Find Your Story Plot By Asking These 7 Questions

Yesterday I had a guest post on my blog (from Janice Hardy) which talked about 5 different ways to plot your story—and here’s the best part—starting wherever you are. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend you check it out here.
 
And her article inspired me to tell you about the “Who, What, Why, How of Plot,” which is a series of questions I use to come up with a plot for my stories. Now these questions are just a starting point and barely scratch the surface of all that goes into developing a story.
 
But it’s a starting point, and one that helps me actually move in the right direction.
 
First, here’s the basic definition of plot that I use: a Protagonist who wants something, an Antagonist who opposes what the Protagonist wants, and a journey that ensues because of it. 
 
This goes beyond a story just being “conflict,” which is what I often hear from writers. They’ll say, as long as a story has conflict, tension and drama, that’s enough. And it’s just not true.
 
Because here’s the thing—you can have all the conflict, tension and drama you want, and if you don’t have structure—if you don’t have opposition—you don’t have an actual story. You have an episodic narrative.
 
Opposition—not conflict—is what makes it a story. 
 
The following 7 questions will ensure you have opposition, and not just the day-to-day dramas of a Protagonist’s life:

1. Who is my Protagonist? 

Before you can go any further, you need to know who you’re dealing with here. Who is the Protagonist of your story? Who will step up to save the day, solve the problem, defeat the bad guy and earn the “hero” title by the end? 
 
Your turn: My Protagonist is _______________________________

2 What does my Protagonist want?

Every Protagonist must want something. Desire is a driving force for a story. What does your Protagonist want? 
 
Now keep in mind, what the Protagonist wants may change once the Antagonist gets introduced. Or, the introduction of the Antagonist may raise the stakes on the goal already in play.
 
Your turn: My Protagonist wants _________________________________

3. Who is my Antagonist?

Again, you need to know who you’re working with. So, who is your bad guy? And if your Antagonist is a force (like nature or the government), who can you use to personify that force and create actual flesh-and-blood opposition for your Protagonist? 
 
Your turn: My Antagonist is ___________________________________

4. What does my Antagonist want?

Yes, your Protagonist has desires and so does your Antagonist. What does your Antagonist want?
 
But before you answer that question, you also need to add in question #5…

5. How does what my Antagonist wants oppose what my Protagonist wants?

Hint: if it doesn’t, you must change it so it does. 
 
This is the part where I tell you that you should ignore any and all advice you’ve ever heard that told you to listen to your characters. Your characters are just puppets; you are the puppet master. You must bend and shape your characters to fit the story you want to tell.
 
Do not, I repeat, DO NOT allow your characters to have a ‘say’ in the direction of the story. Ever. 
 
Your turn: my Antagonist wants ____________________ and this opposes what my Protagonist wants because ________________________________.

6. Why does my Antagonist want to oppose my Protagonist?

This is very important—you need to have a compelling reason for why your Antagonist is opposing your Protagonist. In life, people can do things randomly or for no reason at all, but in a story that just doesn’t fly.
 

Your Antagonist wants something very badly and your Protagonist wants something that is an obstacle getting in the way of the Antagonist’s goal, therefore the Antagonist must create opposition.

Your Turn: my Antagonist wants to oppose my Protagonist because ___________________.

7. What is the journey that ensues because of this Antagonist and this opposition?

This is where the story really comes to life. Because now you have opposition. And opposition creates opportunity—for your Protagonist to learn, discover, find out what he’s made of, all while squaring off against a bad guy he needs to defeat in order to get what he wants.

Your turn: the journey that ensues because of the Antagonist and the opposition is __________________________________________________________________. 

 
Just to run through it again, here are the 7 questions:
 
1. Who is my Protagonist? 
2. What does my Protagonist want?
3. Who is my Antagonist?
4. What does my Antagonist want?
5. How does what my Antagonist wants oppose what my Protagonist wants?
6. Why does my Antagonist want to oppose my Protagonist?
7. What is the journey that ensues because of this Antagonist and this opposition?
 
Whew—now that’s what I call a recipe for a plot! 

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What questions do you ask when planning your story? 
 
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And another huge part of creating an engaging story is using your plot to create structure—a series of specific story milestones that happen at specific times and specific places in the story. 

Mastering structure is a big part of being able to write a story worth publishing. 

If you want to master structure, be sure to check out my Master Story Structure Kit, which has everything you need to understand what structure is and how it works; see it in action in actual stories; and then practice your understanding of it by implementing it.

Basically it will help you become a MASTER of story structure, and what emerging novelist couldn’t benefit from that? 

The kit contains:
  • Story Structure Overview (video)
  • The Story Structure Cheat Sheet (PDF)
  • A collection of 11 story deconstructions of movies (and one novel), including: What Women Want, Rudy, Beerfest, Eraser, Cruel Intentions, and If I Stay (PDFs)
  • How To Deconstruct A Movie (Instructional PDF)
  • Movie Deconstruction Worksheet (PDF)
  • Practice Plan (PDF)
There’s only a few more days left to grab a copy for $7. 
 
