Dear Anne #5 – Basic Story Planning

Dear Anne,

I write this letter on basic story planning, because that’s what you need right now. We’ve had some conversations already on this very thing, so I want to give you some more basic tools to help you properly plan your story.

Simply put, you have to know your story before you can write your story. There are writers who construct a plot first and populate it with characters to act out that plot. There are writers who create characters first and then give them something to do. There are even writers who have something to say to the reader or society, and they create the plot and characters in order to say what they want to say.

I’ll talk about these three approaches in more detail later. But what I want you to know is no matter what the approach or which approach you naturally take, these writers all have the same thing in common…they have an idea of what they want to write before they write it.

Even “seat of the pantsers” (writers who write by the seat of their pants without detailed planning) have something in mind – a goal, certain characters, developments, or plot points – before they write. Writers like this are usually more character driven, and they KNOW their characters.

It may sound like knowing your story is a no-brainer, but it’s easier said than done.

First, let me restate what we discussed in chat. Create timelines. This works really well when getting to know your characters. The more you know about their past, the deeper the character becomes. Your readers may not always need to know this information…but YOU know it, and it’ll help shape the personality of your characters and even help to determine their actions and motivations.

Speaking of motivations…this is essential when working on your characters. What do they want? How are they going to get it? I don’t want to get too deep into character development (that’s another letter), but you can’t plan your story if you don’t know what your characters want to get out of the story.

Next, I want to say a word about outlining. I’m a big outliner. Some writers are not. Some writers think outlining is the only responsible way to write a story. To each his/her own. But I do think that some form of outline is necessary to create a balanced story without spending months or years on rewriting. Balance is absolutely necessary, and the writer who goes into a story without some kind of plan has a difficult time creating that balance from scratch. Often they write many many drafts, just to fix the story problems they could have worked out from the beginning with an outline.

That’s my opinion though. Other writers might argue with me. (And if they’re reading this, feel free to leave a comment with your planning method!)

However, my outlines are not incredibly detailed and they are fluid. In other words, I write one or two statements about what I want to happen in a chapter. But I am open and willing to let the story change if the story wants to change. Then I adjust my outline accordingly. There have been times when I had a clear outline early in the story, but I wasn’t sure about things later. I let the story tell me what to put in those places. (Kinda having that issue with Winter 4 at the moment.)

Writing a good story is like raising a child. A good parent guides their child in the right direction and teaches them the right way to live, but allows them become who the unique person they want to be. Guide your story. Teach it how to be a good story. But let it become what it wants to be.

However, the clearer and more detailed your outline, the faster you can write your story.

snowflakeFinally, I want to talk about snowflaking. This is a method of planning developed by the godfather of story planning, Randy Ingermanson. He developed what is known as the Snowflake Method, and even has software available to help you do it. You can find out all about it here – http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/articles/snowflake-method/.

This gist of it is that you start small and build outward, the way a snowflake grows. First, write ONE sentence that accurately describes your story. That’s a lot more difficult than it sounds! He even suggests spending an entire hour just on this one sentence.

Once you have your sentence, you then expand it into a single paragraph, of about five sentences long and covering all of the major developments. Next, you take these five sentences and you expand them into paragraphs. You’ll now have a page long summary of your story, broken into five sections, each ending with a major plot point or disaster. Then take each paragraph of this page and expand it into a full page, so that you have a 4-5 page summary of your story. From there, you’ll probably be ready to hammer out your first draft.

Ingermanson says it should take you about a week to do all of this, if you’re taking your time and really thinking it through. I do want to point out that if you read his instructions on it, you’ll see he breaks it down into four sections and I have suggested five. That’s because I use a 5-stage plot system that I’ll tell you about later.

The Snowflake Method also recommends you do this same kind of snowflaking for every major character. Start with a single sentence about the character, expand it to a paragraph, and then expand that to a page. You should include that character’s specific timeline and plot development, even if the reader never reads about it. In other words, describe the story briefly from THEIR point of view, even if that’s not how the final story will be written. Include important history, background, and training. Include the character’s goals and motivation in the story. You’ll need to do this for every protagonist and villain…any character that is important to your story.

I use a little bit of snowflaking, but I don’t do the entire Snowflake Method. I do the smaller story summaries, but I don’t go beyond the one page. Once I get my one page, I launch into my 5-stage plot system. I also do not do the detailed character writing, though a probably should. Those things don’t really work for me in my current books, but they might work for you.

And that’s really the whole trick to this. You NEED some kind of planning…whether it’s plot planning or character planning or some combination. But you have to find the planning methods that work best for YOU. What works now might not work later as you grow and learn as a writer. Keep trying and experimenting until you find that magic formula that is YOUR process, bearing in mind that as you mature in your career so will your process.

-k

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