How to plan your story–book review

Until recently, with most stories I wrote, I always just started writing and then let the process go wherever it would. This is called ‘flying by the seat of your pants’, or just ‘pantsing’, and it has given me a few stories I really like (this Butler robot one, this silly programmers=God one, and many more… as well as a LOT that I didn’t ever finish) .

More recently I’ve been trying to shift towards planning stories before starting writing. Published results of these are s-Perfect and the upcoming Alien Invasive Species (see Stories page for the link, when it becomes available).

Planning takes a kind of effort that is of a different flavour to just writing. It’s enjoyable and revealing to just write by the seat of your pants and see where the hidden folds of your mind take you, but I’m finding it leads to several problems: i) the endings can fall flat, because you never have a better idea of how they’ll end till you get there and have to squirm your way to something interesting; ii) whatever themes your story carries are adopted somewhere along the way, so don’t pervade the whole story as deeply as they would if you designed the story, character and scenes all with the theme in mind; iii) you’re more likely to bump against writer’s block, since you get a good enough lump of story behind you that it becomes quite scary that the unknown continuation cannot live up to what you have.

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In pursuit of better planning, I’m reading a book called ‘Take Off Your Pants!: Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing’. It is turning out to be a great book. (A few stats about the author: She can write a 92,000 word novel in three weeks (after doing the plan); her first novel took two years to write (sans plans); she makes her money by writing many books, so that readers who like one of them will spend more on her books, which requires a large catalogue; she’s written I-don’t-know-how-many books, but it looks to be over 30). Here’s the Amazon link, in case you’re interested. I thoroughly recommend it. Below is a brief and thoroughly incomplete summary of the main points.

First up, the core of your story, and of your plan, is not the story (or plot, or whatever you call that), it’s the character arc of your central character. What hooks a reader is travelling along with your main character as they expose their dreadful flaw and then strive to correct it. To lay that out algorithmically, every story should have:

  1. A character
  2. who wants something
  3. but something (or someone) stands in the way
  4. so they struggle
  5. and ends up either getting or failing to get what they want

The above is the core of your story, but when you come to actually planning the outline of your story, you have to think about these three things:

  • Character arc
  • Theme
  • Pacing

(Notice that till now, plot has not been mentioned. Plot is defined as the events that link together to carry the reader through the story. However, plot can change rather dramatically, and still not affect character arc (your character is still trying to achieve the same goals), pacing or theme, and your story will hardly be affected)

Now down to the details of how to plan your character arc, because this if the core of your story, so determining who your main character is, what drives them, and what holds them back is central. To create your character arc, lay out seven points as such:

  1. Main character: name
  2. External goal: Defined based on the ending and the flaw (5 & 6), and something concrete a character can chase through the story.
  3. Antagonist: A person (or thing) that strives for the same external goal as your main character (but is quite possibly a polar opposite of them).
  4. The plot: (this is more than just a point, but you’ll have to read the book for more details!)
  5. End: This is defined based upon whether the character resolves their flaw or not
  • Flaw: This should be something enormous, which defines how the character changes throughout the story
  • Ally: The person who gets your main character back on track (to resolve their flaw) after they give up, or get too obsessed just following their external goal.

In the book, it’s presented in a different order. You should develop the point in this order: 1, Flaw, 5, 2, 3, Ally, 4. Each point is defined based upon the previous point (or points). For example, you work out 5 (the end) based upon whether or not your character resolves their flaw, and you work out the external goal as something that complements the ending (5).

That’s all I’m going to say for now (partly because I haven’t finished the book!). But I’ll say again that this book is well worth a read if you want to learn how to plan a satisfying story. Here’s the amazon link again, and here’s the author’s homepage, though I haven’t read any of her novels yet.

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