The new year is upon us, and with it a refreshing sense of what’s possible. A whole new 365 days to do with whatever we desire.
And one of the things I like to do every year, is re-read my favorite craft book, Story Engineering, by Larry Brooks.
But this year, I wanted to do something different. This year, I’m inviting you to JOIN ME.
I hosted a 7-day livestream series where we read and then discussed the sections of Story Engineering. (Video replays below)
Why did I choose this book? Because the information in it changed my life. It took me from writing in circles to writing actual stories that were cohesive and worth publishing. It helped me get my debut novel, SoundCheck, out into the world.
It’s the only craft book that ever spoke to me and that finally made me really understand story structure and how to use it. (I was lucky enough to have found Story Engineering back when it was an eBook on Larry’s site called, Story Structure–Demystified.)
Not to mention it’s a best-seller, and Signature recently named it #3 Best Books on Writing.
And if you are following along, I highly recommend you also do the following:
1. Buy (or borrow) a copy of Story Engineering by Larry Brooks (it’s available on Kindle and in print)
2. Download the Story Engineering Reading Guide that I created to go with this event
The Story Engineering Read and Discuss Series
Day 1 Livestream: Part 1 and 2 in Story Engineering
Day 2 Livestream: Part 3 in Story Engineering
Day 3 Livestream: Part 4 in Story Engineering
Day 4 Livestream: Part 5 in Story Engineering up to “Foreshadowing”
Day 5 Livestream: The rest of Part 5 in Story Engineering
Day 6 Livestream: Part 6 in Story Engineering
Day 7 Livestream: Parts 7 and 8 in Story Engineering
BONUS Live Call
Ready to find your story? Grab my FREE story development training + workbook, ‘From “Eh” to “Awesome!”‘ here.
NOTE: This is a guest post from my client, Zara Quentin, who just published her debut novel, Airwoman. Enjoy! –jen
How long does it take to write a novel? Years? Decades? You’ve probably been writing for some time–you may even have more than one ‘bottom-drawer’ novel (AKA: practice novel), right?
That’s how it was for me—years of writing drafts I couldn’t bring myself to revise, because I didn’t think it was worth the time or the energy.
In 2015, all that changed. I decided I was going to publish a book in 2016. I’d been fooling around with my writing dream for years, expecting a published novel to be many more years in the making—if it ever happened at all.
I remember making that decision—it changed the way I thought about writing.
Here is a timeline of how I wrote and published, Airwoman: Book 1:
The First Three Months: Idea to Planning (August to October 2015)
I distinctly remember getting the idea for Airwoman. My main character, Jade Gariq (though I didn’t know her name back then), came to me one dark and stormy night in mid-August 2015. She perched on my windowsill, wings and all. She was running from something, seeking refuge. She intrigued me.
Soon after that, in early September, Story Coach, Jennifer Blanchard, ran a free 7-day story planning challenge in the 1% Writers Facebook Group (which I’m a member of) and I started to flesh out my idea based on the character who had visited me that night. I really enjoyed the challenge and decided I’d try NaNoWriMo, which was a few months away. So when Jennifer opened up her NaNoWriMo 6-week story development course, I decided to get on board.
It was around this time that I made the decision to publish my novel in 2016. Call it a mid-life crisis moment, but I suddenly realized that, after having my third child, life wasn’t going to get any less busy. Not in the short term. If I wanted to pursue my writing, I just had to do it. I had to make time for it.
A few days after I’d made that decision, I got an email from Jennifer, revealing her Novel By Next Year course, which involved having her as a coach and guide through the planning, drafting and publishing stages.
It felt like fate. I was in.
So for the rest of September and October, I planned Airwoman: Book 1 until I had a scene roadmap of the entire novel. I had never planned to this extent before—but instead of being bored by the planning, it made me excited to get started writing.
At the end of October, I moved (somewhat unexpectedly) with my family from New Zealand (where we had been living for two years) back to Australia. With three young children, and a house full of stuff, it was full on. In consultation with Jennifer, I put the roadmap aside for a couple of weeks, let NaNoWriMo pass me by, and focused on the move.
Sometimes, life happens, right?
