Story Planning

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For the time being, I have given up pantsing. It’s only been successful for me with a handful of short stories (around the 5K mark). With longer books, I end up with first drafts that either go unfinished and languish in a drawer somewhere, or first drafts that are a pile of mush, plot-wise, and require massive rewrites.

Earlier this year, as I worked on Goblins and Grimoires, I was thrilled with my word counts. But I had no plan, and the result was a manuscript that needs a complete rewrite. I think the mess that was that novella was a tipping point. I didn’t realize it, but I needed a different way.

If I’m being completely honest, I’m still trying to find my way out of a writing dry spell. But I do know that I don’t want to write unusable first drafts. They don’t have to be perfect, but they have to at least make sense.

So I’ve gone back to studying story structure, especially Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering. Armed with a couple of beat sheets—one based on Brooks’ thoughts on structure, another for romance writers and based on Blake Snyder’s work—I’m trying to move forward with a new story. (Note: Both beat sheets were created by the talented Jami Gold and are available at her website.)

I think part of it is that structure doesn’t come naturally to me. I come from a background in poetry, and poetic structure isn’t plot structure. I also have a background in magazine writing, and that’s more of a get-everything-on-the-page-and-cut-and-paste deal. But fiction? Fiction is its own beast, and I have to find a way to grapple with structure that doesn’t lead to massive page-one rewrites.

I’m starting small. A few years ago, I started a holiday-themed short story, Under the Mistletoe’s Spell. I only managed to write an opening scene, and figured the story was just for dabbling. But a few days ago I had a brainstorm—lightning and everything. What if the story wasn’t a contemporary paranormal, but a historical fantasy setting? Add in a Regency-inspired fantasy world and two characters with high stakes, and that could be one smoking holiday fantasy romance. And since the holiday season is upon us, what better time to pen a Yule-inspired tale?

Tonight I plan to gather my beat sheets and the rough synopsis I’ve written and start hammering away, working the story into a structure that hits all the right plot points at all the right moments. This is an experiment. If it works, this method will definitely help, especially with longer stories. And since this is a shorter work, it should be a good place to experiment with story structure.

I’d like to dedicate the next few weeks to finishing a first draft of this story. I keep hopping from story to story, idea to idea, with nothing really sticking. And that’s not really usual for me. Usually I settle in and finish a draft (even if it’s awful—and some have been awful. Not all, of course, but some).

So this is an experiment. Let’s see if it works. If it does, it could go a long way to helping me plot my stories before I begin them.

ROW80 check-in:

  • Do something writing-related every day, seven days a week: journal, write a poem, take notes on a story, read a writing book, brainstorm, etc. Saturday: Read a chapter in Finding Water by Julia Cameron and did corresponding exercises. Sunday: Brief brainstorming session with hubby. Monday: Wrote 921 words in Under the Mistletoe’s Spell, along with a rough synopsis. Tuesday: Created two beat sheets for Under the Mistletoe’s Spell.
  • Reconnect with my spiritual practice. I wrote a couple of brief Pagan songs, so progress on this front. And I’m starting to realize that much of my poetry has a strong spiritual basis, so any poetry I write is very much connected to this goal.
  • Start a regular yoga practice. No progress to report.
  • At least twice a week, explore another creative outlet, anything from scrapbooking to cooking to home decorating or Feng Shui. Nothing yet.

What about you? How do you handle story structure? Does it come naturally, or is it an area you’ve grappled with? Any hints, tips, or tricks?

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Fantasy & paranormal romance author. Witch. Tarot reader. Possibly a woodland sprite. Debut release TANGLED ROOTS now available. Magic awaits at

9 thoughts on “Story Planning

  1. Story structure is an issue. There are few stories where I have a plan. And even then, it’s not perfectly executed. I try to leave room for the unknown, for when the story veers off the path. It’s hard to tell when it happens.

    1. I can always feel myself growing as a writer, which is a good thing, and I’m really trying to move forward with my grasp of structure. With shorter works I’m often okay with structure and it sort of falls into place, but longer stories seem to be so much more difficult–like, anything over 20K, not even just full-length novels.

      If I can find a process that allows me to go into a story knowing at least the structure will be close to where it needs to be, it will be so much easier to worry about all those other components–character arc, world-building, etc. And yes, trying to leave room for my stories and characters to surprise me, too! We’ll see how it all works out. 🙂

  2. I’m definitely a plotter. I have some short side projects that I pants, but all my main projects I have to plot out. My process is probably intensive, but there is still room for the characters to surprise me, and they often do. Good luck with your new project!

    1. I’m a reformed pantser. I just wrote a short story last night without an outline, but it was only 3K. Anything longer than a short story and I’m finding I need to plot. I’m still trying to figure out the best process for planning/plotting, though.

      Thanks, Fallon!

  3. So there is hope for us pantsers, eh? I find that the more I write, the more I feel the need to plot. But I like to keep it loose because I like the unexpected element of pantsing. Glad you’re writing is going well Denise! 🙂

    1. I think pantsing can work, but it takes a lot more patience to allow a story to unfold that way. I’m still trying to leave room for surprises (they seem, perhaps, inevitable, given the nature of creative work), but still having at least some outline that details the key plot points. Thanks, Karen! 🙂

    2. Yeah, I think once those lessons about story structure and plot arc and character arc sink in, many of us pantsers realize we need some sort of plan. I didn’t plot my last novella and it’s a mess. I can see now how some additional work–a voice journal, a beat sheet, a rough synopsis–would’ve helped that story a lot. No first draft will ever be perfect, but hopefully with some planning, I can write much cleaner first drafts (and stop getting stuck at the end of the first act). Thanks, Karen! I hope your writing is going well, too. 🙂

  4. I’ve never been much of a planner, but to get books approved now, I have to write three chapters and a synopsis. That really helps. I get those first three chapters down so I can learn who my characters are, but I also think through where the story is going and how it will end. That REALLY helps when it comes time to write the complete.

    1. Absolutely. I need to do a little bit of writing to get to know my characters before I do any sort of plotting, but I think my days of writing without a rough synopsis are over. And I’m starting to realize that if you’re a published author with deadlines and expectations set by your publisher, you can’t spend years tinkering with a first draft that doesn’t hit the plot points in the right places. Thanks, Stephanie!

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