Craft,  Creativity

Take 5 Friday: Five steps for building fences (or stories)

For my own amusement, I asked my brother-in-law, who is a handyman and a contractor, to help me compare writing to building a fence.

I find it useful to explore how other professionals go about their work to see if using their framework might give me some insight into my own processes. Or, if drawing parallels between their work and mine can help me reframe how I think about challenging parts of my projects.

Even though both writing and fence-building can be quite complicated, I think we settled on 5 steps that could get you started for either project.

Background images of a cup of coffee, a stack of books, an antique alarm clock, and an antique typewriter. Foreground image of a yellow circle with the title "Take 5 Friday: Five steps for building fences (or stories)"

Note: I am paraphrasing Dan’s words here but any mistakes are mine. Dan builds a good fence – my description might miss some details but he doesn’t.

1) Measure

Before Dan sets out to build your fence, he’ll start by measuring the area, considering fence design, and figuring out the volume of building materials he will need.

For your writing project, you might want to consider things like how long you want the piece to be, what format you want to present it in, and how to best communicate with your intended audience.

2) Dig post holes

Dan wants your fence to be strong and to last for a long time, so he makes sure to dig his post holes deep enough and far enough apart to give the fence a strong foundation.

Your ‘post holes’ would be the background research you do to give your piece authenticity. You want to make sure that you know enough about your subject to give reliable information (for non-fiction) or to make your story feel real (for fiction) and, you’ll want to make sure the information covers a broad area (like the distance between fence posts) so you cover everything you need to cover.

3) Put your posts in

Once he has dug your post holes, Dan puts the posts in and pours concrete around the base of each one. This ensures that each post will stay in place and that your fence will be well-supported.

The fence posts in your work would be the main points you want to cover. In non-fiction, the most important aspects of your argument or the headings for each section. In fiction, your fence posts would be the important character information or plot points you need to include for your story to make sense and to fulfill your theme.

4) Nail on your ‘longers’

So at this point, Dan has your fence measured, and he has secure fence posts. His next step is to connect each post using two horizontal pieces of wood (a.k.a. longers.)

For you, the longers would be the ideas and plot lines that will help your readers make the connections between the ‘fence posts’ of your main points. When you’ve identified these connecting pieces, your story is really starting to come together.

5) Add your palings

A fence made of posts and longers can mark the edge of your property but it won’t give you any privacy and it won’t keep your dog in your yard. Luckily, the fence Dan is building for you includes palings – vertical pieces of wood that attach to the longers, close in the spaces, and keep your dog where you want her to be.

The palings in your writing would be the rich details you use to fill in the spaces in your story. These details draw the reader in and make the story interesting and unique.

Luckily for Dan, he doesn’t have to worry too much about how unique his fences are – he only has to make them strong, safe, and secure. When it comes to fences, skill is more important than creativity…actually, that’s often true for writing as well but that’s a whole other post!

Build a fence, build a story

Whether you are building a fence or building a story, it’s useful to understand the structure and purpose of what you are trying to do. By comparing your writing process to fence-building, you can see how to keep the story moving and how to make the points you want to make. And, if you get stuck, you can always ask yourself if your metaphorical post holes are deep enough, if your posts are secure, or if you have started adding palings before the longers are in place.

No metaphor is perfect, of course, but thinking of your writing in terms of something more tangible – like Dan’s fence project – can help you see how you can proceed or where you might have gotten a little off track.

Write on!

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