First Draft – Facing the Blank Page (November 2016 – January 2016)
It was about mid-November before I was able to focus on writing again. I took a week or so to look over my scene roadmap again and tweak it in a few places. Then I took a deep breath and dove into writing the first draft.
The first draft is a daunting time for a writer–facing the blank page. However, with a detailed roadmap, it was easier than ever. I didn’t wonder what to write in the next scene. Instead, I thought about the detail of it. I watched the movie of the scene inside my head, then transcribed it onto the page.
And so I wrote. Every day.
Every single day for about two months. I wrote every evening after the kids had gone to bed, during their nap-time (if they went down). I snatched whatever time I could for writing.
I had a goal of writing 500 words per day at least–a small goal, not too daunting. Usually once 500 words is written, I’ll write a lot more. But on an off-day, I gave myself permission to hit 500 words then stop.
I finished the first draft just after New Year, in early January 2016. The first draft came out to about 80,000 words.
My Manuscript Rested – I Did Not (January – February 216)
Although I already had some ideas about how I could improve my first draft, I was determined to give the manuscript a proper rest so that I could come back to it with fresh eyes. I had a six week break before I read through it again.
But I was not idle during this time.
Instead, I set up my author website, a blog and my social media accounts. I developed my brand and the focus for my blog. I worked on, not just creating the platforms, but being active on those forums regularly.
I announced to the world I was a writer and that I was publishing a book. This took a lot of courage–finally confessing to being a writer and giving myself a public deadline.
Suddenly, my decision back in September 2015 seemed to loom. October wasn’t all that far away and I had to finish a book. A whole book! What was I thinking?
Taking A Deep Breath. And Plunging Into Revisions (March to June 2016)
In March, I dared to read through my first draft. Happily, it wasn’t as bad as I feared, though it definitely needed work.
During the first draft phase, Jennifer had been reading through my draft week by week and sending feedback, which I’d held over for the revision phase as I’d wanted to just get the first draft down on the page. She then read through the whole draft again and provided me with copious notes, which I put together with my own to make my revision schedule.
After a first read through, I read it again and made more notes about what needed to change. Then I made a revision roadmap—listing each scene, the changes that needed to be made and a timeline of events. I also drew up some maps of my story world, which helped me to keep track of the action throughout the story.
I learned a lot from the revision process. Firstly, though I would consider world-building to be one of my strengths, more often than not, it didn’t make its way onto the page. I often had my characters moving through a blank canvas and, though I saw the backdrop in my head, readers wouldn’t have that advantage. During my revisions, I needed to set the scene.
I also had to flesh out characterization and character motivations in some cases. A few events needed to be switched around or fleshed out for greater impact.
I also learned that revision wasn’t a chore of a task, as I had always imagined it would be. I actually enjoyed the opportunity to improve the story. That became my goal—working out how to make the story better.
Once I had completed the revision roadmap, I dove into the redraft (the second draft). During this phase, I went through my manuscript scene by scene, taking what I could from the first draft and altering, rewriting or scrapping things depending on what needed to be done. This took most of March and April.
Once that was finished, I read it through again and fixed some consistency errors, made a few more tweaks.
Then, as luck would have it, at the end of June, my family and I had to move interstate (again, somewhat unexpectedly). That took another couple of weeks out of the writing process as I managed yet another move. Luckily, I was in a position to send what I considered the third draft to a developmental editor and some Beta Readers.
An Outside Opinion: Biting My Fingernails and More Revision (July to September 2016)
It was a nerve-wracking time, sending out my manuscript to people I didn’t know and who hadn’t been with me on this journey so far. When they didn’t immediately get back to me, I feared the worst. What if they hated it and were trying to find a way to phrase it nicely? I had to remind myself that they also had busy schedules.
In the meantime, I started to liaise with to my cover designer. It was an interesting process because-–despite wanting something amazing–I really had no idea of what I wanted on the cover. My cover was in his hands! Thankfully, he came back with a number of ideas, which we then discussed so that he understood what I liked and didn’t like, and where we would go with it.
One-by-one, at the end of July and early August, the editor and Beta Readers came back to me with their comments. Despite my fears, their feedback was encouraging. They’d liked the story, but showed me ways to improve it. I really grew as a writer through this feedback. In pointing out where the manuscript needed improvement, I learned both what I’m good at, and what I need to work on. Their advice helped me to improve Airwoman, but I believe it will also help me to improve my future writing too.
