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!

Scrivener: a review

Scrivener. It’s like the Evernote of word document systems; everything you need in one place. But is it worth the hype?

If you’ve been around the writing block you might have heard about Scrivener. It’s like the Evernote of word document systems; everything you need in one place. Including room for research notes, character sketches, place descriptions, and the ability to export your work in a single document.

In general, Scrivener receives great reviews for price, effectiveness, and user friendliness. But is it worth the hype? Let’s find out…

Who: 

Scrivener. Owned by the software company Literature & Latte. (A name after my own heart.) 

What: 

A software tool for writing projects. Used by writers and researchers across the board to organize and manage projects. This is a proprietary software license. I.e., you purchase a license and download the software to your device. It’s not cloud-based and you can’t access it from devices that don’t have the application installed. 

Where to buy:

Literature & Latte website

Pros 

Cons

  • You may need to download and purchase a software license if you plan to use across multiple devices. For instance, I purchased one license for my laptop and then purchased the Scrivener app for my phone.
    • N.B., in order to get the individual applications to sync (i.e., get Scrivener on your phone to sync with Scrivener on your laptop) you must set up a Dropbox account and link them. Scrivener provides detailed instructions for this.
  • If you want to sync large files or multiple projects, you may need to purchase additional space on Dropbox which is a subscription service.
  • You’ll need to back up your files on a cloud storage system or external hard drive
  • Functionality can feel confusing and overwhelming as there are a myriad of features and customization options

My take: 

Worth it. 100% worth it. I was on the fence about purchasing the software and was only tempted when I saw it highlighted as a featured product during NaNoWriMo last year. I had a system in Google Docs and it worked well enough. Not great, but no major complaints either.

So I downloaded the 30-Day trial to give it a spin (all the other cool writers were doing it) and fell in love. Switching over has vastly improved my organization. I no longer have loose or lost documents floating around Google Drive. Everything is in a tidy and compact binder where I can see exactly how the story unfolds and move chapters around as needed. Which is fantastic as I sometimes write something without knowing where it fits in the story’s timeline. Now I have the freedom to write and reorganize later. It’s also easier to keep track of multiple revisions and compare them side-by-side.

My only complaint about Scrivener is that it’s not inherently cloud-based. If I could access my Scrivener account from any device, anywhere that would be great. It would also give me peace of mind that my work is backed up. Even so, the Dropbox workaround works and I’m happy with the purchase.

If you’re serious about your writing or want to become serious about your writing, consider investing in Scrivener. 

Bonus tips

  1. You can download Scrivener for a 30-Day trial if you’re on the fence.
  2. Can’t figure out how to do something? Google it! There are thousands of videos, guides, and blog posts out there about Scrivener.
  3. Post update! Please see comments below, there are other ways to back your Scrivener up to a cloud storage system so you can access across multiple devices.

He said, she said: Writing powerful dialogue

Learn to write strong dialogue without using adverbs or verbs to modify said.

Several years ago, I participated in a Visiting Writers Series class at Butler University that focused on reading and analyzing the works of writers and poets visiting the school or local Indianapolis area. (The class name was very literal.) As part of the class, I had the honor of introducing Elmore Leonard during his lecture at Clowes Hall.

Myself and Elmore Leonard at Butler University

I could tell you some more about the introduction (it was terrifying and wonderful and I almost threw up) but the best part of the experience was the pre-lecture dinner where myself and a couple of other writers spent time with Mr. Leonard and learning about his craft. We went to the Naked Tchopstix in Broad Ripple and he told us about the tattoos he got while serving during World War II and the importance of writing every day. What stuck with me from that conversation was his advice to never use anything other than said in dialogue. No adverbs, no adjectives, no verbs. Nothing. Just he said, she said, they said, we said, I said.

At the time I nodded enthusiastically because who was I to disagree with a writing god? Later on, as I worked privately on my own prose I felt the advice didn’t work. How is the reader supposed to know my, the writer’s intent, if I don’t use sarcastically, quietly, loudly, scoffed, growled, etc. when writing dialogue? I couldn’t make them guess–that seemed cruel and unproductive. So I pocketed the advice and continued writing dialogue as I always had: peppered with clues about my intent.

Recently, I re-read Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style and came across the advice again.

“It is seldom advisable to tell all. Be sparing, for instance, in the use of adverbs after “he said,” “she replied,” and the like…Let the conversation itself disclose the speaker’s manner or condition.”