 
Mastering story structure changed my life and gave me the opportunity to step into a career as a published novelist and a story coach. I still to this day study structure like my life depends on it. 
 
I will always be a student of story, and I hope you’ll join me in that one.

5 Ways to Plot Your Novel 

NOTE: This is a guest post from award-winning author, Janice Hardy. 

I’m fortunate that plotting is a lot of fun for me. Figuring out goals and tough choices for my characters is one of my favorite aspects of writing, and I love putting my characters in impossible situations just to see how they’ll get out if it.

Not every writer has as much fun potting, however, so if you’re a writer who finds plotting more chore than joyride, I’ve discovered a few tricks to make it easier. And hopefully, a little bit more fun.

1. Follow the Problem

Some stories revolve around a major problem that must be solved or else. To solve this big problem, the protagonist must first overcome a series of smaller problems along the way. When we look at what the protagonist has to do at each step, the plot emerges. Most of the major turning points of the plot will be steps to solving this big problem, and they’ll form a logical path from start to finish.

To plot a problem-centric story, start with your core conflict. Think about what caused it, what it’s doing to the main characters and story world, and what has to be done to fix it. Let the problems guide you to your plot and follow the steps that take your characters from the page one problem all the way to the resolution on the final page.

Great for: Writers who like to focus on what happens in the story, and those who find it easier to create the situations of the story first. It’s also good for plot-focused stories where the events are more important than the character journey, such as thrillers or mysteries.

2. Follow the Characters

Since a character’s choices drive the plot, focusing on what she wants and why will lead you through your story. These plots often focus more on how a character grows and changes, and the choices that shape those changes. The major turning points will revolve around your character’s needs and desires, hopes and dreams, and what she does to achieve those needs.

To follow your character, start with the one thing your protagonist wants or needs and think about the things she will (or won’t) do to meet that need. What impossible choices will she face? What will push her to her breaking point? What must she do that she’s never been brave enough to do before?

Great for: Character-driven writers and stories where the focus is on the characters and how they grow. It’s also good for stories with strong character arcs that illustrate themes or explore human nature.

3. Follow the Individual Arcs

If plotting out an entire novel seems daunting, try taking it in smaller chucks. Plots forms arcs—beginning > middle > ending. The steps of the plot follow this same structure, so plotting your novel one small arc at a time allows you to move forward without having to figure out what happens farther into the novel.

If you think about your novel in small story arcs, start with your opening scene (or favorite moment–no one says you have to plot in order). Figure out where that leads and how that problem is solved. Once your protagonist finishes that arc, take the next problem and do the same thing. Look at your various arcs and determine how they link together to tell your larger tale.

Great for: Pantsers who don’t want to know how everything works out ahead of time. It’s also good for writers who imagine their stories in vignettes and prefer to write the scenes that excite them the most first.

4. Follow the Mystery

Some plots exist solely to answer a question, such as, “Who killed the baker?” Exploring the story questions of who, how, and why create the key moments of the plot. The plot exists to reveal a secret or find a truth, and the characters work with–and against–each other to that end.

If you have a mystery plot, start with the mystery and decide what questions the protagonist will have to ask to solve that mystery. Who will she need to talk to? Where will she need to go? What lies might she encounter? What half-truths might distract her?

Great for: Writers who enjoy the puzzle side of plotting, and who want to keep readers in the dark as long as possible. It’s also good for genres such as mysteries or suspense, where the focus in on the mystery more than the characters.

5. Follow the Emotion

For novels that are all about the emotions (such as romances), the plot focuses on the relationships and how the characters interact. The key turning points of the plot will be emotional ones, usually denoting important steps in that relationship or internal growth (or lack thereof).

If you have an emotional story, start with your characters and how they feel, and explore how their emotions will change. Who are the people contributing to their lives? How do those people affect their emotional states? What emotion do they wish to get rid of? How do they want to feel?

Great for: Writers who want to explore relationships and how people interact. It’s also good for romances or any story that seeks to explore an emotional truth.

There’s no right way to write, so don’t worry if your process follows a different path than most. If an aspect of a story appeals to you and inspires you to write that story, let it guide you to the perfect plot the way you like to write.

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What kind of writer are you?

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About the Author: Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of The Healing Wars trilogy and the Foundations of Fiction series, including Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show, Don’t Tell (And Really Getting It). She’s also the founder of the writing site, Fiction University. For more advice and helpful writing tips, visit her at www.fiction-university.com or @Janice_Hardy

pynw-2x3Looking for tips on plotting your novel? Check out my book, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you develop your idea into a novel. For a hands-on approach, try my Planning Your Novel Workbook.  Revising your novel? Check out my newest book, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft.

