Monthly Archives: January 2021

How to Plan a Great Story

StoryI’ve studied and practiced writing for a long time, incorporating techniques I’ve learned to improve my prose. Because of this, my mechanics are good. But my storytelling was weak. Although I got great ideas and wrote about them, I found I wasn’t telling a story.

It took half my writing life to realize the importance of story structure and content. What, exactly, is a story?

A Story Is a Narrative about an Active Character

A story is a narrative account of a character who takes action throughout a series of related events or experiences that changes him in the end.

Peter Rubie and Gary Provost, in their immensely helpful How to Tell a Story (Writer’s Digest Books, 1998), have this to say about the importance of an active character:

A story is about the person who takes action. Make sure your character is active and really does something to affect what’s happening in the story. It’s not what happens to the character that makes him interesting, it’s what he does about it.

If the conflict you’ve created, however powerful, only causes your protagonist to be passive or merely reactive, the story won’t work. If he’s simply reacting to things the antagonist has done to him, or stumbles on a clue by chance, the story won’t work. Rethink your protagonist’s qualities and make him active!

Story Plan in a Paragraph

Rubie and Provost encapsulate a story in a single paragraph:

Once upon a time, something happened to someone, and he decided that he would pursue a goal. So he devised a plan of action, and even though there were forces trying to stop him, he moved forward because there was a lot at stake. And just as things seemed as bad as they could get, he learned an important lesson. When offered the prize he had sought so strenuously, he had to decide whether to take it, and in making that decision he satisfied a need that had been created by something in his past.

Do you recognize this structure in stories you’ve read? I did. You can use it to write a novel or short story of your own. Here’s how.

Questions to Answer Before You Write

Whether you’re a pantser or a plotter, you must answer these questions about your main character (MC), preferably before you start writing:

Something in his pastWhat past event (which happened before your story begins) happened to your MC to rip a hole in his life? Satisfying this psychological or emotional need is the central issue of your story.
Something happenedThis is the inciting incident, the catalytic event that kicks off the story and forces your character to take action. What happens that rocks your character’s world?
GoalWhat does your protagonist want? This is the prize, the thing he’s trying to get or attain throughout the whole story.
Plan of actionHow will your character go about pursuing his goal or prize? He must try and fail three times, making the situation worse, before succeeding.
Forces trying to stop himThis is the antagonist, which could be another character, entity, or force of nature that thwarts your MC’s attempt to reach the goal. The opposition generates conflict because of the antagonist’s contradictory goal and plan (define them too).
A lot at stakeWhat will this effort cost the protagonist? The stakes must be high: life or death; love lost or gained; physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual devastation—something important everyone can relate to.
Bad as they could getThis is your character’s bleakest moment. Everything has gone wrong, and it seems the opposing forces arrayed against him have won. Yet somehow, from the darkness of despair, from his failures, he finds the strength to persevere and overcome against overwhelming odds. What’s the worst moment?
Important lessonThe protagonist survives the bleakest moment with a gift:  revelation. At last, he sees, he understands something about life that he didn’t before. What lesson does your MC learn?
Offered the prizedecide whether to take itThis is the climax of your story. The protagonist must make a decision, preferably between two outcomes equally undesirable. When he decides, he gains something and he gives something up. It involves high emotional intensity from the reader, as well as moral and ethical considerations.
Satisfied a needThis need has been the driving force throughout the protagonist’s life to this point, whether or not he’s been aware of it (but you must be aware of it). In resolving the story, this need is satisfied.

A Story in Three Acts

The previous elements can be divided into three-act structure. Here’s where the points lie:

Before the story begins (some time in the character’s past):

Something in his past—The traumatic past event that tore a hole and created a psychological or emotion need in your MC. He must overcome this past damage to reach his goal and find happiness now and in the future.

Beginning:

Something happened—The inciting incident that kicks off the story.

Goal—What your character wants to get or achieve that he thinks will solve the problem the inciting incident has involved him in. Initially, the goal may be something trivial. But as the action progresses, it becomes his ultimate objective.

Middle:

Plan of action—How your MC goes about pursuing the goal. His first attempt fails unexpectedly, and often makes things worse, but he learns something from it. His second attempt fails even more miserably, but he learns something again. He tries a third time and meets with disaster.

Forces trying to stop him—In his attempts to solve the problem and reach his goal, your MC is opposed.

