Monthly Archives: October 2012

From Idea to Fully Viable Story Plan… in One Blog Post

Just Possibly a Save-Your-NaNoWriMo Strategy…

… or any other story you’re working on.

I offer the following to illustrate the power of story planning and writing in context to mission-driven story architecture… and to demonstrate that it CAN be done. 

In this case, in 32 minutes.

The result is, conceivably, a workable story plan that an inspired author could use – with or without expansion – to actually draft a viable novel or screenplay, one with all the working parts in the prescribed places, and with the optimal balance of story physics clicking on all cylinders.

Notice how it doesn’t remotely take the mystery and romance out of the creative  process – indeed, this is the creative process – because the character remains a blank page, someone the writer can discover and explore using this charted course.

Every protagonist, by the way, benefits from a charted course.

Where did this come from?

Yesterday I presented a webinar for Writers Digest University.  It included an abbreviated version of my new condensed story coaching program, toward which I offered an example story idea and turned it into a concept, simply to illustrate what I was asking them to send me as part of this process.

Turned out the idea and the concept that sprang from it had dramatic chops.  Something worth exploring further.  Which I’m doing here, and now, in real time as I write this.

With that idea as a starting point, I’ve expanded upon it with the goal of turning the thing into a viable story, one worth telling.  With inspired execution and killer scenes, this is something that could actually be publishable.

The story: “Woman At War”

Idea: Write a story about a woman who loses her children to an abusive husband.

Concept: The American wife of an abusive heir to a powerful middle east oil family fortune tries to divorce him, but he takes their two children and escapes to Lebanon where she can’t touch him, or them.

Genre: a thriller with romantic overtones.

Premise: An abused American wife seeks protection from an ex-boyfriend (the guy she should have married, but wasn’t nearly as wealthy, who happens to be an ex-Navy Seal), as she begins divorce proceedings against her abusive Lebanese husband.  But before it gets to court the husband takes their two children back to Beirut with him, and when she goes to US Authorities for help they refuse because of diplomatic sensitivities.  The ex-boyfriend (from whom she’d been seeking comfort and protection) steps up, and together they conceive a plan to get the children back, battling not only the husband’s scope of power in Beirut but opposition from her own government. 

Themes: A mother’s love, and the power of intention driven by that love, conquers all.  Also, the heart knows real love, even when the brain says otherwise.  The story explores the lengths governments will go to, at the expense of citizens, to further their own goals relative to trade and diplomatic relations.

Sub-Plot: a behind the scenes look at the government’s machinations to stop our heroes (with a career and moral-crisis CIA agent as the focus) and keep this thing under wraps, to protect a sensitive oil trade agreement with the antagonist’s family and his government.  And, a budding romance.

Narrative strategy: use first person-past point of view, as told from our wife/hero, and third person omniscient to unspool the CIA’s counter moves, bringing these threads closer to collision as we go deeper into the story.

First Plot Point:  After much jockeying and promising, the US Government refuses their VISA to travel to Beirut, and she is warned off by a CIA agent, who offers a hollow promise that “they’ll look into it.”  She knows she’s alone with this problem, until the man who has been protecting her (the ex-boyfriend) says he knows how to get into Lebanon, and steps up to get the children back home.

Ending: The ex-Seal, who by now has won our heroine’s heart, forces a stand off that will liberate the children, but is taken hostage in doing so.  But because of his profile and contacts in the press, the US government can no longer cover it up, and must negotiate for his freedom, and return him to our protagonist and her children to pursue a life together.

The story in Ten Expositional Blocks:

1. Hook: A terrible fight between our protagonist and her husband, who is physically abusive.  She announces she wants a divorce.  She’s afraid he’ll kill her (he threatens this) so she leaves.  The two children are at her mother’s.

2.  Inciting Incident: She goes to her friend, the ex-Seal, for comfort.  He
advises her to get the children immediately, but when they arrive at her mothers’ they are terrified to learn that at the husband has already picked them up.  When they go back to her house, he’s gone.  No note.  She assumes (because he’s threatened this, too) that he’s taken the children (whose things are gone, too) back to Beirut.

3.  Part 1 exposition:  She seeks help from a lawyer and from US authorities, on several fronts,  but meets with resistance.  Meanwhile she gets closer to the ex-boyfriend, as their backstory is revealed.  She gets a message, the kids are fine, but they’re staying in Beruit with the husband.  She gets emails from them, asking for her help to come home, but the emails are security-blinded and the source cannot be located.   