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Win a 10-Page Critique From Janice Hardy

Three Books. Three Months. Three Chances to Win.

To celebrate the release of my newest writing books, I’m going on a three-month blog tour–and each month, one lucky winner will receive a 10-page critique from me.

It’s easy to enter. Simply visit leave a comment and enter the drawing via Rafflecopter. At the end of each month, I’ll randomly choose a winner.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

How To Master Story Structure In 3 Steps

It took me 5 full years of doing what I’m going to explain to you in this article before I finally felt like I had mastered story structure. Now I’d argue that you never really master structure–or craft–because there’s always something new to learn.

But I finally got to a point where I could pick structure out in a movie without having to watch it a hundred times, and I could actually use structure in my own stories and make it work (I published my first novel, SoundCheck, last June, and my new one is tentatively set for a December launch).

The other day I was thinking about what it took for me to really learn and master structure. And there were three things that stood out to me:

1. I Studied Craft Religiously

Rather than just read a book and set it aside, I actually read Larry Brooks’ book, Story Engineering (and first, as an eBook called, Story Structure–Demystified) on the daily. Not the whole book, but I was always picking it up and reading sections from it (although I do read the whole book annually and reference it all the time).

I wanted to not only memorize the definitions of the plot points, but I also wanted to memorize what the mission of each plot point was, and what its purpose was in the story.

Super important to know this stuff front and back, otherwise you may misunderstand structure and not be able to use it properly. Which might not seem that bad, but it will be a death sentence for your stories.

2. I Watched Tons of Movies and Deconstructed Them

When I was deep into mastering structure mode, I spent hours of my time every day watching movies. Yes, sometimes even in the place of writing time (this was back when I was less disciplined on doing the writing daily).

Some nights I watched upwards of 3 movies, and just studied the structure points as they unfolded.

I did this for movies mostly in my genre, but I also watched and deconstructed movies in other genres. One especially good genre for studying structure is Thriller, because the plot points usually stand out a lot more than in other genres.

By watching movies and seeing structure illustrated visually, it really helped to cement in my mind how it worked to make a story cohesive and compelling.

Still to this day, deconstructing movies is a hobby of mine. (I’m a story nerd like that.) You can never do it enough.

And every time I have the chance to deconstruct a movie, what I know to be true about structure proves itself to me over and over again.

3. Read Through Story Deconstructions

One last thing I did to really master story structure is to read through story deconstructions from other masters in story structure, to see even more examples of how structure works.

Larry Brooks has some killer deconstructions on his blog here. Another favorite of mine is the Story Structure Database from author, K.M. Weiland.

By doing these three things–studying craft, watching movies and deconstructing them, and then reading through deconstructions other people have done, I was able to master story structure. And not just what it is, but also how to use it properly in a story.

If you want to be a master of story structure, I highly recommend you do the three things I listed here on a weekly, if not daily, basis.

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Which of the three steps will you implement today? Share in the comments.

———–

And if you want a toolkit to help you do all three things all in one place, check out my Master Story Structure toolkit.

This kit will walk you through the basics of story structure, illustrate how it’s used, and help you actually implement it. This kit is about craft-by-definition, examples, and practicing on your own stories.

Basically it will help you become a MASTER of story structure (which is what every emerging fiction writer and author needs to become).

This kit includes:

•Story Structure Overview (video)

•The Story Structure Cheat Sheet (PDF)

•A collection of 11 story deconstructions of movies (and one novel), including: What Women Want, Rudy, Beerfest, Eraser, Cruel Intentions, and If I Stay (PDFs)

•How To Deconstruct A Movie (Instructional PDF)

•Movie Deconstruction Worksheet (PDF)

•Practice Plan (PDF)

This kit is available THIS WEEK ONLY for $7.

(Why only $7? Because I want EVERY serious novelist to be able to afford it. This is one resource that can truly support you in becoming the badass storyteller you’ve always wanted to be.)

>> Grab your Master Story Structure kit here

The Master Story Structure kit is a go-to way to help you write better stories, even if you write those stories by the seat of your pants (yes, when a “pantser” is a master of structure, you can write without a plan, a la Stephen King). It also works great for anyone attempting NaNoWriMo this year.

Here’s Why Most Story Ideas Are Totally Lame-Ass (And What To Do About It)

How many times have you had a writer-friend (or someone in your writing group, etc.) say to you, “I’ve got the best idea for a story!” but then when they tell you what it is, it leaves you thinking: they need to learn the definition of “best” (and the definition of “story”)?

Welcome to the world of agents, publishers and writing coaches.

There are millions of writers out there who all want to write a story. Problem is, most of them have really lame-ass ideas.

I can’t even tell you how many story ideas I hear on a regular basis that start out with something really generic–I want to write a story about love in the south. Or my story is about a girl who escapes a bad home life. Or it’s a coming-of-age story for a boy who just wants to be in a band.

