How to Plan Your Story in Six Weeks

A guest post by Jennifer Blanchard

When I first learned about story structure and story planning, I was inspired to no end. I knew I’d found the missing link, the information I was lacking that would now help me write stories worth publishing.

The idea of planning a story before you write it is total genius (ignore this advice at your own risk), and the principles of storytelling are a true guidance system for any serious writer.

The problem is, all these principles and story planning information is very high-level. And despite knowing what I had to do, I still wasn’t able to take the information and apply it to my own stories.

I needed a process. A timeline. Something more action-oriented.

For planners, like me, who want a process or timeframe for doing the story planning, I offer up the following:

The 6-Week Story Planning and Development Process

This is the process I use for developing and planning my stories (and the one I teach to all my clients). I created this process based on the information I’ve learned from StoryFix.com and Larry’s bestselling writing book, Story Engineering.

Week 1: Idea, Concept and Premise

This is the foundational week. Get this wrong and the rest of the weeks will have nothing concrete to stand on.

You need to take the story idea you have and turn it into a Concept and Premise.

What’s Conceptual about the story you want to tell? And what Premise will you introduce in context to that Concept?

If you’re having trouble figuring out your Concept and Premise—or if you’re still not totally clear on what a Concept and Premise are—be sure to listen to this 90-minute recording from the live call I did with Larry recently.

You have to get this right, before you move on to the next week. (And Larry even has a great little Quick Hit Concept Analysis you can sign up for, just to make sure you’ve nailed it.)

Week 2: Characters

Next you’ll want to work on your characters, but most importantly, your Protagonist and Antagonist. (Larry has a great character questionnaire in his book, Story Engineering.)

You’ll need to create the three dimensions of both of these major characters, and design your Protagonist’s character arc.

The reason this is important is because you have to know who your Protagonist is, how he will change from beginning to end, and what he wants in the story. You’ll also need an answer for who or what (the Antagonist) will oppose the Protagonist getting what he wants.

This information will help inform your structure and scene choices.

It’s also during this week that you’ll want to solidify your Premise. Now that you know your Protagonist and Antagonist better, you can weave them into your core story.

Weeks 3 and 4: Story Structure

You’ll want to give yourself at least two weeks for story structure, because the first time you attempt it on your story, you probably won’t hit the mark. So you’ll need the second week to tweak it and make changes.

Your story structure is the core of your novel and is the thread that will guide the reader through from beginning to end.

You can learn more about story structure by reading this series of posts:

Once you know your story’s structure, then, and only then, can you can go deeper.

Weeks 5 and 6: Scene Building and Story Roadmap

The final phase in the process is figuring out your story scenes and then building a scene roadmap. And like all the steps before it, you add layers as you go. That’s why two weeks are, again, dedicated to this part of the process.

During the first of the two weeks (aka: week 5), you’ll want to develop a beat sheet. A beat sheet is simply a list of scenes in your story, starting with one sentence for each scene, and growing from there.

Once you have a beat sheet, then you can turn those single sentences into a story roadmap.  A story roadmap is simply an expansion of the beat sheet that goes deeper on each scene to include things like, the mission of the scene, when it takes place, where it takes place and any notes on story exposition or information that needs to be included in the scene. (You can see a sample story roadmap by going here.)

When you’re finished with your story roadmap, I highly recommend taking a break from it for at least a few weeks, so you can come back with fresh eyes and give it a final revision, before you jump into the writing phase.

What does your story planning and development process like?

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About the Author: Jennifer Blanchard is the author of the novel, SoundCheck, and a Story Coach who helps serious emerging novelists save time, be more effective storytellers and cut years off their learning curves, so they can write kick-ass books and get published faster. Grab her free eGuide— Find Your Story: the 6-Week Story Planning Process to see an example of the process in action.

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Larry is currently away on an anniversary vacation with his wife.  Until then Storyfix.com will feature several much appreciated guest posts, and a couple of surprise pre-scheduled visits by Larry, as well.

Larry’s new writing book, “Story Fix: Transform Your Novel From Broken To Brilliant,” has just been released and is available on all online venues, as well as most bookstores.  If they don’t have it in stock yet, ask them to reserve a copy for you.

Story Fix cover jpeg

11 Comments

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11 Responses to How to Plan Your Story in Six Weeks

  1. I’m working on your Full Story Plan thingy as we speak, and it’s amazing how much it’s helping me refine my story. The questionnaire I’ve already sent you is still being changed as I fill in the scenes that take me from the Hook to the First Plot Point, and then from the beginning of Act II to the Mid-Point, etc.

    I do have one question: does the Inciting Incident have to be created by the antagonist? One of my critique partners seems to think so, yet I don’t. For example, I think that 9/11 could be the Inciting Incident for many stories… and already has been, even in the movies.