At this point, I set down to revise my manuscript again, and also set a date for publication: October 25th! The date loomed on my calendar as I realized how little time there was left.
I revised through August until I felt the manuscript didn’t need any more tweaking. In early September, I got to proofreading. In September, I also worked with the cover designer to finalize the cover. At the end of September the final manuscript went to the formatter to format it for print and Kindle.
When I picked October 25 for the publication date, I had hoped to have a month to promote the book before it came out. In the end, I had about three weeks as I waited until the final cover, the pre-order was set up on Amazon (along with relevant links) and a free preview was available on my site.
During this time, I went back and forth with the formatter, making sure the interior was as I wanted it, and correcting those last typos (always some!). I set up my author profile on Amazon and Goodreads. I also started blogging about the inspiration behind my book, sharing photos and contacting book bloggers and reviewers to garner interest in reviewing it.
I set up a Virtual Launch Party on Facebook and did some guest posting, trying to get word out about my novel. The marketing was new for me, but I found I enjoyed it—it was a challenge to think about ways to promote my book.
Finally, the big day came. I held my book in my hands. It went out into the world where other people could read it. It was the height of vulnerability—allowing complete strangers to read and comment on my book which, as every writer would know, is like baring their very soul for others to comment o.
But I did it. In a little over a year, I published my debut novel, Airwoman: Book 1. It felt so good.
That’s Just the Beginning
It was one hell of a year! I’ve grown more in the last year as a writer, than I had in the many years of writing before that. By finally giving myself permission to invest in my dream, I took a big leap in learning—about story craft, about myself as a writer and about the publication process. I’m very lucky that I had Jennifer Blanchard to hold my hand throughout the process. Without her, I doubt I would have come so far so soon. Having someone to bounce ideas off, read my work, encourage and guide me has been invaluable.
I’m pleased to have achieved my goal, but this is not the end. I’m not a one-book writer. Obviously Airwoman: Book 1 is the first in a series. I’ve got a series overview fleshed out and have planned the second book. I’m itching to get started on it.
The writer’s journey is an exciting ride, and I’m only at the beginning.
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How far along are you on your writer journey? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!
About the Author: Zara Quentin is the author of Airwoman: Book 1. She inherited a love of travel from her parents, who took her and her sister on trips to the United States, Europe, and Asia as children. Zara now resides in Melbourne, Australia with her husband and three children. She is currently working on the next instalment in the Airwoman series. You can read the first three chapters of Airwoman for free here.
If you want help taking your story from idea to published, just like Zara did, be sure to apply to work with me and my team of self-publishing pros. You can fill out the application here.
I work with a lot of fiction writers on their stories, and one of the common things I see is what I call Story Ambition. They’ve got major ideas for the stories they want to tell–for a complex theme, a Concept that kills, and a character every reader can root for.
Problem is, they’ve never written a cohesive, engaging story before, not even a simple one.
And that makes it really difficult. Because you can’t just go from zero to 100 in one day. It takes time to learn how to implement craft and to understand it enough to be able to use it in your own stories.
You wouldn’t attempt to jump 100 feet in the air if you’ve never even jumped 50, right? No, you’d first practice with something simple, like jumping 10 feet in the air, and then 25 feet, and then 35 feet. You’d master the principles of being able to jump high. Once you mastered jumping 50 feet, then you’d go for 75 and eventually 100.
And that’s when you’ll actually hit it. When you’ve practiced enough and attempted enough simple heights, that’s when you’ll be able to do the bigger stuff.
But most writers’ Story Ambition causes them to go big right out of the gate.
Now I’m not gonna say that’s a totally wrong thing to do, because it’s not. But it will make your learning curve a lot steeper, and your story planning process will be that much more frustrating.
And let me just add that a steep learning curve and frustration are a part of the story planning and development process. But doing this process will save you from frustration, headaches and heartache later when you write the first draft. (Whereas not planning pretty much guarantees you frustration, headaches and heartache when you discover your draft is a total mess.)
So if you’ve been working on a story for a long time now, and it just doesn’t seem to be working, or you just can’t seem to make it work no matter how many attempts you make, it may be time to consider that your Story Ambition is bigger than your storytelling capabilities.