LAME. AVERAGE. EVERYDAY. And that is NOT what great stories are made of. 

Sure, a great story may start with something kinda lame, average and everyday, but with the right information and creativity injected, it becomes something much better.

Just think if J.K. Rowling came up with the idea to write about a wizard-boy, and then just left it at that. LAME!

Because while the day-to-day life of a wizard-boy may be interesting to you–and maybe even interesting to some–it’s not ever gonna be enough to make your story stand out among the sea of stories about wizard-boys. You need more than that.

You need something high-concept. You need a freaking Concept, period. You need a bad guy and a Premise for the story

And it’s kinda hard to have those things when you’re constantly settling for less-than-average story ideas.

Where the Real Problem Lies

The real problem for most writers isn’t that they have lame, average, everyday ideas (although that is the problem for some of them). The real problem is that most writers aren’t generating enough ideas in order to actually uncover the ones that are worth writing about.

So they settle for some half-baked, lame-ass idea, because it’s all they can come up with.

And that’s what’s really sad. Half-baked, lame-ass ideas are career suicide for writers.

Writers who write and publish ideas like that are the reason so many writers believe that it’s “hard to be a successful fiction writer” and “writing fiction can’t possibly be a full-time career” and “successful self-published novelists just got lucky.”

But the truth is…it’s none of that.

The truth is, those fiction writers who have created success did so because they didn’t settle for the first idea that came to them. (Which is another reason why it’s SO important to plan and develop your story before you write it–but that’s a whole other ball game.)

And if you’ve ever had that experience I just described–where no one is buying your novel, no one is leaving reviews and no one except people related to you are telling you that your story is any good–it’s time to own up to the fact that your story is probably pretty freaking lame (sorry to be the bearer of bad news). 

You Need To Do THIS Instead

If you want to avoid being one of those writers who either spends their life pitching and re-pitching and re-writing pitches and getting rejected by a thousand agents and publishers who all pretty much say the same thing–“this story sucks”–or who self-publishes a novel, only to hear crickets…you have to STOP SETTLING.

Settling is for writers who don’t believe enough in themselves to wait for–or keep digging for–the golden idea that will take their story to a whole new level. (Another reason why planning is so imperative.) Writers who settle do so because they’re afraid that’s the only idea they’ll ever have, so they’ve gotta run with it while they’ve got it. 

And some writers who settle have even convinced themselves that the lame-ass idea is actually pretty good (delusions that will get you no where).

But you’re not a settler, right? Because you know that you want an actual, real shot at having a successful fiction-writing career. 

And to have that actual, real shot at success, you’ve gotta have a kick-ass story. Anything less just won’t cut it.

Here’s How To Cultivate Better Ideas

There’s an exercise that I do on a regular basis to help me generate killer ideas–for fictional stories, for nonfiction eBooks, for blog posts, for video posts, etc. You can do this exercise with pretty much anything you need to generate an idea for.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Get out a notebook or a piece of paper
  2. At the top of the page write an intention for what you want to generate ideas for (for example, “Books I can write” or “Stories I can tell”)
  3. Make a list of 30-50 ideas that fit under whatever you set as the intention (an alternative version would be to set a timer for 10-15 minutes and generate as many ideas as you can ’til it goes off)

Now the point isn’t to come up with 30-50 really awesome ideas. Not at all.

The point is to come up with 30-50 bad or so-so ideas, which then clears a path for a really killer idea to come through. Sometimes it comes though on the actual list. Other times it will come through afterward because your mind is free and clear of all those mediocre ideas.

That’s the thing about the mind–it takes in SO much information on a daily basis and you’ve got SO much going on inside there. It can make it really, really tough to “hear” the great ideas (or even the really good ones) when you mind is clogged with crappy, average, lame-ass ideas and thoughts.

This exercise will help you clear those out so you can finally have access to the ones that are actually worth writing.

You Can’t Just Do It Once

A lot of times after I teach this exercise to writers they’ll try it and then say to me, “I did it, but it didn’t work. Or I didn’t come up with anything great.” To which I respond, “Do it again.”

Generating ideas isn’t something you do once or only when you need an idea. No, idea generation should be something you do on a regular basis.

I have “idea generation” on my to-do list DAILY.

Now I don’t always come up with 30-50 ideas. Sometimes I do 5-10 or sometimes just 5, but the point is, I make a focused, conscious effort to continuously generate ideas every day.

By doing this, I get my mind thinking in the right way and focusing on the right things: better ideas.

Most of what I come up with is total crap that I would never do anything with. But every time I do this exercise, I always come up with 1 or 2 really killer ideas that I can act on right away.

And that’s the whole point.

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Give this exercise a try and then come back and report in the comments how it went for you. 

It’s almost time for my sixth-annual fall story planning workshop!!! (Perfect for NaNoWriMo prep.) This year I’ve got the best version of this workshop ever… more details coming later this week. Get on the waitlist right here to be the first to know when the doors open (and to get access to a special Early Bird Bonus).

