Story-Planning: Does it Justify the Time Spent?

Ukrainian dance kids - Bruce Witzel photo

When it comes to writing, as many of you know, I’m a dyed-in-the-wool planner. I take numerous notes. I do character sketches and story arc outlines. I create setting maps. I plot my stories out on a huge story board and I track story events on calendar pages. I outline chapter by chapter with post-it-notes for every scene. You get the idea.

Structuring Your Novel coverWhat I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about is a workable overall structure for a novel. I’ve been reading Structuring Your Novel by K.M. Weiland. This little book is a great resource. Weiland writes about a novel in three vital acts.

The first act introduces the main characters and what’s at stake for each of them. It ends with the first plot point in the various characters’ story arcs. This is the moment when the set-up is over and the characters are committed to moving forward in a certain direction.

The second act gets a bit more complicated. It’s broken down into first part, midpoint and second part and compromises about fifty percent of the book. In the first part of the second act, the characters find the time to react to that first plot points. Foreshadowing and character development occurs. Nearing the end of the first part of the second act is the time characters stop reacting and flex some muscle against whatever stands in their way. This is called the first pinch point. At the midpoint of the second act, the second major plot point happens. This plot point brings reactions from the first plot point to a head and moves the characters forward toward the ending. The second part of the second act is where the story really begins to heat up and roll along on the fast track.

By the third act the story is steaming ahead. This act is what everyone has been waiting for – the characters, the readers, even the author – what the entire book has been building towards. The final plot and pinch points are the game changers. Character arcs are completed, the story climax happens and all is resolved one way or the other.

There you have it – a tidy little plan. I’m finding this structure helpful as I slot story action into a preliminary outline.

Question-Mark - goggle imagesI’ve also been asking myself a lot of questions. That’s how my writing day usually starts. I review some of my notes from the day before and then I ask questions of the material and seek to answer those questions before I move on.

Today’s questions were related to notes I made yesterday on the major events of the novel:

  • What is the point of each event?
  • What is the deeper meaning in terms of the overall themes of the story?
  • Is this event necessary to accomplish one of the character’s story arcs? (if not, bye-bye event)

Today I am sorting all the characters into one of three groups: 3-D, 2-D and 1-D. (D = dimension)

3-D – the reader experiences the story from the point of view of these characters. Almost everything that happens in the story is around or about these characters.

2-D – the reader will occasionally hear these characters thoughts. These characters have story arcs in their own right but those arcs serve to strengthen and add depth to the storylines of the main characters.

1-D – these characters are in the story to support the storylines of the other characters. They are never the point-of-view character.

Ukrainian dancers - Bruce Witzel photo

As I sit here and amass pages and pages of notes that will hopefully move me to the spot where I actually start to write, I’m curious about how other people get ready to write a novel (or any piece of fiction for that matter). How does my writing process strike you? Do you structure your work along the three act system or employ a different template? How do you sort your characters? Do you actively question your work as you go? Do you outline at all?

28 comments on “Story-Planning: Does it Justify the Time Spent?

  1. Kim’s book is a valuable resource when it comes to structuring your novel. James Scott Bell refers to the plot points as a disturbance and then doorways. I found this to be helpful as well when I structure my work.
    “Do you actively question your work as you go?” Oh Fran, you have no idea. 🙂

  2. I haven’t written books, but I do write stories and I run the gamut from planning to pantster. It depends how much of the story comes to me, and how much has to come out bit by bit. Either way there is much editing before it’s finished. I think questioning a lot make for better writing, because you’ve thought it through from many angles.

    • I like your point on the editing, Peter. Either way there is lots before the end. My excess of planning has never meant less editing, for sure. With the questioning, I try to look through the eyes of a reader and anticipate the questions they would ask and get those wrinkles worked out early on in the process.