There is nothing wrong with admitting that you may have bitten more than you can chew. It’s fine, we all do it.
What I’d recommend is setting this story aside, and focusing on planning, developing and then writing one that’s simpler. A story with a straight-forward storyline. One that doesn’t require multiple Antagonists or fifteen characters or a series of books.
Because that’s another thing I see a lot. Writers who have never written a cohesive story are trying to write an entire series of stories, sometimes all at once.
Again, not saying you can’t do it, but the level of skill required to pull off a successful series is more than most new or even emerging writers can handle.
Yeah, you know me, I’m positive and believe in unlimited possibility and being able to achieve anything you set your mind to, and yet I’ll still tell you exactly how it really is. And the reality is most new and emerging writers never actually finish or hit publish.
It’s not because they don’t have what it takes or because they’re just not good storytellers. It’s because their Story Ambition doesn’t match their storytelling capabilities.
Which is why I always recommend starting simple and growing from there. Don’t make your first attempt at writing a novel be a six-book series.
This isn’t because you can’t do it. In theory, you can do it. But if you’ve never created a successful story Premise before, how do you expect to create six of them? You’re jumping in the deep end when you haven’t learned to swim yet.
And that’s why your story isn’t working. That’s why you’re feeling way more frustration than you need to be. That’s why you constantly skip your writing sessions and procrastinate on working on your story.
Because your Story Ambition doesn’t match your storytelling capabilities.
Take a step back and focus on developing a really good simple story. When you can do that, try another one. Once you’ve got two or three under your belt, then try something bigger and more complicated.
But when you start with the complicated, you’re starting at a disadvantage. And that will only cause you to lose your confidence and feel like you can’t do this.
When the truth is, you can do it. You’ve just gotta start small.
If you want to knock it out of the park this month and finish 2016 strong, you have to stop getting in your own way.
There are already enough obstacles in a writer’s way without having to invent your own. So, stop.
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Have you ever taken on too much with a story? What did you do?
Are you ready to write and publish your book? Myself and my team of self-publishing pros can help you make it happen. Apply to work with us here.
There’s a very common saying (and misconception) in the storytelling world that goes a little something like this: the definition of story is Conflict.
Maybe you’ve heard this before?
And writers everywhere are being mislead into thinking that as long as they have conflict, they have a story. It’s how well-intentioned writers end up with an episodic narrative and no idea where they went wrong.
“But it has conflict!” they’ll argue. “There’s drama and conflict and all kinds of obstacles going on.”
Fine. That’s what there needs to be. But that’s not all there needs to be.
That’s where writers go off track. Because they’re been told for years that the definition of story is conflict. And it’s not.
The real definition of story, is this: opposition.
No opposition, no story. Period.
And this is what writers get wrong. Over and over again, this is what I see from the writers I talk to and work with. They’ve got a really cool idea for a story, they have conflict and tension and drama. Sometimes they even have an Antagonist.
But they don’t have true opposition, because what the Protagonist wants has nothing to do with what the Antagonist wants, or there’s no compelling reasons for why the Antagonist is doing what he’s doing, etc.
That doesn’t work. A story needs opposition. Why?
Because opposition creates stakes, it creates a journey, it creates something to be resolved. And that’s what a story needs.
If you don’t have opposition, you don’t have real stakes or a real journey or anything that immediately needs to be resolved. Opposition is the thing that makes it all work.
Here are some examples to help illustrate it for you:
Movie: Billy Madison
Protagonist: Billy Madison
Opposition: Eric, his father’s associate who’s getting the company instead of Billy
How Eric opposes Billy: Billy is going back through grades 1-12 and re-graduating to try and prove himself; Eric is sabotaging his efforts along the way so Billy fails
Why Eric opposes Billy: because Eric wants to be the new owner of Madison Hotels and stop Billy from taking over instead
Protagonist: Sydney Prescott
Opposition: ghost-face killer who wants to kill Sydney
How Killer Opposes Sydney: Sydney is trying to figure out who’s after her and she wants to escape with her life, but the killer is psychologically torturing her and plans on killing her
Why Killer Opposes Sydney: because of a back story that Sydney is unaware of (her mom is the reason the killer’s mom left him and his father a few years ago)
Movie: Twilight, Eclipse (movie #3)
Protagonist: Bella Swann
Opposition: Victoria and her minion, Riley, who both want to kill Bella (and Edward, her lover)
How Victoria Opposes Bella: Riley builds an army with the guidance of Victoria so they can travel to Forks and destroy Bella, Edward and his family
Why Victoria Opposes Bella: because Bella is responsible for the death of Victoria’s mate, James (from movie #1)
Get it? Opposition = story.