The Most Important Ingredient in Every Novel (And One Proven Way to Deliver It to Readers)

Note from Jen: This is a guest post from my badass bud, David Villalva. He’s awesome. You need to check out his site here

The epiphany struck in the bathroom.

I stood in front of the mirror as my inner voice revealed I was meant to write novels.

That revelation forced me to unleash the story living inside my head. I wrote everyday by the seat of my pants, and less than a year later, I celebrated the completion of a first draft.

During my first read through, it took me all of a few minutes to realize my story sucked all kinds of suck.

That’s because my story lacked focus. Every character drifted without purpose. Uh oh, I’d written a two-hundred plus page hopeless opus.

This enlightenment encouraged me to start looking into authors who had actually written and published novels. I ended up investing in an author’s lecture series where he asked one simple question:

“What’s the number one thing that readers want in a novel?”

I froze because I hadn’t considered that question. Of course, I knew why I wanted to write my story, but what would future readers want from it?

Did they want my story to inspire them? Educate them? Change them?

The author’s lecture shared the answer, but all I needed to do was look inside the very definition of the word, “story.”

Story (noun): An account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment.

Novelists Must First and Foremost Entertain Readers

People want a form of escapism. They’re begging you to transport them into your created world, but it better be entertaining upon arrival.

Because if it falls short of their expectations, they’ll hop back into reality, and look for another novel that offers the right recipe of leisure. (Or cruise Facebook, Twitterest, Instachat, uh, you get the point…)

Quick poll:

  • Why did you read the last novel you purchased or borrowed?
  • Did you read it to be inspired by the author?
  • To be changed?

Come on, you probably read its synopsis, thought it looked fun, and leapt inside. If you got more than entertainment, that was a cherry on top.

Entertainment is the greatest common denominator among fiction readers.

Except far too many emerging novelists misplace the importance of this core ingredient. Heck, even well-known authors end up getting sidetracked during portions of their story.

Ever heard this one about a popular or trending novel? “Just get through the first fifty pages because then it gets really good.”

Do you really want someone talking about your story like that?

Of course not! Your goal is to captivate the reader on page one, and keep them hooked every chapter thereafter.

Fortunately, there’s a proven approach that you can use to increase your chances of giving readers what they want.

Explore the Proven Structure Living Inside Novels

Novels are pieces of art but even the most creative art often comes to life within a proven framework.

We all know that novels have a hook and climax, right? Well, it turns out the hook and climax are just two of the plot milestones inside a novel’s plot structure. There’s also a proven scene structure that moves your readers and characters throughout an overarching plotline.

I recommend emerging novelists explore the principles of story structure for the following reasons:

1. Readers expect to be entertained by a well-designed story.

People subconsciously know stories should have a special rhythm to them.

Readers have been encouraged to receive stories in a certain way because story structure has been infused into novels for decades. So audiences expect to experience plot milestones at specific intervals, meaning plot points occur at well-timed moments to deliver maximum impact.

And then there’s scene structure which helps pace readers to inhale, exhale, process, and absorb all of those special moments in your story.

2. Story structure focuses your ideas.

It’s a beautiful thing to be blessed with exciting story ideas except it can feel like a curse when you’re not sure how to use them.

Story structure can help you arrange your ideas inside a novel’s proven foundation. Don’t worry, this isn’t like painting by numbers because that approach tells you what colors to use. Story structure is more comparable to building a house.

Every house needs a solid foundation to make sure the big bad wolf can’t blow it down. But once that foundation is established, its interior and exterior can be customized in unique ways.

3. Story structure can solidify your mastery of the craft.

You may have instinctively picked up story structure through years of reading and writing.

I was amazed the first time I compared one of my drafts against story structure’s basic principles. That was the moment in my storytelling journey where I became lucid to how the pieces fit.

What if you’re already using some story structure principles without realizing it? Better yet, why not discover if story structure’s full potential can help you finish a story you’re proud to share with the world?

Create Your Story With Purpose

People read novels to be entertained. It’s that simple.

So let’s take advantage of a proven approach that helps us give readers the entertainment they’re seeking.

Fortunately, story structure can help you, too! It can focus your ideas, solidify principles you’re instinctively using already, and help you finish a story you’re proud to share with the world.

Straight up, story structure isn’t going anywhere. It’s just a matter of whether or not you’re open to going anywhere with it.

About the Author: David Villalva helps novelists write stories that connect with readers. Connect with him HERE to receive a free visual guide that illustrates the plot and scene structures used in best-selling novels and screenplays.

Here’s A Scene-Writing Exercise You Should Try

Note: This is a guest post from my client, Stephanie Raffelock, a novelist and blogger. Enjoy!–jen

If I possess the virtue of patience, even a little bit, it is deeply hidden under mounds of enthusiasm that doesn’t want to wait around for anything. But recently, I’ve had an epiphany of sorts that has brought me to the place of making friends with the dreaded “patience.”

