How I plan a story is very similar to how I plan a road trip: the car is packed, I have a full tank of petrol and I know basically where I’m headed, but the actual route I will take to reach my destination is anyone’s guess. My writing philosophy is something akin to, “Let’s see what happens and hit the road!”
Of course, I’m not a fool. I also have a jack, some tools, a first aid kit, a backup map, some snacks, a warm blanket… Which brings me to how I actually plan a story.
1. Rags to riches – a steady rise from bad to good fortune
2. Riches to rags – a steady fall from good to bad, also known as a tragedy
3. Icarus – a rise then a fall in fortune
4. Oedipus – a fall, a rise then a fall again
5. Cinderella – a rise, a fall, a rise to the end
6. Man-in-a-hole – a fall, a rise
And while most writers lean towards the Cinderella arc when writing their stories, it is Icarus, Oedipus, and Man-in-a-hole which are the three types readers prefer.
“Somebody gets in to trouble, gets out of it again,” Vonnegut said about Man-in-a-hole. “People love that story. They never get sick of it.”
Three Structures, Six Needs
It was the Greek philosopher Aristotle who said that stories should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Perhaps not the most insightful writing advice ever, but he was absolutely right, and three-act structure is one we still use today.
These three structures are:
- The beginning hook
- The middle build up
- The ending payoff
Break each of those into two again and you have six main plot parts that look like this:
Which, funnily enough, also mimics the Cinderella story arc.
You might also be aware that all good stories need conflict. This doesn’t necessarily mean arguments and fisticuffs, although it can be if that’s what your story is about. According to editor and writing guru, Shawn Coyne, conflict can also mean one of the six core values and their opposites. For these, we look to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs:
Physiological. Human survival needs. Food, water, air, warmth, and the rest. Life vs. death.
Safety. Protection needs. The value of personal and group security. Life vs. a fate worse than death.
Love/Belonging. Social and interaction needs. The value of relationships and friendships. Intimacy and sex. Love vs. hate.
Esteem. Self-confidence and personal growth needs. The value of being respected by peers and finding accomplishment. Accomplishment vs. failure.
Self-Actualization. Self-fulfilment needs. The value of reaching your full potential. Maturity vs. naiveté.
Transcendence. God/religion/spiritual needs. The value of becoming more than yourself. Transcending your own personal concerns and seeing things from a higher perspective. Good vs. evil.
As these values rise and fall, so too does the story arc.
- All good stories have an arc
- All good stories move
- The best thing you can do as a writer is to keep your story moving towards the conflict/dilemma.
Getting it all down
With all of that out of the way, how do I, personally, plan a story? My style is somewhere in the middle of planner and pantser (basically, writing/flying by the seat of your pants!) because, as I already stated, I like the car to be packed and roadworthy even if I don’t know exactly which route I’m going to take.
I’m a big, big fan of spider diagrams, mind maps, sketchbooks filled with A2-size paper and coloured pens, because when I’m hammering out an idea I like to work visually and physically. When I plan stuff it’s a bit like drinking from the garden hose or “word vomit”. I’ll pick the bits that make the most sense and whip them into some sort of sensible shape, and anything that isn’t used doesn’t get discarded, it often finds its way into another project. I’m also a big believer in no word wasted.
I always start with a feeling or an emotion that I want to express — hope, love, family, revenge etc. This means I have a vague idea of the end point, what I’m working towards, and the tone of what I want to convey. I’ll have a strong idea of what genre it is, even if it’s going to straddle a few.
I write up character descriptions, maybe even do some rough sketches or think about who I’d cast to play them in a movie so I can “see” them better in my mind. My eldest kid says I do a version of a D&D character sheet for them, which is pretty accurate. If I can’t see them, I can’t hear them, and that means they’re bound to get unwieldy somewhere along the line, so I have to keep them on a fairly tight leash.
I world build—sometimes small, sometimes really quite detailed, depending on the genre and story length I’m aiming for—so I know what the “terrain” is like. Even if they’re just stuck in one tiny room, I need to know the feel of it. In photography, light is everything to a successful picture, and I feel it is also important to writing. I need to know where I am before I start moving around.
I draw a “map” which is literally the story shape (see above) where I can add key points on the story line (eg. Mother dies. MC finds magic ring. MC gets sent to witch academy. Tragic fire occurs, death of MC lover—or whatever). Sometimes I will draw an actual map, because I love maps. See also: making imaginary family trees, extended histories, fake languages/currencies/religions etc.
I use arcs so I can figure out the pacing and most important parts of the story but these aren’t set in stone. If my characters decide to go to the mountain and not the pub that’s okay, as long as they’re mostly going to the same end point. As a pantser I don’t tend to fight with my characters too much, although sometimes I have to be more forceful or I’ll veer off course into a random side-quest subplot.
I tend to edit my work as I go along, but only to the point of adding notes to myself, areas to clarify or question. Sometimes things that seemed great in my head just feel cliché on the page. If I get stuck on something, I try to write around it and leave myself a note to go back to. I have a few WIPs with highlighted parts that say put some awesome dialogue here or character probably needs to be more vulnerable etc. My favourite is always, Sly dog, which means the character has started monologuing.
I use lots of different colours and use symbol keys to differentiate between characters which helps me see crossovers/moods as I’m planning. To anyone else it probably looks like a mess, but to me, it makes sense. (Unless, of course I’ve thought of something ad hoc while out and about and it ends up being more of a hastily scribbled note in my phone that might find its way into something more structured eventually.)
When I’ve finally finished planning, I write when I can on whatever I can. Sometimes I can sit for a few hours at my laptop and type. Sometimes I’ll peck away on my phone while on the bus or at park while the kids play (and yes, on the odd occasion, inspiration has struck while on the loo). Some stories I’ve written longhand with my favourite fountain pen in a notebook and have edited when I’ve typed them up. I have also experimented with speech-to-type software. I once dictated a story parked up in my car in the pouring rain while pretending to be speaking on my phone. I found it interesting but found I “ummm” a bit too much. Ultimately, I don’t have a preferred method of how the story gets out, as long as it eventually does.
After all that planning, packing and figuring stuff out, the best part of a road trip is definitely the view while driving.
This piece was written with the help of a few brilliant online articles. Read more here: