How to plan your story

There are two types of writers: plotters and pantsers. Check out this post to learn more about planning your story and grab a free downloadable planner worksheet!

I’m so excited to announce that I’m participating in Camp NaNoWrimo this April! Now if you don’t know what Camp NaNoWriMo is, it’s a writing challenge where you set your own word count. Think of it as the younger sibling of the larger challenge in November. I.e., National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) where everyone attempts to write 50,000 words.

So, to prepare for the challenge, I wanted to share some ways to plan your story. Complete with a FREE downloadable (and editable) scene planner worksheet. Excited to plan your story?! Me too. Let’s get started. 

Generally, there are two types of writers: plotters and pantsers. Plotters like to plan out their story before they even begin to write. Pansters fly by the seat of pants and plot as they work. Often allowing the characters or scene to inform the writing.

Some famous plotters and pantsers according to Goodreads:

Famous plotters

  • John Grisham
  • R.L. Stein
  • J.K. Rowling

Famous pantsers

  • Margaret Atwood
  • Stephen King
  • Pierce Brown

No matter what category you fall into or even if you fall in-between, having a story outline can give a sense of purpose while still allowing for improvisation. If you’re a plotter it allows you to set the course for your story and even determine the nitty-gritty details like dialogue. If you’re a pantser it gives you enough of a jumping off point to say “buh-bye” to writer’s block while providing flexibility to improvise.

A story outline can mean many things to many writers, but at the core it’s broken down by major scenes or chapters. It’s up to you what information you would like to plan out in each scene, though I like Gabriela Pereira’s suggestion from DIY MFA which outlines: 

Characters

  • Sally
  • Gary, her coworker

Action

  • Sally goes to work and discovers she’s a witch
  • Gary reacts negatively to her discovery

Purpose

  • Introduces conflict that propels the rest of the story
  • Hint: if there isn’t a purpose for the scene, it probably doesn’t belong in your story

Now the fun part! Setting up your story outline. Again, a story outline is many things to many writers. Use the method that best works for you. Below are some versions to help jumpstart your outlining! 

Corkboard

Think old school corkboard with index cards held up by tacks. Each index card is a scene and the placement on the board indicates order. Write your information for the scene on card whether you’re using the above recommendation or your own categories. 

Now you can do this with a physical board (corkboard is a classic choice through dry erase would work) or an electronic one. My favorite way to create a scene board is using the corkboard feature in Scrivener. 

Here’s an excellent blog post from Kristen Kieffer at well-storied about using the corkboard feature. 

ProsCons
Easy to read at a glanceLinear format; no room for scenes that don’t have a place
Can rearrange scenes easilyPhysical boards require supplies (beyond paper and pen) and space. Electronic ones could come with a cost. 
Mind map

Mind mapping has taken off in recent years as a form of note taking. Rather than confining you to bullet points and the dreaded I-think-this-is-important-but-I-don’t-know-yet decision, it allows you to branch out your ideas and connect them from across the page. 

Here’s the basics for creating a mind map

Create a central theme (your story title) → draw branches out to parent ideas (scenes) → draw branches out to child ideas (important pieces of information about the scene such as characters and purpose)

So guess what? This works incredibly well for outlining your story. Especially if you’ve got a head full of ideas and want to get them down without a fussy timeline.

Pen and paper work great for this or you can try mind mapping software tools. I like MindMup the best because it’s a) free and b) integrates with my Google Drive

ProsCons
Easy to visually see themesDifficult to see the timeline of your story
Breaks down complex storiesMaps can quickly become too large and difficult to view
Lists

Who doesn’t love a good list? Using a list format to outline your story is a good cross between the corkboard and mind mapping. It allows you to lay everything out in a linear fashion while at the same time offering you a chance to add multiple ideas.

I recommend using a plotting technique as the bones of your list outline and then filling in each category with bullet points. This will help you identify what you need to keep the story moving. E.g., you may realize as you’re outlining that there is no climax. 

Additionally, if you’re bursting with multiple ideas for each plot point you can write them all in! Later on as you’re writing or editing you can discard or reallocate the idea to a different plot point. 

ProsCons
Encourages you to identify what scenes will keep your story movingNot as visually easy to identify themes
Cost-effective option–only pen and paper required!Not as flexible for brain dumps

While the above ideas are far from comprehensive, they’re a great way to kickstart your writing. Stuck on which method to use or where to start? You can also try my scene planner worksheet. This is a FREE download (below) and can be printed or filled in electronically. 

How do you plot or not plot your story? Have feedback on the worksheet? Leave a comment below or tag me (@glcubel_writes) on Twitter!

Author: Ginnye Lynn Cubel

Hi! I'm Ginnye. I love reading, writing, and coffee. Follow along for discussions and advice on writing.

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