I have added a step to my writing process and it is serving me well. It has to do with what to do when you get stuck writing a scene, OR how to prevent getting stuck in the first place.

A Scene Development Exercise

As I began novel number five, I did so under the design of structure. I am a huge fan of structure as it relates to story because story without structure isn’t really a story—it’s a narrative or a portrait at best. At worst, it is a ramble.

Student of story, yes I am, but that does not necessarily make me a patient student and I use that disclaimer as I find the main reason people do not do the work of construction and preparation before they write a single word of prose is because they are eager to just start writing and get on with it!  Writers often fall in love with their words, when they should be falling in love with their story.

I feel your pain. I’ve been there. So what was I thinking when I added another “step” to an already lengthy preparation process?

Here’s what I was thinking:  When you write a story, you must be the God of the world you have created. You must know every detail of the place and every detail of the characters you have placed in it. When you do not know all of the details, you might fall back or rely on coincidence and cliché. The thing about coincidence and cliché is that they strip your story of meaning. They are nasty little buggers.

Recently I started writing my new novel and I did so with preparation. I sketched out my concept and premise, wrote a short synopsis, plugged in the milestones (i.e plot points and pinch points) and then backed out of them into my scenes. I have a 40-plus page detailed scene list.

Now you would think that would be enough, but I keep remembering this thing about being the all-seeing, all-knowing God of the world I’ve created. So when I write, I look at the scene I am doing for that day. I know the mission of the scene. I know what the protagonist wants and what stands in their way. I know how the scene will move the story forward. But, as you know, you can see all of that neatly spelled out for you and still wonder how you are going to create a thousand words out of it.

Enter the Yellow Legal Pad. I’ve just looked at my scene for the day and now I pick up my Yellow Legal Pad and I begin to write down every question and every answer I can think of about that scene. Where is it? What time of day is it, exactly? What kind of watch was he wearing that let you know the time? What did he have for breakfast. How is he feeling. Did he sleep well last night. And I go on and on and on.

Now most of those things will never make it into my story, but after several pages of this, the scene (because I already know how it moves the story forward ) is beginning to flesh out. I circle a few things that inspire and inform, and the rest is just the rest. It gets tossed.

I am the God of the world I created and I know everything about every scene and character and that’s why I can write a good story and that’s how I stay un-stuck.

Why This Works

Writing longhand does an interesting thing to your brain. It uses a different part than typing on a keyboard. It slows you down. And when you are slowed down, you become more thoughtful about your creation.

Think about when you first started writing, I’ll bet you were like me. I’ll bet you filled spiral notebooks with everything from lyrics and poetry to short stories and character sketches. I don’t write much longhand these days. I have two computers and a damn iPad and even email myself to remind myself to do stuff!

But I have fallen in love with the Yellow Legal Pad, and yes, it does deserve to be capitalized. I may buy stock in the Yellow Legal Pad company. A couple of them are always sitting on the table next to me when I write in the morning. And interestingly, I look forward to picking them up and riffing on my plot and my characters.

That’s my new step. A new addition to prep.

I love this Robert McKee quote: “Do the work, tell the truth and the results will follow.” The work that he speaks of is preparation. The truth is about how well you know the character so that cliché never exits their mouth onto your page, and the results, well the result is good, tight professional work.

Adding in this one step to my process is making my prose better and it is helping me to tell the most compelling story that I can. Seemed like it was worth sharing.

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How do you develop the scenes in your story? 

About the Author: Stephanie Raffelock is a novelist and a blogger. Her debut novel is represented by Dystel Goderich Literary Management in New York. Subscribe to her quarterly newsletter and receive an appreciation gift: “The Writers Dinner,” a unique vision for an entertaining evening. 

Image courtesy of Jonathan Aquino

Structure and Character Arc 101

A very common mistake writers make is thinking character is separate from plot or that plot can work without a proper character arc and vice versa. Not only is that not true, but believing that will greatly affect your story.

Here’s a video overview of story structure, character arc and how the two play together to create a cohesive and engaging story for your reader:

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What are your favorite inner demons to give to your characters? 

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The Dos and Don’ts of Naming Your Characters

NOTE: This is a guest post from Writer’s Relief, a popular author submission service. 

Authors often put as much thought into naming their characters as parents do into naming their children. A character’s name will shape the reader’s entire impression of him or her and ultimately factor into the reader’s opinion of your book. Whether naming your characters comes to you naturally or you spend days poring over baby name books for inspiration, here’s a list of dos and don’ts that will make the process painless!

DO…

Consider the story’s setting. Choosing a name outside traditional historical context can ruin an otherwise well-researched novel or story. Writing about a German stowaway during the Holocaust? Make sure to give her a traditional German name. And a boy growing up in Japan during the 1800s is unlikely to be named Atticus. Keep in mind: Some cultures historically used naming traditions quite different from what we see today.