  3. diannegray says:

    I have no structure whatsoever, Francis and books like this one scare me half to death. This is because I see my stories before I write them as an entire movie in my mind and then I just start writing. Everything I do is free-flowing and I’m worried that it if read a book like this one it’ll confuse me and change the way I write (or make me realise I’ve been doing it wrong all along!) 😀

    Best of luck with your writing and I hope it starts very soon 🙂

    • I hear you, Dianne. I approached Weiland’s book with a degree of trepidation. I wouldn’t want to read anything like this after I actually start to write. In the planning stages I don’t mind getting some sort of background order. Once I start to write, I’ll be all over the map. I need to plan and then let go of the plan – does that make any sense? Otherwise there’s no room for the characters to do a 360 and throw the story on its ear.

  4. Roy McCarthy says:

    I am SO relieved to read what Dianne has written above. When I first had a go at this writing malarkey I had no idea there was any technique to it. I just wrote as it came and it ended up OK for a first bash.

    I’ve learnt a lot more since then and I think I’ve improved as a result. Without going to your lengths Fran I’ve started to plan a bit more, jot notes, be a bit more methodical. Now I’ve a feeling that the ‘immediacy’ I felt before is being throttled a little.

    Clearly what you do works Fran – you produce beautifully crafted stories. But also Dianne produces gems, one after the other, by writing by feel and ‘stream of consciousness’.

    When I’m 100 I’ll get back to you and tell you what works best for me 🙂

    • I’ll be hanging onto life and waiting to hear, Roy – LOL. I agree that Diane produces gems, for sure. Keep your eyes open for her contribution to the Location series near the end of the month 🙂 What a tricky balance this writing thing is – yes, the immediacy. I don’t want to lose that because I’ve had things come out in both my novels that were never in the planning stages and those things turned into the most powerful parts. Mostly, I think we just need to stick to what works – if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.

  5. clareweiner says:

    I’m in-between. I’ve learned a lot from reading about structure, but tend to keep that knowledge mainly in my head to use as I move along. A wonderful idea I’ve found useful is to do a forward-synopsis: write the story as a 50-word sentence, then expand to 500m words by taking that forward into 10 paragraphs of 50 words. Some invented a ‘snowflake method’ which is roughly the same thing, it was on the ALLi blog a few months ago. I certainly use calendars and timelines to work out intricate bits, and have just re-visited a part where 2 characters are doing stuff at the same time, on in the UK dealing with a family crisis, while the other (his wife) is in the US giving a presentation at a conference. I wanted the reader to know which things happened at the ‘same time’ so had to check the world clock time zone calculator!

    • I like the idea of the forward synopsis. I do a modified snowflake method, as well. It’s a great way to see just how much my first draft has strayed from my original ideas and decide whether that’s okay. I love goggle for checking out things like time zones and dates.

  6. jennieorbell says:

    I can breath a sigh of relief…and all thanks to Dianne’s comment. I thought I was the only one who felt that way? Phew!

  7. evelynralph says:

    It scares me half to death. I think I would get so confused, i woul d never write a thing. Personally, what works for me is n idea, a kind if plot formation in my head for the first part, then journey on with the characters and situations, one leadung into the other, a little break-away somewhere along the way, away from the main plot but also a building block of a particular character, and then back again. Different each time. So, panster almost all the way, with an inkling in my head of where it will all end up. Of course, if thus helps to sell books, good luck.

    • I admit, Evelyn, I did get a tad bogged down when it came to the three parts of act two. I like the idea of doing more planning for act one and then letting the characters take the lead moving forward – that’s what always seems to happen anyway. At times, I feel as though my planning is like some sort of protest against a group of characters that are determined to run off like wild creatures getting into all sorts of mischief. I tell them – you’ll thank me later, guys. It’s a push and pull that works.