A lot at stake—The inciting incident sets the stakes, which must be serious enough for your protagonist to take action. The stakes must rise the more he tries and fails until they become dire.

Bad as they could get—Everything has gone wrong, and it looks like your MC is going to lose. Why and how does he try one final time to overcome?

Important lesson—What does the bleakest moment teach your protagonist? What does he learn that prompts him to make a decision?

Offered the prizedecide whether to take it—Everything that has gone before wedges your character between a rock and a hard place morally or ethically. But, based on the important lesson he has learned, he decides to try one more time—and either triumphs or bombs.

Ending:

Satisfied a need—The process, climax, and final action resolve the past need, and your character is changed.

I used this story planning process in writing my most popular novel to date, Death Perception.

Example Storyline in Death Perception

Here’s the one-paragraph storyline I developed for Death Perception:

Once upon a time, Kennet’s mother died [something happened to someone], and he decided that he would start a new life by making more money and moving out of her personal care home [pursue a goal]. So he started by looking for a new job and apartment [devised a plan of action], and even though Grinold and Flavia (the antagonists) tried to stop him [forces tried to stop him], he moved forward because his life and future happiness depended on it [there was a lot at stake]. And when his life was threatened [things seemed as bad as they could get], he learns he must avenge the mistreated dead [learned an important lesson], and when given the chance to move into a new apartment [offered the prize] he had sought so strenuously, he stays at the care home to gather more evidence against the antagonists, placing himself in mortal danger [decide whether or not to take it], and in making that decision he overcomes his fear[satisfied a need] created by his father’s abuse and death and his fear of conflict and change [something in his past].

This may not make sense unless you read the book, but it’s one of the exercises I did to plot Death Perception. Read it to see how I executed the plan.

Put some thought into this preliminary process, keep your MC active, and you’ll end up with a more satisfying story, one that, hopefully, will sell. Good luck!

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Eradicate Junk Words from Your Writing

No JustAs an editor, I’ve encountered a lot of meaningless, overused words peppered throughout otherwise good manuscripts. And I’ve scratched my red Uniball Micro pen over those words.

Here are some words that are junk. They’re like weeds cropping up in a manicured lawn. Eradicate them, and you’ll improve your writing.

Possible exceptions include when these words are used in dialogue, although do so sparingly.

Junk Word Example Comments
just Sheila just didn’t know what to do about it.

She was still nauseated, and not just from the bad food.

He watched her cry, just like his mother.

You can keep it if it’s a noun that means “guided by truth, reason, justice, and fairness.”

Used as an adverb, as in the examples, it’s junk. If you must keep it, better alternatives are simply, merely, or only.

Delete it and stop using it in your writing. For an in-depth discussion, see Are You Using the Word “Just” Too Much?

even Why did they even come?

Yet, even as the leaves fell, he persisted in hiking without a jacket.

Used as an adjective meaning “flat” or “on the same level,” you can keep it.

Used as an adverb meaning “still, yet”—delete it.

ever Wiley felt sillier than ever before.

How did she ever manage to do it?

Used as an adverb to mean “at any time,” you should delete it.
very Edward was very tall.

Hailey was caught in the very act of driving without a license.

Used as an intensive or superlative, it’s overdone and unnecessary. Ditch it and use a stronger verb.
really

Jake was a really big kid.

Alphonse really didn’t care for Muenster cheese.

Used as an adverb to mean “in reality, actually,” you can keep it, but use it sparingly.

Used as a superlative meaning “very, genuinely, truly, or indeed,” it’s a junk word—delete it.

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Lee Allen Howard’s Eight-step Writing Improvement Process

Do you want to improve your writing? If so, you must identify and fix specific problems with your prose.

You must learn new editorial techniques and incorporate them into your writing toolbox, deliberately applying them through practice until you internalize their use. Then you’ll be able to write better first drafts.

How I Learned the Process

Lee Allen Howard's Eight-Step Writing Improvement ProcessWhen I discovered what a dangling participle was, I noticed I was dangling them in much of my writing. Finally recognizing the issue was like switching on a spotlight. I saw them everywhere. I was shocked.

It took me a few years to consistently catch and fix this problem in my writing during the self-editing process. It took a while longer to catch myself making the mistake when I was writing—and correct it on the spot.

