Tools for working with new story ideas

Since I’ve been talking this month about the elements I need to make sure a new story idea is ready to be (and warrants being) written, I figured it might be useful if I also shared the tools I use to help me get those new ideas into shape.

I am not very organized at all when it comes to story planning. There are many very involved methods of plotting and charting character development out there, which work very well for many people, but I find if I try to squeeze my ideas into boxes that are particularly rigid or divided into particularly small parts, my brain shuts down. I have learned, though, that having a fairly loose structure to hang my brainstorming on can make it easier to solve story problems and result in a better written book in the end.

For a long time, I really just thought in terms of a slightly expanded three act screenplay structure–that is, three act structure with a break in the middle of the second act that’s the “point of no return.”

There are lots of articles you can read about three act structure, which approach it from a variety of ways. For my purposes, I thought of it as being: Act 1 – introducing the main characters and their situation, ending with the incident that starts the main conflict of the story in motion; Act 2 Pt. 1 – the main character attempts to deal with the problem in ways that mainly fail, ending with a moment that overturns his/her expectations and assumptions about the problem; Act 2 Pt. 2 – the main character attempts to solve the problem with this new understanding, but the problem gets worse and s/he’s still struggling even as s/he’s figuring out what to do, ending with the problem getting so bad it seems unsurmountable; Act 3 – the main character has to take drastic action to fix the problem (also known as the climax), resolution. Act 1 is usually as short as possible, and Act 2 is usually split fairly close to the middle, but otherwise I didn’t worry too much about exact proportions.

You can see this in Give Up the Ghost if you look for it. (The mid-story turning point, for example, is when Cass finally gets to confront Danielle at the party, but finds she doesn’t feel any better for it.) The Way We Fall‘s structure is a little more scattered, mainly because of the journal format, but it does hit the same points.

Recently I’ve started using a couple of resources that provide a little more structure, which I’ve found useful for more plot-y stories, and particularly for planning a sequel, something I’d never done before.

One is a more in-depth three act structure: Michael Hauge’s Six Stage Plot Structure. I don’t bother with the percentages, but I find breaking the story down into a few more stages and turning points than I did before makes it easier for me to figure out what parts of the idea should happen when, and when I don’t have enough happening and need to brainstorm more.

The other is the book The Anatomy of Story by John Truby. Though some parts of this book recommend strategies that are too analytical for me (and result in that brain-shutting-down feeling), I’ve found the chapters on premise, story structure, and character hugely useful in figuring out what the focus of my story should be, what sorts of things my characters need to be doing, how they might grow, and how they can interact with each other in interesting and plot-driving ways.

Truby disparages the three act structure, but I think the two approaches actually work together quite well. 🙂 I used both when working on The Way We Fall‘s sequel (and I’d give examples, except that would be spoiling a series most of you haven’t read the first book in yet!), as well as another project I hope to be able to tell you about before too long.

Sometimes there’s so much I want to do with a story idea that I get overwhelmed, and having those structures to draw on helps tame all that inspiration into something useable.

Fellow authors — what story structuring or idea developing tools have you found useful in your writing, if any?


Tools for working with new story ideas — 2 Comments

  1. I love Michael Hauge’s way of breaking down structure too. Makes more sense to me than either The Hero’s Journey or the plain old 3 act plotting. I think 3 act plotting might be too simplistic for a novel. Like you said, Act 2 is most of the book. The reader needs some definite ups and downs in there. 🙂

    • Yes, that’s why I’ve always needed the midpoint to make it at least more of a four act structure. I find I come up with turning point-type events instinctively most of the time (e.g., GHOST totally has a “Major Setback” even though I didn’t know that was a thing until finding Hauge’s breakdown years later) but having an example structure makes it so much easier the times I don’t.

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