4.  First Plot Point:  Her VISA to travel to Beruit is denied.  When she pushes back, she is visited by a CIA agent who tells her to back off, that they’re looking into it.  Her boyfriend, who has ex-Seal buddies in the CIA, discovers this isn’t true, it’s not on the radar because the husband is too sensitive.

5.  Part 2 exposition: Fact finding, plan hatching.  She and the ex-boyfriend realize there is sexual tension between them.  More backstory (his, as a veteran of the Gulf War) surfaces, foreshadowing his ability to navigate there.  As a Pinch Point, she receives an email with a photo, showing her children with her husband, and a new wife and mother.  They try alternative strategies (private security people, other agencies), but nothing is working.  Meanwhile, we see the CIA is aware that they’re not letting this go.

6.  Mid-Point: The boyfriend has a breakthrough: he’s made contact with some people he knew during the war, and they’re willing to help.  He’s going there, he’ll get the children.  She wants to go, but he says no.  Also, the CIA becomes aware of the contact the ex-boyfriend has just made with a military official in Beruit.

7.  Part 3 exposition: They yield to the sexual tension, and he relents when she convinces him she needs to go with him.  When the CIA gets wind of their flight plans (they’ve been watching), they issue threats, and alternative transportation must be arranged.  They drive into Canada and will fly from there under false identities, which the boyfriend is arranging.  At the Pinch Point they arrive, but the boyfriend’s military contact is dead, from a recent accident.  They are alone.  They begin the search for her husband’s family compound, where the children are, ducking potential threats enroute .

8. Second Plot Point: Following clues, they finally find the family complex, but they are captured.

9. Part 4 exposition: The CIA knows they are there (the family is demanding concessions for their return), and they mount a lame rescue strategy.  But this is turned away by Lebanese forces.  Meanwhile the wife reasons with her husband (she’s denied access to the children).  She, in effect, plays to his ego and seems to seduce him, asking him to come back to her, allowing the boyfriend to escape within the family complex.  But he can’t find the children.  Instead, armed with a weapon he forcibly took from a guard, he takes the husband’s other children hostage, demanding a trade and safe exit with our woman’s children.  And in the meantime, manages to contact assets in the states that can create leverage for what he wants.  It’s a standoff.

10. Resolution: Our hero has managed to get the press involved, which sucks the CIA visibly back in.  A settlement is negotiated.  The boyfriend must remain behind to stand trial, with the CIA supplying their best lawyer.  The wife and children are returned home, on the condition that the husband be given liberal visitation rights in the states, under supervised security protocols.  Our wife/hero agrees to this, but only on one final condition: that the boyfriend be allowed to return home with them.  The CIA now backs her on this – they are afraid of backlash on this one – and pressures the family to capitulate.  They return home as a unit, with a life in front of them, and a wary government at their back, making sure this doesn’t blow up into an international incident they can no longer control.

Shades of Argo, with a family twist.

Holes and soft spots, perhaps.   Stuff you might tinker with at this level, or things you might address during the actual drafting of scenes.  Either way – again, this took 32 minutes… imaging where you could take it with, say, 32 hours of brainstorming? – the story is whole, proportioned, addresses all realms of story physics, and is ready for the next step.

Too many stories are written from a vision that is less than this.  But this level of vision for the story – either before you write it, or in context to a draft you don’t feel is working – is a powerful way to create a skeletal, concept-driven narrative exposition that works.  From there it’s all upside.

If you’re struggling with your story, and want to test its architecture relative to the leverage of underlying story physics, try this approach.  Boil your story down to these key points and watch what happens.

It can unblock you.

It can elevate the story to greater effectiveness.

It can fix what’s broken, even if you didn’t know it was broken.  Because it leverages the power of story physics in the right places, to the right degree.

It’s also where you’ll end up, anyway, perhaps after coaching and editing, when you finally arrive at a story that works.


Are you up for an MRI-like analysis of your story?  For either your plan or an actual draft?  Got a hundred bucks?  Click HERE to get the skinny on the most original, value-delivering service in the story coaching business.


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The Killer Three-Headed Story Beast

It might actually be you.  Hopefully it is.

Sounds kinda silly-scary, I know.  But this is a good thing.  Because you need to be of three minds – three heads – before you become a fully realized, successful author.

Even if you just get lucky, in that moment of kismet you will have been of three minds.  Funny how luck works that way.