(Strunk and White 75)

And it clicked. I, as the writer, am not supposed to tell my readers about the characters. The characters are supposed to tell the readers about themselves. HOLY HELL. This whole time I’ve been writing weak dialogue by using adverbs and verbs to forcefully drag my readers down a certain path of understanding.

Opening up the last chapter I worked on, I went through and cut every adverb and verb I could find. Which meant I was editing 95% of my dialogue. Confronted with so much slashing, I realized I was relying too heavily on the writing to tell the story instead of allowing the actions and dialogue to speak for themselves. Me, the writer, was interjecting in the story like an unwanted voiceover when I should have been an observer.

While burning and slashing all words ending in -ly or -ed it became clear I couldn’t just edit out adverbs and verbs to create good prose.

“This is good cake,” she said greedily, “I adore it.”

“Of course it is,” he said sneered, “I used to work in a Parisian bakery.”

Better without the adverbs and verbs but still not great. It took time and patience and lots of what-the-hell-am-I-doing-can-I-even-write-well? but I found some tactics to remove those life-draining adverbs and verbs to write drastically better dialogue. Here are my top three tips:

Connotation is your friend

If you’re not using adverbs to describe the way your character says something, then use the connotation of their words to convey their feelings. For example, “I like coffee” has a variety of meanings depending on how it’s said. The character could be ironic, sarcastic, enthusiastic, or anything. Instead of modifying the verb said try modifying the content of the dialogue.

Original: “I like coffee.” She said sarcastically.

Revised: “I guess I like coffee.” She said.

Show don’t tell

Already modified the content of the dialogue as much as you can? Try describing what your character is doing before, during, or after they speak. Grinning, fidgeting fingers, or slamming a door are more telling than happily, nervously, or angrily ever were.

Original: “I like coffee.” She said sarcastically.

Revised: “I like coffee,” she said, picking up the sugar dispenser and holding it above her coffee cup for several seconds.

Play off the other characters

Tapped out on using connotations and showing-not-telling? Want to mix it up? Try omitting said entirely and allow your characters to play off one another. Whether responding directly to each other’s tone or indicating it by their response. Just make sure to set up the scene beforehand so your reader knows who is speaking as they follow the back and forth.

Original:

“I like coffee.” She said sarcastically.
“You don’t like coffee,” he scoffed, “order a tea.”

Revised:

She picked up the up the sugar dispenser and held it above her coffee cup for several seconds.

“I like coffee.”

“Stop being difficult. You’ve never liked coffee. Order a tea.”

Learning to cut adverbs and verbs from my dialogue was difficult and painful process. To be honest, I still catch myself trying to sneak some adverbs or verbs in after said. But if I want strong dialogue and a strong story, I need to drop my ego at the page and let the characters speak directly to the reader. Writers are a vessel for their stories. They shouldn’t interject their thoughts anymore than the paper and ink do.

Citation: Strunk, William, and E. B. White. The Elements of Style with Revisions, an Introduction, and a Chapter on Writing. Longman, 2000.

Magical Poetry Workshop

Brief outline for half-day poetry workshop. Grab your wands…pens, and join us for some magical poetry!

Brief outline for half-day poetry workshop. As with any lesson plan, feel free to modify as needed to fit your intended audience. So grab your wands…pens, and join us for some magical poetry!

Writing Genre

Poetry

Age group

Middle School

Workshop Activities

Reading models, structured exercises, editing/revision period, and group readings

Supplies and Materials

Printed handouts, paper, pencils, pens, markers/colored pencils, stage

Objectives

Students walk away inspired by the extraordinary and able to define magical realism and fantasy. Students are also encouraged to incorporate magic or fantasy elements into their poems as metaphors for real life experiences.

Group discussion

What do we like about magic or fantasy?

  • What do you specifically like about your favorite fairy tale/fantasy story?
  • What types of magical elements do you think are cool?
  • How do you feel after reading/watching a story with magical elements?

Difference between Magical Realism and Fantasy

  • Magical realism = a realistic view of the modern world while also adding magical elements.
  • Fantasy =  fiction set in a fictional universe, often without any locations, events, or people referencing the real world.

Exercises

The Witch Wife or Belief in Magic

  • Read the poem out loud and discuss how it embodies every day acts (making dinner, gardening,) and makes them magical
  • Class will brainstorm 2-3 everyday tasks and then students will write a poem that turns that every day task into something magical
  • If students are stuck, encourage them to break down the everyday task into steps and write about each step as if it were extraordinary. E.g., tying your shoes. These long sleek snakes that tangle themselves around a bow.

