Two More Killer Visual Story Development Tools

Thanks to Rachel Savage, our resident genius process graphicsmeister.

Well, she’s done it again. 

Rachel – she of the recently-applauded circus tent story structure graphic – has designed two extensions of that potent visual storytelling analogy (“the major story milestones are like poles supporting the weight of a massive tent, beneath which exists the universe of your story” – graphic by Rachel, analogy by moi), both of which facilitate your ability to actually discover, explore, optimize and then chart the course of your novel or screenplay on a single page.

Using designated spaces found under the tent canopy, which identifies the four parts of your story and assigns them to quadrants that are separated by defined plot points, you have room to list your 12 to 15 scenes-per-Part in bullet form.

Or longer than bullets if you can write really, really small.

This is a beat sheet on steroids.

What I appreciate most about these tools is the fact that they follow the natural flow of effective creative thinking as you move forward with your story development process. 

It’s always a sequence.  Even if you do it out of sequence.  Such as…  during your beat sheeting (i.e., the planning of your scene sequence) you get a better idea for Part 3 that causes you to go back and re-engineer Parts 1 and 2. 

That’s how it works.  Almost always.  It’s a good thing.  When you stop getting better ideas you’re either done or dead.

Shifting gears here is much more efficient — and effective — than rewriting an entire draft. 

Or even worse, having that better idea somewhere down the line and not rewriting the draft in favor of just finishing it differently than you’d planned.

That doesn’t work.  Hardly ever.  Because rewriting an entire draft is just… well… daunting.

Rejected manuscripts are full of mid-course corrections.  Published manuscripts never show signs of one.

Read that sentence again. 

Do this process of creative sequencing right, in the form of a beat sheet (or a flow chart or little yellow sticky notes on your office wall), and you won’t have to rewrite your draft.  Because you’ll have the story nailed before you start one.

Just buff it up and start working on your agent pitch.

Why does this work?

Because you can’t really nail down the mission and dramatic content of your scenes until you’re solid on your story’s major milestones – so goes the theory, and in practice this becomes an after-the-fact truth even if you’re a radical pantser – which, if you know what you’re doing, you already understand are not things you can just throw into your story wherever you want. 

Minor plot twists, yes.  Go to town on them.  But the major ones… non-negotiable.

This is why Rachel has created space above the tent (literally) to work on those.

See it HERE.

The second graphic is a tricked-out version of the first, adding the even higher and absolutely necessary process of defining your story’s concept and through-line, as well as its theme.

See that one HERE.

Same thinking applies: you can’t really create optimal story milestones until you completely understand the nature of your story and can express it in a succinct, compelling elevator pitch.

Your elevator pitch will suck, by the way, until you know your story, inside and out.

And you can’t create the right scenes until you know those story milestones.

Beat sheet or draft, either way it’s still true.  One or two sheets of development notes in bullet form (which easily expands into an outline), or 400.  Your call.

Failure to do so dooms your story to random acts of narrative. 

And random doesn’t cut it if you intend to publish.

Until we reach that point on all of the above – your story is defined, refined and tested before launch – everything we do in the way of thinking, beat sheeting, outlining and scribbling little notes on circus tent graphics, or even writing entire drafts, is nothing other than engaging in the essential process of searching for our story.

The great mistake of unpublished stories is that the writer becomes guilty of one of two things: quitting before you get to the best possible creative choices (also known as settling, sometimes under the guise of impatience, this being the inherent risk of pantsing and/or development-via-drafting)… or not understanding and/or failing to recognize what works and what doesn’t.

That understanding drives toward what I call the Six Core Competencies of Successful Storytelling.

Whether you like or use that story model or not, one thing is true: you won’t publish until you write a story that adheres to its principles. 

No matter what your genre.

All six of them.

No exceptions.  Even if you feel you don’t need to engage in even the quickest moment of story planning, if it all just pours out of your head onto the page in perfect, optimized, brilliantly compelling form.

The person who does that is a one-in-a-million prodigy.  Like Beethoven writing sweeping, timeless symphonies from behind deaf ears.

Good luck with that.

Or you just got lucky.

Good luck with that, too.