I build learning and execution models that put a fence around the intention, process and outcome of storytelling. 

High bars to reach for, instead of just leaping into a void.  Specific paths protocols to follow, instead of putting blinders and then pressing the gas pedal.  Conventional wisdom repackaged into clarifying new perspectives. 

To wit: Six core competencies.  Six realms of story physics.  Seven levels of character exposition.  Three dimensions of character.  A three-part story development model.  And so on.  Might seem like you need an abacus and a CPA to wade through it all. 

Hey, the Bible did it… seven headed serpents, seven tablets, seven bowls, seven scrolls, seven thunders, seven days of creation… just sayin’.

So here I am with yet another model for writers to consider, none of it metaphoric.  This offers another way of thinking about storytelling – and a way to attack it and build your skills – that divides into, once again, three parts.

This isn’t about process. 

No matter how you write, this applies to you.

There are three aspects of the writing mindset– what you need to know and what you need to be able to do – that define the skillset of the professional author.  Think of your story as a company run by three executive heads (which, in a small firm, often exist within one skull): the engineering/product whiz, the money suit and the operations honcho.  

They have separate areas of responsibility.  They have meetings, sometimes with each other.  They have tee times, also sometimes with each other.  And before the business model collectively works and a profit is shown, they must ultimately be on the same page, each making the others effective. 

So it is with your story model.

Here they are:

Your craft head.  An understanding of how ideas grow into concepts and then become premises, and how narrative unspools over four distinct contextual parts, separated by specific mission-driven story turns.  This is the stuff of story design. You can’t just make it up, you need to create within this general paradigm.

Your story physics head.  An understanding of what makes a story work.  Craft gives you a shot at this, but the reason one story works better than another perfectly crafted story is that the story physics are strong.  These are the forces of narrative, in which compelling premise is infused with dramatic tension, revealed with artful pace, resulting in hero empathy (rooting) and vicarious experience… rendered with the next of the three heads.  This is the stuff of story power, the forces that render the design effective.

Your story sense head.  Timing, nuance, out-of-box thinking, a personal style and brand… a story voice.  This is the differentiating, empowering stuff of talent and art, and it resides as a layer above and infused with craft and physics..

These three become a sum that exceeds the parts.

When a story works the author has gone three for three. 

Your story is already asking all three of these areas of application from you.  

When it isn’t working, it’ll stay stuck until you bring all three heads to the storytelling party. 

When you recognize these three mindsets as different aspects of the writing process – whatever your process – you will be better equipped to answer the call.

Craft and story physics… they are what they are, and they’re waiting for you to discover and apply them.  But that last one, story sense… that’s the goal, one that entirely depends on the first two.  Having it without the first two isn’t enough.  That just makes you… well, a book reviewer.

Story sensibility is what Stephen King has over the rest of us.  Don’t care for King?  Then swap out King’s name with your favorite author and it’s just as true.  Story sense, rather than craft, is the differentiating factor. 

Craft… that’s just the ante-in.  In a pile of submissions with 500 titles awaiting a decision, over half may have solid craft on display.  But only a handful will land a contract.  The difference is pure, unadulterated story sense.

How are you doing on each of these three heads? 

If you come up less than stellar in any of them, consider a little focus on that area.  It might be just the thing to takes you to the next level.


Consider this INCENTIVE to join me on Thursday, October 18 (1:00 eastern) for my Writers Digest University webinar: “Story Physics: Mastering the Most Important Moments in Your Story.”

This  90-minute webinar (available afterwards as a recorded downloadable product from Writers Digest) will feed all three of your writing heads with fundamental knowledge on narrative sequencing and the application of optimal story forces.

The regular tuition is $89.  Use this code — WDS329 – for a $10 discount.

Then – and here’s the BIG INCENTIVE – if you’d like to see how your story stacks up on all three of these mindsets… send me your webinar signup receipt to get half off on my new $100 Story Coaching Adventure, good for the next six months. 

This practically pays for the webinar itself, and based on feedback, delivers far more than a self-respecting C-note has a right to expect.  (Note: the story coaching discount is not affiliated with Writers Digest University and is not a part of their registration protocol… it’s my offer to you as a means of taking your story to the next level.  This optional add-on is separate from the INCLUDED shorter concept and FPP analysis as part of your WD enrollment.)

Hope you’ll join me on Thursday, it’s going to be intense.

If you can’t and you’d still like to put your story under the intense light of analysis, even if you haven’t written it yet… click HERE



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