If you’re doing NaNoWriMo this year, now’s the perfect time to figure out what the opposition will be in your story. If you do that, you’ll be lightyears ahead of the game come November 1.
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Who or what is creating opposition in your story? Share in the comments.
Are you participating in NaNoWriMo this year? I’m doing my own version of NaNo in November and revising the draft I finished earlier this year.
I’ve been going through my first draft, reading and re-reading and making notes for changes, and then creating scene cards to make my post-draft story roadmap more portable. And as I’ve been doing this, I’ve felt SO grateful for having taken the time to plan and develop my story before I wrote it.
This draft is total crap as far as the writing goes. But the story? The story is there. Sure, I’m finding ways to optimize things, and moving things around and changing stuff, but overall the story is still the same as it was when I wrote the draft.
Because I didn’t use my draft as a way to search for my story (I’ve tried it that way, it always results in epic failure for me), so my draft is actually a story.
This is a big deal, because it’s making my revision process much easier and less frustrating. And I totally expect to get it all finished during November. That may seem crazy (although if you’ve hung around me long enough you know I like crazy), but when you do enough planning ahead of time, you can write a first draft that doesn’t suck.
Which means my second draft is much easier to revise.
I’d say I’m able to save about 75% of my original draft (the story, not necessarily the way I wrote it). For me, revisions are more about infusing the narrative with characterization and description, for improving dialogue and making sure I’m showing more than telling.
I’m not ripping apart the story or fixing major plot holes or anything like that. Because I work that shit out first.
If you’re attempting NaNoWriMo this year, that’s exactly what I recommend you do too. If you plan your story before you write it, you will end up with a better first draft every single time.
And even if you’re busy this month, you can still make it happen. I’m making NaNoPlanMo even easier for you, with this 15-minute story planning schedule.
There are 20 days left in the month. That means if you worked your way through this list for 15 minutes a day, you’d have spent 300 minutes (or 5 hours) planning your story. Is that enough time to get it perfect? Probably not.
But it is enough time to know the most important information about your story. And since 15 minutes is a small amount of time, you can easily throw in an extra session here and there when you need it.
Here’s a list of story tasks/questions that you can do in 15-minute increments:
- Brainstorm your idea, Concept and Premise
- Refine your Concept (aka: the landscape of your story)
- Refine your Premise (aka: plot)
- Who’s your Protagonist?
- What does she want in the story?
- Who’s your Antagonist?
- What does he want in the story?
- Why does he want to oppose your Protagonist?
- How does the introduction of the Antagonist create stakes for your Protagonist?
- How does the story open?
- What’s the Hook?
- What’s your First Plot Point?
- What’s your Midpoint?
- What’s your Second Plot Point?
- What are your two Pinch Points?
- What needs to happen in Part One (aka: Set Up)
- What needs to happen in Part Two (aka: Reaction)
- What needs to happen in Part Three (aka: Attack)
- What needs to happen in Part Four (aka: Resolution)
- What’s your theme/message?
- What are your subplots?
- Who are your secondary characters?
- Write up a scene list (multiple 15-minute sessions for this one)
- Expand on each scene (one 15-minute session per scene)
And there you have it. Your quick-and-easy-get-it-done NaNoWriMo story plan.
Now get to work!
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How do you get your story ready for NaNoWriMo?
And if you want to kick some serious writing ass in only 15 minutes a day (yes, it’s totally possible!), check out my best selling book, The 15-Minute Writer: How To Write Your Book In Only 15 Minutes A Day.
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?
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 __________________________________________________________________.
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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?
- 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)
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?
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
Looking 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.
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.
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.
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.
Share With Us
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.)
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.
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.
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.”
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:
- Get out a notebook or a piece of paper
- 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”)
- 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.
Share With Us
Give this exercise a try and then come back and report in the comments how it went for you.