If you liked this article, you can share it with other writers by Tweeting, Stumbling or Digging It.  Which  would be much appreciated by the author, who continues to work toward growing this site.  Thanks for being here today.  Comments always welcome.


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21 Responses to Two More Killer Visual Story Development Tools

  1. Monica Rodriguez

    I can’t yet view the files, but I’m looking forward to it.

    I’d just like to ask a late question from yesterday’s awesome post. It was so helpful!

    If, in a mystery, the MP is when another clue is provided, suspicions arise, etc., what if that MP is a “false” clue, leading the MC in the wrong direction?

    At my story’s MP, suspicions are cast on the wrong person when the MC learns some new info (readers are already privy to the info). The curtain is parted for her.

    Does this count as an MP?

  2. @Monica — hi, thanks for commenting. You’ve answered your own question here… the main criteria for the MP is that it part the curtain. If the clue is misleading to the hero, but doesn’t try to distract (unfairly, at least) the reader, than it’s a good idea. Sometimes you can have a valid truth (or clue) that seems to head in one direction, when it fact it means something else entirely… in which case, it was never false at all, just deceptive.

  3. @monica et. al.: Even if you’re not writing a mystery/thriller with clues, you can give clues in pretty much any genre.

    Even if you’re writing in 3P Omniscient, it’s up to you if you disclose to the reader the “valid truth.” It could be the proverbial red herring or a character’s interpretation (which often becomes the reader’s interpretation) of the “facts.” Review Larry’s series on Shutter Island — we (the readers and the characters) have the “facts” but usually don’t analyze them correctly.

    In my Real Life, I’m a technical writer and business consultant. One of our favorite sayings is, “They don’t know what they don’t know.” Beginning writer, like I was in 2005, very frequently don’t know that the concept of a 3-Act/4-Part story structure even exists. That frequently leads us into lots of dead ends, false starts, meanderings around and what have you.

    One possibly could use a misdirecting clue, partially-known information (to the character) or any other mechanism as a first plot point especially as Larry noted above. The character(s) frequently don’t know what they don’t know. If they did, they’d probably go directly to the resolution.

    It’s up to us as writers how much we clue in the reader; that’s part of the mystery.

  4. Martha Miller

    I absolutely love these graphic representations of the 4-part structure! Being one who responds to — actually requires — a visual image to get and remember things, this did it for me better than all the words in the world. Thanks to you and to the brilliant Rachel for sharing this with all of us.

  5. I posted on Twitter for you. Thanks for this valuable advice.
    Sweet blessings to you,
    Nan Jones

  6. Glad you’re liking these new sheets. 🙂

  7. Love the graphics. I also think the circus analogy is perfect, writing often feels like a three ring circus.

    This makes the story structure seem doable.

  8. Could the resident genius graphicsmeister have been inspired by my tent pole index-card prototype ?

    I linked to it in a reply to your earlier post 11 days ago:

    As I pointed out in that post, the idea was to position floating notes along a tent profile; first at plot points, then pinch points and anywhere in between after that.
    More importantly, however, the movable notes are editable, making it a flexible software-like sheet for story structure according to Storyfix

    On my blog I naturally reference Storyfix (as well as the free PDF software Foxit I used for the prototype). As a scientist I’m sensitive to proper acknowledgment of sources.
    So let’s say I hereby informally copyright the prototype, from which a software product could easily be developed I believe (if interested in this, let me know).


  9. Now, print out the sheet, watch one of your favorite movies tonight, and see if you can fill in the sheet. Good practice.

  10. Sandra S. Richardson

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! Both Rachel and Larry. 🙂

  11. I guess there’s no way around it. I’m just going to have to buy your book and get myself organized. I am one who sat down and gushed out eight (8) novellas in six months by the seat of my pants (literally). BTW, what is a ‘pantser’? I see it used but have yet to find a definition.

  12. @Alex – A pantser is just that – someone writing from the seat of their pants without putting much planning or thought into the base story elements. They might possibly spend a decent amount of time on world building (been there, done that), characters and all that, but tend to just start writing and see what happens after that. There might be a general idea of a few major story elements, but nothing really decided on or held in place in the brain.

