(aka 4 Essential Story Elements to Develop Before You Write)
Starting a new project is always exciting. After I applied to a writers grant with my current WIP this February, I decided to start another novel, or rather resurrect an idea I’d developed a year earlier. I already had character sketches and a beat sheet complete, so I rushed right in to writing a scene-by-scene outline only to discover by Act II that I didn’t actually have a story…
I’ve just signed up for NaNoWriMo for the first time EVER. As a hardcore plotter, I’ve never felt ready to participate. I can’t even fathom writing 50,000 words of prose without a solid outline. Plus, I’m not a fast writer. My inner editor and I are a team, not enemies, and I like it that way. She (my inner editor) gives damn good advice and prevents my story from going off the rails. I appreciate that.
This week while flushing out my novel’s outline, I decided to track where I raised and answered questions in the story. Why? Because questions are crucial to a good story; they ensure it has enough intrigue and suspense to keep readers reading. Have you ever set down a book and not been compelled to pick it back up? That’s probably because you weren’t dying to know the answer to a question! Questions and their elusive answers keep us reading. For the A to Z Challenge, I blogged about big and little story questions and gave tips for how to make these questions engage readers all the way to The End. Check out the full post here. For today’s post, I will illustrate how tracking questions and answers can improve your story…
So you’ve outlined your novel into a Wall of Sticky Notes or a Corkboard of Cards. Congrats, stuff happens! But stories are not just stuff happening. Stories are a series of scenes. Is each note/card a proper scene? Not sure? Take this test:
If you’re a visual person, Outlining Method #3 is for you! I call it The Wall of Sticky Notes, because that’s how I build it. Others create a Corkboard of Cards. In the business of screenwriting, it’s simply called “The Board.”
I learned this method of outlining at Ryerson University. My screenwriting professor called it a Step Outline. He instructed us to write a scene-by-scene outline and ONLY describe actions, i.e. what the characters physically do. No dialogue. No narration. Like turning the sound off a movie. The test: could the audience get the gist of the story just from the characters’ actions?
Whatever your writing process, whether you outline or dive straight into prose, there’s one step we all must do – story edit. There are innumerable things to edit in a manuscript, but let’s start with the bones of the story. After all, adding metaphors and sensory descriptions won’t matter if the story is weak.
So bring out that handy Basic Beats chart. Fill it in. Even if you used this to outline your novel, things probably changed when you were writing, so update it.
Just filling in The Basic Beats will reveal missing or flimsy story elements. Bam! You’re already editing!
Once you have all the elements, start asking questions. The first one I usually ask is: “Did this story change the protagonist’s life?” Start to answer by comparing the Opening and the Final Moment…
I picked HUNGER GAMES as the first novel to break down into Basic Story Beats because I knew it had all the elements in chronological order. After all, I’d read the novel thrice and was familiar with the story. Though I was shocked to find that the Debate didn’t actually happen on the page, but rather in my mind. The Set Up was so well written that I was essentially in Katniss’s head, weighing the options for her in that split-second before she yells, “I volunteer as tribute!” Amazing.
Without further ado, The Hunger Games’ Basic Story Beats:
Just as there are many ways to write a novel, there are many ways to outline a novel. You can use all the methods, one of the methods, or none of the methods. The choice is yours! Go nuts with the freedom! Myself, I use all of the outlining methods I will explain in the next few posts. I treat them like stepping stones, each step preparing me to write that novel. Kind of like psyching myself up to jump off a cliff! I start by hopping into the shallow end of a pool, then I cannonball into the deep end, then I dive off the diving board, and finally, when I’ve gotten the basics down, I head to the lake, find a wicked high cliff, and jump!
But even if you prefer to write on the wild side and just jump, the following outline method is handy during editing to figure out what might be missing from your story or how to make your story stronger.
Now without further ado, the first outline method: the Basic Story Beats!
There are writers who come up with an idea and just start writing and see where the story takes them. There are writers who mull over a story in their minds for months or years before they start writing. There are writers who write short stories and use those to create a novel.
Then there are writers who outline.
In film and TV, everybody outlines. It’s how we’re trained to write. Heck, it’s part of the paycheck! Before you are paid for that 1st draft, before you even write that script, you are paid to write an outline. Why? So everyone involved (producers, story editors, broadcasters) can read the story and make changes before the writer has labored over a script.
Now that I’m writing a novel, I don’t have to consult anyone about my story. So why do I still outline? I’ll give you 5 reasons…