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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2 thoughts on “How to Plan a Great Story

  1. Not going to lie. Just reading this gave me anxiety. Oh, to be a pantser. But this year, I’ve decided I will plan out my novel, so thanks for this! It was interesting.

    • Lee Allen Howard says:

      I’m glad it was helpful. Stay tuned–I’ll be posting more about story structure in a week or so.

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