Nail Your NaNoWriMo #10: Specifics on How to Plan Your Story

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by Larry Brooks on October 9, 2011

Allow me to state the obvious: the key to story planning is knowing not only how to plan, but what to plan, and in what order.  And the key to the latter is the former.

In other words, if you don’t know how to cook, in general, then you may not have success with a specific recipe. You need to apply a generic understanding of the principles of story physics and architecture to the specific vision you are building for your story.

This is what separates the published from the unpublished, the pros from the wannabes, and the joy from the pain.

The story planning process can be broken down into three hierarchical realms, or levels. 

They are sequential, meaning that you must immerse yourself in the first (highest) level before you can really get anywhere with the other (subsequent) levels.  Doing this is the wrong order results in random creative assembly… perhaps a luxury and a comfort zone for those who prefer organic (pantsing) storytelling, but not something that fits within the time constraints of NaNoWriMo.

This is so basic that it can be easily overlooked or undervalued. 

And yet, it explains why so many story planning efforts — and this includes the “pantsing” of a novel, which is nothing other than story planning under another name — come up short.  Because if you skip the highest level of story visualization and dive into the other two in an effort to “find” your story… that’s tough. 

That’s darn near impossible, especially in a month.  And with NaNoWriMo, that’s all you have.

All three realms are phases of “the search for your story.” 

Before you can build a palace, you must see that palace in your mind.  You can’t just make it up when you get to the construction site.

Before you can find your story, you need to know what you’re looking for.  In other words, the highest level of story planning, the most critial realm of your search for story, is the Big Picture, the result of which is a one or two long-winded sentence elevator pitch thatbecomes the context — the vision — from which you continue the rest of of your planning.

Read that sentence again.  It’s a whole sandwich full of juicy stuff, all of it essential to understand.  This is the key to NaNoWriMo success.

The Highest Level of Story Planning — Your Vision

This is simply your story told in big broad strokes.  It may or may not inherently have solutions or specific scenes, but it’s your story summarized in terms of an elevator pitch. At this point, if someone were to ask you, “so how are you going to pull that off?”, you may very well not know.  Not yet, anyway. 

Scenes come later.  This is your story arc.

At this point in the process you seek to define the genre, to hone in on the the problem or journey your hero will take, and the opposition to it, and how it will end.

Example: A love story about a man whose wife dies and he must find the secret of her past to accept his future without her.  From that vision you have context to get very specific about what happens.  If you start with what happens without such context, you are driving blind in a storm of possibilities.

This high level story arc — the spine of your story – become the context that will empower the next two phases (discussed below). 

You really can’t successfully shortcut this.  If you try to, you will find yourself circling back to address this contextual necessity.  So do it now, before you spend time on scene and “moment” development that may or may not work.

You really shouldn’t move into the next two realms of story planning until you know: who is your hero… what is she/he doing in their life prior to the First Plot Point (this is your set-up, or your first 12 to 15 scenes)… what is the problem or issue or opportunity you throw at them… what is the opposition to that need or quest… … what the stakes… how does the hero become the hero… and how is it resolved.

When you can tell your story to someone at this high level of generality, without needing to describe any specific moments or scenes, then you’re ready to successfully move forward into the other two realms of your story planning.

And if you can’t do it yet… you need to swim in this soup until you get there.  If you begin writing your draft without knowing these fundamental story elements, you’re likely to drown in the dull broth of your own undercooked stock.

The Architectural Level of Story Planning — Your Blueprint

With that Big Picture vision for your story in place, it’s time to lay the foundation for it.  This is where you will apply and optimize the physics of storytelling, or the pacing and twisting and sequential unraveling that will make your story work the best it can possibly work.

Remember, you are shooting for quality, for a future with a story that works, as much as you are striving to get 50,000 words down on paper.  You really can accomplish both… and this is how.

This phase is the stuff you cannot make up, alter or reinvent.  Stories unfold in a certain way — four parts, each with a mission, separated by specific milestones, each with a specific purpose and outcome.  This centuries-old iconic structure becomes the vessel into which you pour the beautiful soup of your story, as conceived in the earlier, higher realm of visionary story planning.

Without the vessel, the soup just splatters all over the place.

First, you need to understand your First Plot Point Point (what it means in terms of functional mission, how it transitions your story from set-up mode into fully engaged conflict-driven exposition), and understand what type of scene is necessary (scene-specific mission) to make it happen.