  8. Gwen Stephens says:

    This book, and Weiland’s series of blog posts on positive character arc (which were essentially a condensed version of the book), have been instrumental to me in reworking the novel I’ve attempted (and failed) to write. Like you, I’m a planner. Or I’ve learned that’s what I must be since pantsing only wrote me into a corner. I had most of my major plot points swimming around in my head, but the timing of each point, and where each should ideally fall in the story, had me in a quandary. Weiland explains it in a way that makes sense to me, and it was nice to put a label on things — the midpoint, the third plot point, the first pinch point, etc., and know where it should occur in the story.

    • Good to have seen things from both perspectives – right, Gwen? I love the way Weiland breaks the process of writing down to expose some of the bare bones. Of course, planning can only go so far and there will be a fair amount of stream of consciousness and going with the flow as the characters dictate how to add flesh to those bones. At this stage of things, I sure don’t mind getting a good long glimpse at that skeletal structure.

      • Gwen Stephens says:

        Yes, at some point I have to decide when to stop outlining and start writing. July’s Camp NaNoWriMo is my goal for writing my “new first draft.” That gives me a couple more weeks to get those bones in place. Some of the joy of writing comes from discovering details of the story along the way. But it helps to have a framework in place before you start 🙂

  9. jackiemallon says:

    Good for you, girl. I know other writers who like this method. Unfortunately I don’t seem to be able to plot like this. Takes the wind out of my sails. But I do find myself writing out lots of questions and then the answers provide the basic story of the next few steps. I’m only ever a few steps ahead of myself. God knows what would happen if I catch up… with myself…(Shudder)
    🙂

    • The questioning is one of my best tools for moving the story forward. Whenever I get stuck, I start writing out a list of questions and somewhere in the answers is the reason I’m stuck. Only being a few steps ahead of yourself quite obviously works. Don’t catch up – it might just be overrated.

  10. K.M. Weiland says:

    Great post! I’m so glad you’ve enjoyed Structuring Your Novel. Makes my day to hear it’s been useful to you!

  11. reocochran says:

    I am someday going to put together a novel. Just not sure if it will be structured like ‘normal’ people would do this! I really have written a murder mystery. It includes clairvoyance, murder, music and a housewife on a cul-de-sac. It may already be too commonplace to make it ‘big time!’ I really would like to have my children’s books published. I had a lot of joy, writing and illustrating 3 or 4 of these… Good luck in your writing and am so glad you had featured this book. Take care!

    • Here’s hoping you get a chance to put together that novel and as I go on to say in part two of this post – normal planning is a bit of a misnomer and planning versus flying by the seat of one’s pants a false dichotomy. I manage to have it both ways.

  12. […] grateful to those of you who had time to comment on the first part of this post. I read your thoughts, refined my own through my responses and kept right on with the tentative […]

  13. Interesting to see how others approach writing. I’m in the ‘go for it and see where it takes me’ group. When I did some art courses it was called taking a line for a walk. Well, in writing I take my initial idea for a walk.

    f I were to attempt planning I would sit with blank pages, with no idea what the story was or where it was going. I need to be writing for ideas to come. Only when the first draft is complete do I look at it and see how it works, then take it from there. But for me the characters and the story are all important, especially as so many very good writers nowadays experiment with structure to produce really exciting novels, so I’m not sure there is a ‘correct’ or ‘ideal’ structure.

  14. dex says:

    I find this fascinating, largely because it’s such a stark contrast to the way I write. I dream up characters and a conflict, plop them in the middle of it, and just go. Almost no planning. Somewhere along the way, I figure out who they are and what’s ultimately going to happen. It leaves me with a fair amount to clean up later, but the process, for me, is one of discovery.

    I’ve often thought about taking a different approach, though. One more like yours. It just goes to show that, like skinning a cat, there’s more than one way to write.

    • I learned a lot from the various comments on this post and I’ve come to the conclusion that each writer has to find their own way into the maze. My style is mostly about writing my way into writing. I do it with a bunch of pre-writing planning types of things and it seems you do it by just plunging in and seeing where it goes. I suspect we both end up with a big clean-up later. I love the idea of discovery because that’s really what the whole writing journey is about. Thanks for commenting. We build the road as we go.

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