Consider the character’s age. Be sure to take into account when your character was born. Look up names that would have been popular during that time period—so you can avoid inadvertently labeling the character with the wrong name. “Gertrude” was all the rage for babies in 1907, but very few of today’s twenty-somethings would have that name.

“Borrow” from friends, family, or celebrity heroes. Know someone with the same traits as your character? Let the real-life person inspire the name of your fictional character! Just be careful not to borrow more than the person’s name. Your character, even if they share a name with someone real, should be totally unique.

Think about personality. A character’s name can be a great way to acquaint readers with their personality traits—before any of these traits are overtly revealed. For example, the name “Bill” immediately conjures someone ordinary, whereas “Alexandria” brings to mind someone regal and extravagant. Make sure your character makes the right first impression.

DON’T…

Repeat the same first letter for too many characters’ names. If the names of two characters sound too much alike, your reader is bound to get the characters mixed up, even if their personalities are nothing alike. Give your characters names that are distinctive from one another to avoid any confusion.

Use an illogical name without an explanation. Say you’ve chosen to name your thirteen-year-old character “Bertha,” a moniker typically considered old-fashioned and better suited to an older demographic. This choice could work in your favor—but if you don’t properly explain the circumstances behind it, your readers may be distracted through your entire book. The same goes for discrepancies in time, personality, and setting when choosing a name.

Pick an overused or over-the-top name. Certain names have been used, both in life and in literature, to the point where they’re well past tired. For example, most readers will have read at least five other books with a hero named “Jack.” But don’t jump to the other end of the spectrum either—Rosalina Rossignolo and Cornelius Coriander may not be taken seriously as realistic characters.

Fail to do your research! You don’t want to realize you’ve chosen the wrong name after your book is already in print. You also don’t want to learn suddenly that a similar book character (or movie character, or even real-live person) has the same name. To save yourself embarrassment, do an Internet search for any character name you’re toying with before bestowing it upon a character in your book.

And if you’re STILL INDECISIVE… 

Use a reference source. Head over to BabyNames.com for a comprehensive list that includes statistics, history, and definitions. You’ll find the perfect names for your characters in no time.

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How do you find names for your characters? 

About the Author: Writer’s Relief is a highly recommended author’s submission service. We assist writers with preparing their submissions and researching the best markets. We have a service for every budget, as well as a free e-publication for writers, Submit Write Now! Visit our site today to learn more.

If you’re struggling with finding names or just want to have a resource on-hand for naming characters, check out Pen Name by Jennifer Blanchard. Not only is this book great for finding your perfect pen name, but it doubles as a resource for naming characters too.

Image courtesy of Jack Dorsey

Story Deconstruction: Cruel Intentions

I’m a big fan of story deconstructions—where you watch a movie or a read a book and do a break down of all of it, from the structure to the exposition. This is one of the best ways to learn and understand how story works. To see it in action.

And it helps even more to see it in action AND get to see a break down of it.

That’s what helped me to master story structure. It’s what helped me to program myself into the novelist I dreamed of being. (Because the novelist I dream of being is a pro, and to be pro, you gotta know story structure.)

After discovering Larry Brooks’ storytelling principles, I spent 5+ years of my life reading books and watching movies and trying to find the plot points in each one. As the years went along, I got better and better, and I started to see how structure really works.

And what I saw amazed me.

Every story had the same general plot structure—a Hook, a First Plot Point, a Midpoint, a Second Plot Point and at least two Pinch Points. No matter if it was a thriller, a romance, a comedy, a drama or some other genre (only kind I didn’t see as much structure in was Indie, but the best Indie films did have structure).

I came to the conclusion that story structure is like a skeleton—everyone starts out the same—and then you get to choose the skin color, the eye color, the hair color, what clothes the person wears, etc. By using a general framework, you can get super creative with how you actually bring it all to life.

And that’s what being a storyteller is all about: getting creative with the specifics, while adhering to the principles that readers expect.

Something that surprised me while I was doing all this story deconstructing, was how much each Protagonist’s inner demon played against the external Antagonist. The inner demon flared up because of the Antagonist being there.

But that’s just another principle at play, and when done right, works magnificently to deliver a strong vicarious experience for the reader (or viewer). The external Antagonist brings out the inner demon in the Protagonist.

That’s the whole point. Otherwise how can he overcome and defeat the internal struggle? He’d have no reason to, not unless the external struggle was causing the internal one to be more present.

One of my favorite stories is Cruel Intentions (which is a remake of Dangerous Liaisons). The reason I love this story so much is because it’s a really great example of how powerful a story is (and can be) when you combine plot with character arc (as opposed to letting them be separate—some writers actually do that, but it doesn’t work).