You now have a tentpole to build around.  A foundation sunk in into the narrative turf of your story.  With this FPP milestone in place (it’ll be at about the 20th to 25th percentile of your story’s length), you can now — and not until — begin to get specific about what happens before this moment… and then, what happens after it.

What happens before the FPP is the set-up: you set a hook, you foreshadow, you intro your hero, you put forthcoming plot elements in place, you make us care for the hero and show us the stakes that will be in effect once the FPP hits.

What happens at the First Plot Point: the story really begins here.  This is the first moment in which the reader is shown what this story is really all about from the hero’s perspetive, what journey they are about to take, or what problem they must solve… and most importantly, a solid glimpse of what will stand in their way, as well as the stakes that will cause the reader to care.  And, to keep reading.

If you don’t get this, rent a stack of DVD movies and watch this structure unfold before your eyes.  Every time.

This all-important FPP blueprinting becomes context to the blueprinting that remains.  Because you know (if you’ve been following along here), that Part 2 of the story is the hero responding to the First Plot Point… and then comes the Mid-Point (a twist, a parting of the curtain) that plays a role in transitioning your hero from responder to attacker in Part 3… and then, your final Big Twist (Second Plot Point, at about the 75th percentile) that puts all elements in play and becomes the catalyst that will empower the hero to become the primary lynchpin in how the story ends.

You’ll know you’re done with this Level 2 planning when you know: how your story will open… how these first dozen or so scenes will set-up the story and the hero and the stakes, and at the same time give us reason to care and perhaps some preliminary inciting incidents to bring us closer to (set-up) the First Plot Point transition… what the mid-point context shift twist will be… what the Second Plot Point will be… and how the story will end.

That’s not scene planning, it’s milestone planning.   There are only 5 major things that comprise this level — open, FPP, MP, SPP, ending — and thus comprise the arc of your story.  You’ll have a sense of what happens between — what connects – these milestones, and on two levels: you know the unique mission of each of the four parts (set-up… response… attack… resolution; or, from a character standpoint, orphan… wanderer… warrior… martyr). 

And most importantly, you approach the development of all of these story moments in context to what you’ve already fallen in love with at the previous Highest Realm of your story planning, with is the Big Picture vision for it.

The Construction Level of Story Planning — Your Beat Sheet

Now you’re really ready to plan your scenes.  To define the sequence and specific moments of your story.

If you know all of the above, at both of those levels, you’ll already have scene ideas burning a hole in your head.  You’ll intuitively understand what your scenes need to be to live into the contextual mission you’ve already given them, which is defined in two ways: by which of the four story parts it appears within, and by the flow of the story (the narrative exposition) that precedes and follows it.

This is where your planning takes the form of a beat sheet: a series of quick bullets describing each scene in your novel. 

It’s really hard to do a functioning beat sheet as your first story planning volley, but if you’ve worked through these two higher realms of vision and planning, the beat sheet will flow out of your head with joy and urgency.  Each bullet has two possible forms: a specific thing that the scene does to and for the story… and a generic mission for that scene.  And then, perhaps, a great creative way to make it happen within the scene.

All of this is top-down mission-driven storytelling. 

Each of the four parts has a mission, which becomes context for all of the scenes within it.

Each of the scenes within those four parts has a story-specific  mission (the information it chips into the story’s flow at this point), and each scene depends on the scenes that come before it and after it.  Only with a Big Picture contextual view can you make this work.

Especially within a 30 day writing window.  If you’ve found your story on Day 1, you’ll write the hell out of it.  If not, then your draft will simply be a continued search for story, the result of which becomes necessary context for the writing of a story that works.

Understand this: searching for you story, and writing it (well), are very different aspects of the writing process.

You’ll naturally want to drift back and forth between these realms.  Which can serve you… but only if you generally remain true to the three tiers of planning.  Because each defines the context of what happens beneath it… and that context is the magic of successful storytelling.

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Robert Sloan October 9, 2011 at 2:50 pm

Excellent breakdown of the anatomy of story. I may be a dedicated pantser, but that structure is there in everything I do. When I talk about my “idea” it really comes out as that short pitch for the book – and then I post that on the website as what my book is about.

I think the fact that this story structure is so ubiquitous is why me and other pantsers find it possible to write it intuitively, like a musician who plays by ear.

Understanding how the structures work can help even an improvisational writer. If you’re going to bend the rules or find exceptions, it helps a lot to know what the rules are!

Brandon Pilcher October 9, 2011 at 5:35 pm

Thank you for finally showing me how I should go around planning my stories. For years I’ve been frustrated with figuring out what order I need to plan my stories, so this post is a godsend.