Fairy Tale Logic

  • Read the poem out loud and discuss how it uses classic Fairy Tale elements to highlight real struggles.
    • Point out that it’s in Sonnet form
  • Students will choose a fairytale/fantasy story (can be the one they said at the beginning of the class or a different one) and write a list of the magical elements
    • E.g., Beauty and the Beast. Rose, talking candlestick, beast, enchantress, magic mirror, etc.
  • Once we have our list of elements, on the other side of the page brainstorm some problems from everyday life
    • E.g., bullies, trouble with homework, getting lost, etc.
  • Craft a poem that incorporates 2-3 magic elements from the list and 1-2 problems from your other list.

The Witch Has Told You a Story

  • Discuss how the poem takes a fairy tale and retells it in a unique way. This is from the witch speaking. Discuss how telling a familiar story in a unique way leads to deeper insights.
  • Choose favorite story and retell it as a poem
    • Consider changing the point of view, adding new magical elements, setting it in a different place/time period, adding a new or different problem/resolution.

Valuable Writing Lessons from Game of Thrones

As a GoT fan and a writer, I can’t resist jumping on the bandwagon and adding in my own commentary. Which leads us to this week’s post–valuable writing lessons from our favorite show to hate: Game of Thrones!

Photo by Kylo on Unsplash
Photo by Kylo on Unsplash

It’s difficult to be a timely publication and not talk about Game of Thrones. Whether it’s conspiracy theories or actor interviews or fashion commentary–everyone wants in on the game. As a fan and a writer, I can’t resist jumping on the wagon and adding in my own commentary. Which leads us to this week’s post–valuable writing lessons from our favorite show to hate: Game of Thrones!

The importance of flawed characters

Can you name one character in GoT that is completely honorable and unflawed? Even good ol’ Samwell Tarly has broken oaths and stolen books. That’s because George R. R. Martin and the writers at HBO have hit on an essential fact–stories with flawed characters are vastly more interesting and relatable.

We’re all in some way flawed and it’s much easier to identify with the character that spills coffee on herself vs. the character that prances through life saying and doing exactly the right things. So next time you’re developing a character, consider giving them a flaw. Whether a minor one like whistling at inappropriate moments or a major one like a compulsion to lie, flaws open up your characters to be authentic. Not to mention, a character flaw is the perfect opportunity to insert some conflict and context. That annoying whistling could reveal a character’s backstory or be the catalyst for their spouse to leave them…

No one likes a happy story

I can’t remember where I heard/read this, but someone at some point in my life advised that no one wants to read a story about someone else’s perfect life. #Preach. Think about it–no one likes inviting along that one friend who only talks about how perfect and great their life is. So why would you invite that one book to your bookshelf?

We enjoy stories about trials, sacrifices, and questions. We love these stories because they give us hope, encouragement, or maybe even real life warnings. And as writers, stories with hardships give our characters an opportunity and a reason to grow and change. Rather than staying static and perfect and boring for the remainder of the story.

So take a cue from Game of Thrones where almost everything goes wrong and some characters are literally pieces of their former selves–add some hardships. One good trick to introduce conflict is to identify your character’s greatest fear. Are they pinning all their hopes of socio-economic advancement on getting a promotion at work? Are they terrified of squirrels invading their house? Will they die of embarrassment if their crush finds out they don’t know how to correctly pronounce phớ? Once you have it, make that thing happen. Make it as dramatic or as subtle as you want and take us through how your character reacts and is molded by their worst fears.

There is such a thing as too much suspense

There’s no argument that suspension and tension are the motors that drive a story along. But let that motor run too long and you’ve driven your audience right off the story path. Take heed from George R. R. Martin, who is now 8 years behind the last Game of Thrones novel A Dance with Dragons. In fact, he’s left us in suspense for so long that HBO has commandeered the story.

Now I’m not saying that waiting too long to tell your story means someone else will tell it for you. But what I am saying is that if you keep your readers in suspense for too long, they’re going to drift away. Too much tension (with no climax) will leave your readers feeling unsatisfied and disappointed. Too little tension will leave your readers feeling bored.

So how do you find that perfect balance? Unfortunately there’s no magic formula. However you can try some of these techniques to help you pace the tension:

  • Add a time constraint (does this all happen in a week? A day? An hour?)
  • Up the ante by creating increasingly worse situations until the character is forced to deal with it
  • Create secondary sources of conflict that exacerbate the main source of conflict

So next Sunday, while you’re waiting to see how Dany and Jon take on Cersei, pay a little closer attention to the story. You might realize it’s a wealth of techniques you can use in your own work.

Interested in more tips for creating AND sustaining suspense in your story? Check out this great article from Writer’s Digest.