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

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by Larry Brooks on October 19, 2012

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.

{ 21 comments }

Kelly Leiter October 19, 2012 at 2:32 pm

What a great post! This is going to be so helpful! Thank you!

Tony McFadden October 20, 2012 at 5:26 am

Miramax is probably lining up with others to option it as we speak.

But one thing – the hero /always/ drives the resolution. As described above, the hero status has shifted somewhat from the wife to the old flame/ex-Navy Seal. The scene >> “Our wife/hero agrees to this, but only on one final condition: that the boyfriend be allowed to return home with them.” would have to be a heavy, with her pushing to the limit to get that release.

But like you said, things to work out in the more detailed planning.

I’m been doing essentially the same planning session with my son in prep for NaNo. The major points (like you’ve outlined above) have been decided and now we’re into the finer details. It’s fun.

Andrea October 20, 2012 at 6:49 am

I won’t participate in NaNoWriMo, but this is a good guide nevertheless. Thanks, Larry!

Larry October 20, 2012 at 7:35 am

@Tony — good on you, you spied the one soft area that was giving me fits within this condensed timeframe, and what I would focus on in further development. Not just that the heroine was relying on her ex-boyfriend to accomplish a lot of this, but the fact that her final “condition” was put forth, which was precisely what you notice: a move to have her be heroic in creating the outcome she desired, the story’s resolution. These are sometimes the toughest pieces of the puzzle. Thanks for chiming in, and good luck in assembling your story for NaNo, I bet you nail it. L.

mindy sitton-halleck October 20, 2012 at 9:05 am

Fabulous post! This is a template for any story in creation. 32 minutes – WOW! Thank you. Mindy

Curtis October 20, 2012 at 1:29 pm

For ” Big Picture” people. This is fantastic. Thank you.

Alice October 20, 2012 at 5:37 pm

This is a great outline showing how your head works and how ours should work out to fill in the blanks. I am an avid repeat reader of your books on structure.

Since I really don’t know anything about the government side of this. If this were me and I had been stupid enough to marry an abuser, once I realized his intent, I would go directly to my mother’s and get my kids. I would never seek comfort, I’d get my kids first. Of course, this woman could be someone who needs a man no matter what.

My personal opinion. Of course.

Curtis October 20, 2012 at 11:58 pm

Just pulled the November 2012 issue of “Coastal Living” from our mail box.
Article about James Patterson.

“This year (2012) he will publish 13 books.” p.77

” He sometimes collaborates with a co-author on his books, but nearly every plot originates with him.” p.78

Well, there ya go. I guess for Mr. Patterson every month is NaNoWriMo.

Crazy Travel Adventures By Debra October 21, 2012 at 7:54 am

I am debating about how to approach a major re-write of my first+ draft MG novel given some new ideas I want to build into it. Thanks for sharing this post.

RS October 21, 2012 at 8:44 am

This is a great tool — especially as I continue to revise my story architecture after getting Larry’s (fantastic) $100 coaching feedback. Two problems with this story jump out: 1) Lebanon produces very little oil and has to import it from neighbors and 2) American citizens can get a 1 month visa upon arrival into Beirut, there’s no need to apply in advance.

Larry October 21, 2012 at 10:55 am

@RS — good input. See, that’s why we invest more time in developing these initial plans beyond the 32 minutes it took to create it. You might say, “well, duh, Larry,” to that… but… you’d be shocked at how many writers would just start writing a draft from that (you could), without doing deeper into the ideas and creative decisions. Thanks for helping me make my point — a plan emerges, whether ahead of time or WITHIN a draft, and in BOTH cases, it needs to be vetted against accuracy and credibility, as well as craft and underlying story physics. L.

Valerie October 21, 2012 at 4:44 pm

I’m chiming in, too, with a NaNo-thanks for this outline and the advice.