Eliza Tilton October 10, 2011 at 6:39 am

all of these nano posts have been really inspiring! I’m excited to put all this advice to good use. Thanks!

Frank Morin October 10, 2011 at 8:07 am

Another excellent post! Perfect timing as I plan out my next novel for NaNo.

Laureli Illoura October 10, 2011 at 10:07 am

Larry, the “beat sheet” concept has been keeping me writing for the past year, confident that I’m on a the right path (no longer having to rely on my ‘special God-given intuitive talent’, or whim of the Muse in searching for story). It has been a huge relief to be able to write without guessing at where I’m going next (which leads to procrastination or a feeling of ‘writers’ block), and I’m confident that it will save me time and tears and tearing my hair out on future edits.
I just got Story Engineering -by page 4 was already amazed and humbled – and feeling confident that your insights are 100% reliable and on-target for what really matters in this effort. I’m hoping to absorb it, (and everything you’re rehashing out in these posts) by NaNo time!
It occurs to me: This is really fun once you aren’t scared any more!
Thanks for everything.

Curtis October 10, 2011 at 10:42 am

I love it when your plan comes together. :-)

“… centuries-old iconic structure…” I think this is what we push against and wish weren’t true. I don’t think we know what we are fighting so we push all the harder.

We are glad to invoke a Greek named centuries old Muse and court her at every turn. But we get ticked off when she insists that she expects and offers structure.

” I love it when your plan comes together.” :-)

franb October 10, 2011 at 12:48 pm

Excellent, clear, explanation of story structure. I’ve read so many books and taken classes and workshops, and this still enlightened and inspired. Thanks!

Bruce H. Johnson October 10, 2011 at 1:26 pm

Yes, start with a premise somewhere, even if the original concept was based on character, scene, etc. That premise is, in essence, your elevator speech.

Start fleshing it out with a bit more detail. This might be what ends up on your 100-word blurb for your book on Amazon.

More detail; could now be your back-cover blurb.

More detail. Now you’re getting personal and are deep into your planning stage.

You’ll probably end up with different synopsis with different lengths for different purposes. If you’re attempting to publish through an agent, you’ll need a pretty long one. However, you’ll use them all.

By the time you get down to the beat-sheet level (scene planning), you have all these aligned.

Yes, this is an iterative process and needs to be done. If you’re great, maybe like Stephen King, you can do it in your head. Otherwise you need to document it.

I’ve got 10 pages of “stuff” already for my 4-novel rewrite, and I’m nowhere near ready to get into the beat-sheet stage.

Remember, about the only “mechanical” thing about all this is perhaps copying a couple templates into a new directory. In every other part, your art and creativity is senior and drives the final product — a story which grabs the reader, makes him both laugh and cry, and makes him impatient to buy your next work.

Go write something great.

Eliza October 16, 2011 at 2:19 pm

Larry- Thanks, as always, for an awesome post. I’d had trouble figuring out the progression of events when it comes to story planning, and this clears things up. I sat down with my story, and this article (plus some references to your story structure series) yesterday morning and emerged yesterday afternoon with a solid, working skeleton outline. And I didn’t even pull out any hair in the process.

Randi October 18, 2011 at 12:44 am

Wonderful article! I cut and pasted the URL at the top of my draft so I can reread and reread it and absorb it. Thank you!

Ti October 20, 2012 at 7:52 pm

“That’s darn near impossible, especially in a month.”

Hey, I happen to know for a fact it’s entirely possible to write a finished novel of 75,000 words in a week… with no prior thought about what’s going to happen. Writing isn’t one size fits all. It helps if you don’t have any other work to do and you can type at the speed of thought. NaNoWriMo is DESIGNED to bring out the crazies among us who can do that kind of speed writing.

However, prior to writing a word, I decided how to summarize the story in a sentence and I had a fairly strong understanding of story structure. Knowing about fiction functionality does help the successful pantser come out with a half-decent draft. Anyway, my point is that there is absolutely time to use a more organic storytelling method during NaNoWriMo. I don’t think I would’ve reached 50k if I had to go into my first NaNoWriMo novel convinced I needed a through outline and understanding of my story.

NaNoWriMo IS the outline, for us pantsers. Formalities can come in January. No matter how pretty the words look I’ll be writing another few drafts before I can really call it done.

It’s a great article on story planning, I just find it unfortunate that you’re trying to present a case for ‘this is the only right way’ for NaNoWriMo—which is about finding your own right way.

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