Simplicity is a good thing. There’s a famous quote, attributed to Einstein, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
So when I was knee-deep in plotting my new novel, I had a pile of notes, I’d tried some character work, started a couple of structure plans, and somehow my story wasn’t quite right. I wished things could be simpler.
Then I came across a technique designed for learning new and complex concepts, the Feynman Technique. This is a method for learning about anything, it’s not exactly designed for taming wild plots, but I found its concept worked perfectly for improving my storyline.
The Feynman Technique is a four-step process for understanding any topic.
Let’s start with looking at the technique in its pure form, for education.
- Choose a concept to learn. Select a topic you’re interested in learning about and write it at the top of a blank page in a notebook.
- Teach it to yourself or someone else. Write everything you know about a topic out as if you were explaining it to yourself. Alternately, actually teach it to someone else.
- Return to the source material if you get stuck. Go back to whatever you’re learning from – a book, lecture notes, podcast – and fill the gaps in your knowledge.
- Simplify your explanations and create analogies. Streamline your notes and explanation, further clarifying the topic until it seems obvious. Additionally, think of analogies that feel intuitive.
Here’s an adapted version for writers trying to plot their story.
- Consider the plot of your novel. Write the novel title and pitch (optional) at the top of a blank page in a notebook.
- Teach your novel’s story to yourself or someone else. Write everything you know about your novel’s plot as if you were explaining it to yourself. Alternately, actually tell your novel’s story to someone else, so they will fully understood it.
- Return to the source material if you get stuck. Go back to your notes, or any work in progress book you have already written – and fill the gaps in your knowledge.
- Simplify your explanations. Streamline your plot notes and story explanation, further clarifying your novel’s plot until it seems obvious to you. Describing the story should feel intuitive, make sure you understand the key stages of the story well enough to summarise them from beginning to end.
Why does this method help? Because many writers (me included!) throw incidents and plot at their novel, but fail to see the sweep of the story and the bigger picture of the narrative. I found that I couldn’t remember what happened in the middle of my novel, even though I had a pile of notes and scene ideas. It was just a fuzzy haze of “stuff.” So, talking out loud and telling a friend about my plot was a useful exercise. It highlighted the strengths of my story, and as I stumbled over the bits I didn’t know, it highlighted weaknesses too. When my friend didn’t understand elements of my story this was a red flag that some aspects weren’t working, or that I didn’t understand their function in the narrative. Once I’d identified those story weaknesses I could set about fixing them.
So I went back to writing notes, tried to fix a few plot holes, and when I was ready I tried to write my story simply again. I tried to describe all the key plot incidents in my work in progress novel, without looking at any notes, but relying only on my understanding of the plot. I did a better job on this second attempt, as I was starting to understand my story fully. I felt much more confident about writing my book.
The Feynman technique is all about having a true understanding of a topic, or a story plot. If you understand something well enough to explain it to a 6-year-old so that they understand it too, you will have true understanding of your subject.
There are a couple of story plans at Story Planner that work well to replicate a verbal storytelling style that suits this technique. You might like to try the ‘Once Upon a Time’ plan, or the sixty-second synopsis.
So how well do you know your story? Why not try the Feynman Technique and find out?