I’m organizing my story material and, despite the shelf-full of books on writing, I’m having difficulty figuring out what I’m making as I keep mushing the clay of the story, pinching this way and squishing that way. A pyramid? A candlestick?! An ashtray?!? With your bare-bones framework, I should be able to mush the story-clay into the shape of a book.

Thanks again.

Tony McFadden October 22, 2012 at 5:02 am

@Valerie, I like the “story-clay” analogy. I’ve been using cabinet making (where the first draft is definitely a cabinet, but one needing a heap of rough edges removed), but I think I like the clay one better.

Rachel October 23, 2012 at 1:29 pm

I know this is just an outline – and a really great one at that- but I think it’s missing one critical point: what must the protagonist(s) overcome in order to achieve their goal?

(This is all stuff I’ve learned from your story deconstructions :) )

There doesn’t seem to be any personal flaw that either hero needs to overcome in order to triumph, and it makes the story kind of 2-D.

My suggestions:

Make the mom an alcoholic, with abandonment issues from being abandoned by her mother at a young age. That way she has to question whether or not the kids are really better off with her, and she has to overcome her addiction in order to rescue her kids.

Give the Navy Seal guy a PTSD complex, so that going back to Beirut is its own sort of challenge.

And I agree with Tony about the ending – it’s too unreal. If he’s in Beirut, he’s not really in the public eye enough to really have this kind of influence.

Unless of course, he knows something about what the government did during the Gulf War that Johnny Q. Public wouldn’t be too happy about (it could be that he was involved in whatever happened as well, making the fact that he held back this type of explosive information so long more realistic).

By revealing this info he could stand to lose everything, and be stuck in jail somewhere, but he’s willing to do it, since it will also help him put to rest his personal demons about his involvement (because blackmailing the gov’t with this secret will help save his lover.

Just my thoughts…

Larry October 23, 2012 at 2:43 pm

@Rachel — good stuff. Now imagine if a writer didn’t go this new level of depth, and just wrote from that initial vision… might have worked okay, but what you propose makes it SO much better. So my evil plan is working, you’re engaging with the story in deeper ways… creating an initial vision for it… then (without having to write it), taking it deeper, filling holes, adding story physics where they count most. Thanks for showing us how this works! L.

Rachel October 24, 2012 at 12:59 am

Thanks Larry! Now if only I could finish the story I’m working on…

Heather October 24, 2012 at 7:32 am

Thanks to this post, I’m super-excited about accomplishing Nano this year. I should have done this last year, though in edits I probably will. Now I think I’ll have a much stronger idea going in!

Eva October 27, 2012 at 11:14 am

I like how this lays out because it’s pretty straightforward. Question, though: the story I’m working on has multiple shifts/places/groups of people. While my “hero” is doing/involved in one thing, there are other things and other groups of people working separately from him. All three groups have the same goal but are working from different places. How does something like that fit into something like this? That’s where I get stumped all the time.

Thanks.

Ruth Fanshaw November 3, 2012 at 9:02 pm

@Eva – I would think that you would need to put a bit about each of the groups into each of the ‘expositional blocks.’ That way, you’ll be able to keep your readers interested in all the groups by returning to them frequently. :)

I suppose that each of the groups would function as a ‘hero’ in this context, and each would have its own plot and character development. :)

I gather that Tom Clancy does the kind of thing you’re describing all the time, so maybe reading him might help you get some ideas of how it works?

Hope these thoughts are helpful. :)

Stephanie March 24, 2013 at 11:47 am

When it comes to weaving in the subplots, do you do this through the Expositions? I find that when I try to build a story plan I need to separate certain threads of the story to stay on target (i.e: trying not to forget to add certain elements). The plan ends up looking like:
Inc. Incident 1a:
“” “” 1b:
Expo 1a: *main plot”
Expo 1b: “subplot”
etc….
Also while trying to keep an eye on my through-lines.

Angela June 29, 2013 at 2:18 pm

Does this work in young adult and middle grade novels?
Could you show an example of deconstructing a middle grade novel?

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