Sebastian Valmont is a great character and in Cruel Intentions you can actually watch the four parts of story unfold as you follow the change he makes over the course of 90 minutes or so.

>> Read the Cruel Intentions story deconstruction here 

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What did you like best about the plot and character arc in Cruel Intentions?

And if you loved this story deconstruction, be sure to check out the Students of Story community, where you get a full story deconstruction every month, plus a whole lot more! Right now you can join the group for only $5 for your first 30 days. Learn more here.

Image courtesy of DaveBleasdale 

It’s Time for Self-Publishing Success Summit 2016 (Grab Your Free Ticket)

I first learned about self-publishing in 1996 when I wrote a 120-page novella that I was thinking about publishing. Back then it was insanely expensive just to get your book published and printed (thousands and thousands of dollars). And as a 13-year-old, I didn’t exactly have the means.

Today, you can use a site like CreateSpace to self-publish your book for no cost at all (minus any set up or pre-publication expenses, like editors, cover designers, etc). Self-publishing has totally changed the game for emerging authorpreneurs and writers who dream of seeing their name in print.

I’m super proud to be a professionally self-published author. I think self-publishing is the best way to take control of your writing destiny, to put the book you dream of writing out into the world and make an actual profit from it.

Now I say professionally self-published, because there is a difference.

A self-published book is one where the author just put it together and then published it, without any professional outside feedback or guidance. Books like this rarely do well because most writers (especially new writers) don’t have a clue how to write a good book.

A professionally self-published book, on the other hand, has been vetted; it’s had outside feedback and perspective from a professional (or series of professionals) and has been revised and polished accordingly. Now that’s not to say it’s perfect (nothing is, nor can be), but it has a much better shot at being successful.

If you’re going to self-publish, do yourself a HUGE favor and treat it as professionally as you would if you were being traditionally published.

That’s why I’m freaking pumped to tell you about the upcoming Self-Publishing Success Summit. This is a crazy-big annual event with a mission of helping you become the best professionally self-published author you can possibly be. Last year 30,000 people attended from the comfort of their own homes (it’s a virtual event).

This year’s speakers are really, really good, and they’re going to show you how to go from blank page to bestselling author.

Here are just a few of the speakers you’ll learn from at this year’s summit:

Step 1: Becoming An Author (Writing the Book)

  • Jay Papasan — Using The ONE Thing & Time Blocking To Finally Write Your First Book
  • David Allen — The Getting Things Done Approach To Writing Your First Book
  • Cal Newport — Eliminating Distractions & Practicing Deep Work To Finish Your Book
  • Gretchen Rubin — Happiness, Good Habits, And Becoming A Writer
  • Joanna Penn — Fiction Writing Techniques For First Time Authors (What I’ve Learned From Writing 10+ Books)

You’ll find at least one strategy or system in every presentation that you can put to use right away for massive results (like Jay’s time-blocking approach).

Next, marketing and publishing masters will reveal exactly how they went from zero to bestseller to millions of books sold. (Click here for your free ticket.)

Step 2: Marketing & Publishing Mastery

  • Gary Vaynerchuk—You won’t believe what he has to say about marketing 
  • Tucker Max — Selling 3 Million+ Books, Creating A Literary Genre, And Disrupting The Publishing Industry
  • Perry Marshall — 80/20 Book Sales & Marketing
  • John Lee Dumas — Using Kickstarter To Crowdfund Your Book (How I Hit $453,803 And The #6 Publishing Campaign In Kickstarter History))
  • Grant Cardone — Sell Or Be Sold: Using Sales Skills To Sell More Books & Grow Your Company

After you’ve discovered proven marketing and publishing strategies anyone can use, you’ll get hands-on advice on how to turn your book into prestige, respect, celebrity, and a booming business. https://xe172.isrefer.com/go/spss16/jlblanchard3

Step 3: Monetizing (Making Money From Your Book)

Turn your book into a 6-figure business and a brand with success secrets and strategies from:

  • Jeff Walker — How I Went From #1 NYT Book Launch To $5.1M Product Launch (And What To Do When The NYT Keeps You Off The List)
  •  Barbara Corcoran—from the TV show, Shark Tank
  •  T. Harv Eker — How I Built The Largest Success Training Company In The World Using My Book (Secrets Of The Millionaire Mind)
  •  Hal Elrod — Beyond The Bestseller: Foreign Book Rights, Creating A Book Series, & Selling Out Your First Live Event
  •  Mel Abraham — How I Sold $500K In Backend Products And Grew My Business Using A Book Launch — Mel Abraham
  • Verne Harnish — Scaling Up Your Business Using Books (And How I Sold 250,000+ Copies Of My First Self-Published Book)

These experts and dozens more leading authors and entrepreneurs are breaking down exactly how to self-publish, market, and turn your book into a successful business. I can’t wait for this event!

>> Claim your FREE ticket to Self-Publishing Success Summit 2016

Image courtesy of Aaron Burden