    My Inciting Incident is something that happens to the protagonist’s granddaughter, i.e., the granddaughter, who is mentally challenged, gets charged with the attempted murder of a pedophile. My protagonist sees a huge unfairness in the law in California (diminished capacity is not a defense), and this causes the protagonist to re-think her confidence in the justice system, and she accepts the Call to Action as a result.

    I’m hoping it works, but I’ll find out after you return from France, j’espere.

  2. I use an Excel spreadsheet that utilizes Story Engineering, Save the Cat!, and pieces of Write Your Novel From the Middle, and it maps out exactly what page each milestone should land on (no more math!). In a notebook I delve into three dimensions of character and story physics. And I also use index cards to move my scene beats around for optimal flow and pace.

    You’ve listed excellent resources from Larry Brooks’ greatest hits. Fabulous to have them in one post. This list is a must for new writers and a great refresher for published authors.

    • Awesome! It’s great that you have been able to create tools you can use to implement what you’ve learned from Larry, Blake and others. I’m a big fan of index cards too. I don’t usually use them til my revision stage (during my planning stage I use a story roadmap created in a Word doc), but I love the portability of them and how easy it is to change and move things around.

  3. Jennifer, thanks for the terrific compilation of this material and the posts. It’s so handy to have basically everything needed about story structure in one post! I will bookmark this so I can easily send to my editing clients. I often refer to one or two of Larry’s posts, but this will now be perfect! Glad you are helping steer the ship while Larry is off traipsing Europe!

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  5. MikeR

    The only cautionary comment I would make, to this most-excellent post, is that the actual process … for us non-experienced storytellers … is very likely to be “iterative.” We might, for instance, work out a plot-point and see the need for a character. Or, we might develop a character and then not use that character. We might be considering two-or-more possible plot points and wind up having to develop both of them (to some degree) before finally concluding which one “wins.” And so on.

    Nevertheless, the process still works: we’re not “writing actual pages” as a means of deciding what those pages really ought to contain. We’re economizing on our time and effort. Yes, we are somewhat “stumbling and fumbling about,” as people tend to do when they’re teaching themselves how to do anything-at-all. But, we are stumbling efficiently.

    I’m constantly confronted with how very different(!) the process of writing a tale is, versus the process of consuming (reading, watching) one. “Everything(!) is a choice … YOUR choice.” I know that I’m not yet experienced enough to “automatically” make the “right” choices, therefore I don’t impose that expectation upon myself. But I also know that I don’t have to “spew pages” in order to choose what my choices will be. (And, “that’s huge.”)

    One further comment I would add is this: “No matter what, don’t actually throw anything(!) away.” If you’re printing, draw a light “X” through it and stuff it into a box. If you’re doing computer files, have a “discard” folder (that you never actually discard). Anytime you feel “stuck,” spend an hour or two trolling back through the contents of that folder. (But do not judge, and do not discard.) Perhaps this will spark an idea. (And, “whenever ideas ‘spark,’ save(!) every(!!) spark!”)

    The creative process, to me, is “10% inspiration and 90% decision-making.” There IS NO “one right answer.” (Maybe there is no “right” answer at all.) You are constantly DECIDING “what happens next.” Give yourself plenty of room to do that. Writing is not-at-all like reading. Not at all.

    • Even having storytelling experience causes me to jump around and make changes in my process. The process I talked about in this post is really more of a general outline for a story planning process, and then you have to use it how it works best for you. I do have a lot of years of writing and studying story under my belt at this point, so I think sometimes my stories do come to me in a linear fashion. But typically, I come up with the ending first, and then I work backwards through the process to create my actual story plan and figure out how to get to that ending.

      “The creative process is 10% inspiration and 90% decision-making.” … YES! Totally. It’s making a decision, giving it a try and seeing how it works out. And then tweaking where and when needed. Think I’m gonna have to borrow that one 🙂

  6. MikeR

    Two of the most revealing books I ever read on writing were: “The World of ‘Star Trek,'” and David Gerrold’s book, “The Trouble With Tribbles.” (Mind you, at that time, there was only one “Star Trek!”)

    You take for granted that Captain “Kirk” commanded the Starship “Enterprise” on a “Five”-year mission for “The United Federation of Planets” along with “Spock” and “Bones” and all the rest … just like you take for granted that the fuzzy things were, and had to be, “tribbles.” Not so! Every single one of those things was hashed out in a committee meeting … or by hammering out lists of words on a typewriter. Pages of them. And if you imagine that the “Tribbles” episode just happened to wind-up the way that it eventually did, you need only read Gerrold’s account of what actually happened … and of “how ‘obvious’ it all seemed” when he was done … AND YET how many “multi-colored pages” (indicating script changes) wound-up being in the notebook while shooting was underway.

    Not a single one of those things was evident to the television audience, nor to the “adoring fans” within that audience. It never occurred to any of them that someone DECIDED(!) that there were exactly “1,771,561” of the furry beasties … all dead … in that storage bin. But, so it was. At every twist and turn of the process of creating … and selling … and then, making … that famous television episode, there was decision after decision after decision.

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