I still goof up at times, but I’ve trained myself to recognize the issue and eradicate it from my prose. Better yet, I taught myself to stop making the mistake when writing first drafts.

Over the years, I’ve crystalized the process we go through as writers learning the craft—or anyone learning a new skill. Here’s how to use it purposefully to make your writing better.

Lee Allen Howard’s Eight-step Writing Improvement Process

1. Write without restriction.

Whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, this initial phase is when you tell your inner critic to take a time out and sit in the corner for a while.

Write with abandon and don’t worry about whether it’s any good. Simply get the words down as fast as you can.

You will, of course, be using techniques you’ve already internalized: the proper way to spell “accommodate,” making your subjects and verbs agree, and attributing your dialogue with “said” and not “opined.”

2. Revise your work.

Now it’s time to read your work with a discerning eye. Have you said what you meant? Have you said it the best way?

Revise to include everything that should be there and exclude anything that shouldn’t.

To learn more about revising and editing, I recommend these books:

  • Self-editing for Fiction Writers, Renni Browne and Dave King
  • Revision, David Michael Kaplan

3. Learn about problems you need to identify.

Read about dangling participles, cutting unnecessary details, using commas properly, eliminating little words, ferreting out filtering phrases.

Some excellent texts about editing on my library shelves include:

  • Getting the Words Right, Theodore A. Rees Cheney
  • Editing Fact and Fiction, Sharpe and Gunther
  • The 10% Solution, Ken Rand

4. Examine your writing critically, like an editor.

The links and books in the previous points should help you do this. But what if, even after studying, you’re blind to what your issues are—mistakes that keep you from getting published? What you don’t know can hurt you.

Although I learned by reading dozens of writing texts as well as trial and error, it took me thirty years to discover what I know now and am sharing with you. Do you have that time? Most writers don’t.

What you need is an editor who will teach you how to self-edit your work. I can help you identify your issues and provide advice that will enable you to find those problems in your work so you can fix them yourself. To learn more, see Professional Editing Service.

5. Identify issues in your writing.

Once you realize what your issues are, you must go through your writing carefully to identify those problems you’ve learned about. Cast a critical gaze at what you’ve drafted.

This could be a struggle when you’re learning to implement a new technique. But you’ll get better with practice. There’s no way around this (see side note below).

When you’re learning an editing technique, it’s too hard to fix every mistake in one pass. I recommend going through your work a story or chapter at a time, looking for only one issue—whether it’s dangling your participles, creating unnecessary distance with filter words, or overusing adverbs. Flag each with a comment that pinpoints the matter.

This approach lets you concentrate on that issue alone. It’s the best way to learn how to identify a newly discovered problem in your writing.

(Side note: For each new technique I discovered, I went through every unpublished short story on my hard drive and corrected each of them for that issue. I did this time and again, editing some stories over 500 times. That’s how I learned. In other words, practice makes perfect.)

6. Edit to correct those issues.

After identifying issues, go back and correct each one. Apply what you’ve learned in your reading. Or contact me to edit some of your work to identify issues you’ve been missing—and teach you how to fix them.

Use everything in your editor’s toolbox to improve and polish your work. Make several passes.

7. Internalize the process of identifying and correcting those problems so that every time you edit your work, you catch and fix them.

If you’ve followed the process so far, you’ve learned to identify, find, and fix your recurring issues. It’s hard work at first, but you’ll get better as you continue to practice.

You’ll eventually reach the point where you’re able to find and fix multiple issues on the first or second pass of self-editing. You have internalized the new technique; it’s now committed to your editorial toolbox.

8. Train yourself to write better so that you don’t make those mistakes in the first place.

Although you should write without restraint and not let self-criticism hamper your efforts to get the story down (step 1), you’ll experience moments when you stop to think about what you’re going to say.

These are the moments to insert the new techniques you’ve learned, applying what you’ve internalized during the editing phase to the writing process. Why forever make the mistake of dangling your participles only to fix them during editing?

Move mastered techniques into the drafting process and train yourself to write it right the first time.

Use the Process

Now that you’re aware of this process, consciously employ it to master editing skills more quickly. All it takes is dedicated practice.

Over time, you’ll continue to adopt new methods that you’ll incorporate into the writing phase, and this will make your first drafts better. Good luck!

Copyright 2021 Lee Allen Howard.

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