    At least, that’s how I look at it – and I used to write pretty much like that. I could spend months on world building details and then crank out something that just floundered along and made for some very confusing reading. I was lucky if I could actually finish the novel because things would almost always fall apart on me towards the end and I’d be wandering around lost until I gave up and moved to the next “brilliant idea” that also ended up unfinished (I’ve got a lot of them)

    I can still be a pantser to a degree since I don’t fully outline every little detail for every single paragraph of every single chapter (you get the idea … something I can’t stand to do) but with the beat sheets I can make sure I’ve hit the main points and hopefully not made a muddled mess out of the rest of it. Guess we’ll see when I finish up my latest WIP. 😉

  13. @Alex, @Rachel, I’ll freely admit that I pantsed until this past Feb, when I discovered the story structure guide.

    This way is much easier.

    And by the way, I only plan up to the second plot point with any detail. The last quarter is essentially left blank. A few high points are painted in and little else. I know the resolution, I know the end points of the charater’s development arc, but it’s a wire frame.

    When the first 3/4 is written (as 1st draft) I then sit down and flesh out the details of the resolution. Story structure aside, there are still little things that pop up in the front end that I believe contribute to the end.

    These details didn’t come out until the setup, response and attack play out, and I can’t plan them this well from the outset.

    Good Luck!

  14. Wow. Thanks Rachel & Larry. I’ve always hated the idea of plotting on index cards, just not visual enough. These graphics make me want to dive right (or trapeze swing?) into my next story!

  15. @Tony – As this was the first time working with the story structure setup (guide/beat sheet/whatever) I did make myself sit down and fill in the inbetween after I hit the main plot points.

    Went through four different drafts of that, and I’m not sticking to the latest 100% as I’m writing because I’ve changed a few things since starting – but redrafting an expanded beat sheet was much easier for me than rewriting yet another draft of my story.

    Not sure what the future holds if I’ll go into such detail for other ideas, but as frustrating as it got on occasion I had fun working on it as odd as that sounds. Probably because it wasn’t a typical type of outline and melded better to the odd random lightbulb moment.

    @Elle B – Glad you’re finding these new sheets of use.

    And to everyone using them – if you think of any changes/improvements/whatever don’t hesitate to say something. I’m not so set in my ways that things couldn’t be made better if other ideas come along. 🙂

  16. Ez


    Not that you’re searching for blog ideas, but seeing this filled in would be super helpful, on a visual and structural level.

    I tried filling it in for the movie “Inception”, and while I got the four acts down, I got a lot shakier on the themes, throughline, and pinch points.

  17. @EZ — you’re right, filling in those blanks with an example here would be helpful. I’ll definately noodle that one and try to come up with a great example.

    One comment on using Inception as a playground for this… it’s starting at the most complex, random end of the storytelling scale. Even the most seasoned of critics aren’t sure what it all means (sort of like “The Matrix”), and in a story like this it’s really hard to see the elements in play. It’s advanced stuff, to be sure, and thus not the best place to see the most basic principles in play.

    I’d suggest a more accessible, linear story. Try deconstructing a story like “An Education” or “Shutter Island” (which itself is very complex, but once broken down one can see how it aligns with the principles of structure), or even “Avatar,” all of which are available here (in the Archives) in a clearly deconstructed form. Hope this helps. L.

  18. Ez

    After reading your breakdown of Shutter Island, I actually thought Inception was pretty straightforward too. I kept looking at my husband’s watch during the movie to see if they were on time…which they were. The inciting incident/plot point one is the helicopter scene where Leonardo is stopped dead is his tracks by the dangling carrot of seeing his kids again. The moment he says “I’ll take the job”, is plot point one. Yes? The whole movie is redefined from that moment on.

    Clearly, I have way more fun at this than I should. :-/

  19. oh, I am such a novice. there is a phrase I’m not familiar with: Pitch Point.. can someone explain that one?

  20. @smithem — not to worry, “pinch points” confound us all, especially when we’re new to the term. Try this post from my archives here, and read the rest of the story structure stuff. Hope this helps:

  21. Scarlett Couch

    Hey Larry — If you and Rachel ever decide to produce this graphic as a full-sized poster, I’d buy several! It’s a great visual, and perfect to hang for reference while writing every day….

    Thanks for considering!