Writing is simple, but it's not easy. Sometimes you need a nudge to turn that blank page into something worth reading.
In today's article, Autumn Birt shares some tips on how to reboot your story.
Have you ever been writing and hit a wall to wonder, what happens next?
Or, worse, written until you realize you have no where else to go, the story just sort of dies right there under your cursor, and you’ve lost months of work writing something that isn’t publishable?
It doesn’t have to be that way. The good news is the only choice is not to plot every detail before you start writing in order to know that you have all the elements to create a solid story.
There is a lot of room between coming up with a story idea and hoping for the best as you dive into writing, and creating a twenty page outline.
Like, how about a technique that will take about half an hour, will help you organize the key points to your story, find holes or areas that need developed before you spend months writing to hit a dead end, and will, hopefully, get you more excited about writing instead of worn out from plotting?
The Framework of All Stories
The characters, settings, and other details of stories create uniqueness, but underneath it all is a hidden framework that you can use to build an idea, or discover it is only half-baked.
I consider myself a hybrid pantser/plotter as far as outlining goes. I create ideas for chapters as I write but leave it up to the characters to fill in the blanks of how the idea evolves into events.
But before that, before I start writing or even worldbuilding, I create a 7 step framework to know if the idea is solid enough to spend time on. If not, I develop it or back burner it until something new arises.
I even use this method for short stories because it is that effective and helps propel my writing that much.
7 steps. Half an hour. You can use this too (and then get on with the writing with a LOT more confidence!).
Step 1: Intro
Sure, as authors, we know so much has to be packed into the beginning of a story. You should start with action. Hook the reader in the first page/paragraph. And don’t overwhelm the reader with details.
But this is before all of that. It is the underlying foundation that you will build the prose on.
I like to frame the intro as a snapshot into a small everyday emergency. It isn’t the big problem the plot will pivot around (unless you are on book 2 or 3 perhaps). This allows you to start with action without overwhelming the reader with a world-destroying plot they don’t understand or care about yet.
The reader gets to witness the character in her element, problem-solving, reacting to a minor issue.
This allows you to introduce the world and provide basic information such as if the main character has a job, a partner, or is living with family.
Is the genre fantasy, dystopian, historical, modern? For the mini-outline, answer what is the mundane emergency your main character will be dealing with?
Plus, what is the genre of the story and the setting/location for the beginning?
Step 2: Inciting Incident
Remember that mundane emergency? It doesn’t turn out as expected or uncovers a bigger problem. Either way, the result alters the MCs world or worldview.
Those lost keys? The MC uses an app on her phone to discover they are in a room two apartments down. When she goes to retrieve them, she finds the door open and a dead body. She picks up her keys from a puddle of blood as the police burst in.
You’ve given the reader enough of a window into the MC’s life and world that they have connected with her, but not so long as to bore them.
Now, you grab their curiosity; what the heck is going on? How will the MC deal with this?
For your quick outline, you simply need to answer the question: What happens to shatter the main character's world?
Step 3: Reaction Phase
No one goes through a paradigm shift that changes their entire understanding of their world or catapults them into a setting they are unprepared for and lands on their feet. If they do, well, it doesn’t resonate all that well.
The Reaction Phase is the time when the main character is the newbie, not thinking clearly, and is possibly overemotional. This isn’t the organized person the reader met on page one, who might have been having a bad day, but it was an ordinary bad day.
Life just became extraordinary and she misses the normal crap. In fact, she might want to simply return to the normal crap and might not believe what is going on, or take it as seriously as she should. The details can compound, pulling the character into deep danger.
Our poor heroine is interrogated but doesn’t think she could possibly be the suspect. She doesn’t even know who the dead guy is! So she doesn’t ask for a lawyer. The detective twists her words. Finally, in a panic she asks for a lawyer.
Things don’t look good. She was found at the scene, her hand covered in blood that had been on her keys. Friends are shocked. Out on bail, she returns to her apartment to find her job gone and that she is shunned by everyone she knew. No one believes her. The lawyer tells her to accept a plea deal.
For this step, answer how your main character reacts to step 2. Where does he go? Who helps him?
