of my favorite SF films – go see it if you haven’t) where the co-lead is reconstructed from a sliver of DNA and 3D printed back into existence.

I put together my stories kind of like that. In fact, exactly like that. I have a 3D story printer and it whirs away while I play video games and read comics. Secret revealed! *twirls mustache*

What I actually mean is that I put together a story from the inside out.

By Apers0n [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Before I start writing, I create the DNA of the story – the setting especially, but also the core elements of the characters and what I’m expecting the plot to be. I make a story blue-print, which I’m then going to narratively ‘print’ by writing and re-writing. What’s different is that in creation, I may decide to re-write the DNA of the story, or I may find that the phenotypic expression of the plan that I’ve made is different than expected.

Aside: I am not a doctor, nor a biologist. So I’m using a pretty basic version of anatomy as an interpretive matrix to talk about my writing/revising process. If you want to critique my anatomy knowledge, that’s rather beside the point here.

Once I’ve got the DNA set, I start building the skeleton of the first draft, focusing on getting the plot in place. I may end up going back and re-setting the bones if something turns out to be broken in execution, but that first time through, I mostly want to get the anchors in place, and then let revision help animate and enrich that base structure.

When I do my first revision, I’m mainly focusing on fixing major plot problems. And when those are settled, I move on to strengthen characterization, making sure that the characters, the muscles of the story, are pulling on the plot (the skeleton) the right way, that they’re powerful enough to move the story, and that that animation (action) is effective and clear.

With that in hand, I focus on the organs – character motivation, story continuity, and pacing. Compelling characters without motivation, in a wildly inconsistent world and with sluggish pacing just will not work – so I look to those regulatory faculties that support the story body.

Very late in the process, I put on the skin – focusing on polishing the sentence-level prose, eliminating clunky language and making sure the story reads well sentence by sentence, page by page.

And lastly, when the book is off to the publisher and to production, I focus on clothing – the packaging and positioning, the language and process of marketing the work.


In summary

DNA — Pre-production (world, outline, casting)
Skeleton – plot
Muscles – characterization, action
Organs — motivation, continuity, pacing
Skin — sentence-level prose
Clothing — packaging, marketing


YMMV, and sometimes, my mileage varies and I am thinking about process in a different way. But I figured some might be interested in one way of arranging priorities during pre-production, first drafting, and revision. And a chance to remember how fun The Fifth Element is.

Speaking of which, I leave you with this marvelous scene:

4 thoughts on “The Fifth Element Approach to Process

    • I’ll let you franchise it, but my personal 3D story printer is back-logged for several years with all of the ideas kicking around in my head.

      For the low low price of $197.99, you can have your very own story printer… 😉

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