Step 4: New Idea / Dark Night of the Soul
The main character cannot stay naive or she won’t survive. Or a bad decision will lead to the death of a close friend.
A second pivotal event occurs in the story that awakens the urge to fight back and to strategize how to succeed. She needs to do more and better to defeat what is against her.
Sometimes though, this moment of change comes from something less severe than near death or the loss of a friend. A new piece of information can unlock a window to a path forward, one that the main character will leap to take.
Either a tormented night of soul searching or new information launches the deeper novel plot at last. The main character will move from wanting to return to where they were at the beginning to taking on something larger, which will result in the climax. Or at least things will start to move that way.
Our heroine can’t just let the system steamroll her. She starts to delve into the dead man’s life. She finds a clue he is from a different country, dodges her bail, and heads there to find out who he was and why he had her keys.
What event occurs to change the main character from reacting to being ready to take control? Does someone die? Is it new information? If so what and from who did they learn it?
Step 5: Planning Phase
The main character has enough information gained on who are friends, who is against her, and what the reality of this world is to navigate well enough to avoid capture.
Where the reaction phase had few wins that came mostly through luck or help, in the planning phase the main character starts to succeed on her own.
She gathers new allies. Her enemy starts to grow worried and becomes more active in stopping her from succeeding. The MC realizes the small problems and injustices she encountered during the reaction phase are related to something bigger.
Things are getting intense in the story!
For our heroine, some of the strange details the MC discovers in the deadman’s home country convinces a local policewoman to help her. As the policewoman realizes the MC is wanted by Interpol, a hitman tries to kill the MC.
The policewoman ends up protecting the MC as they evade Interpol and assassins while uncovering clues to the agency the dead man worked for. She finds papers on child adoptions and clippings of missing infants and children as well as medical data of experiments. It all leads to one international company.
For this phase, write how the main character progresses from what happens in step 4 to taking control of his life.
- Are there new allies?
- Who are they?
- How do they help?
- What is the big problem the character needs to solve that step 4 should have revealed and/or will lead them to discovering?
- Who is the enemy that is trying to stop them?
Step 6: Climax
Everything leads to this moment. All the angst, loss, change, and growth of the story results in the climax. And it has to be worth it!
A local headline of a missing boy thought lost hiking makes the MC and the policewoman realize the kidnappings and experiments are still going on. Knowing they will be caught, they rush to find the missing boy.
The policewoman calls the Interpol agent who has been on their tail as they break into a secret medical facility just as the boy is about to be experimented on. They are arrested with a suitcase of evidence and the life of the unconscious boy saved.
For the climax, how does the main character solve the big problem of the plot, uncovered in step 4 or 5? How does he confront the antagonist? Is it a big enough problem to make all the issues that came before it worthwhile?
Step 7: Wrap Up
The wrap up leaves the reader with a final emotional impression for the story. And it is where you tie up loose ends or unveil a new problem, effectively beginning the intro to the next book.
Our heroine is cleared of all charges and cast as an international hero. The final scene in the book shows her walking to a rural house where an old woman on the porch rises to her feet as if she’s been waiting for her.
If I wanted to lead into a sequel, I could hint at a medical issue arising from the testing done on the main character as a little girl. The story could end with a text to come back immediately to discuss test results and leave the reader wondering what is wrong.
That is it, right? This book is ready to be written.
This exercise helps the writer look for things that don’t line up or see if an entire step is missing. The example has all the steps, but I never really explained why the dead man stole the main character’s keys? It doesn’t fit with the rest of the plot. And once I answer that missing piece, this story idea should be ready for writing.
And that is the key thing. The sequence of events should make sense and build off each other to carry the plot thread forward. This is why you should stick to the main character because he or she should move the plot forward.
Once you have all the steps and the answers make sense without unanswered threads, then you know the story is ready to be written – and you should have enough in place to write or plot with confidence!
Do you outline your novel before you begin writing? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
Autumn Birt is an award winning fantasy writer. You can check out her books at AutumnWriting.com. She co-runs the AmWritingFantasy.com website, which has information, videos, workbooks, and courses on writing, worldbuilding, and marketing, including free writer’s resources. You can also pick up a free video course on writing here. Happy Writing!