Behind a great story are A LOT of notes. There’s more behind the scenes than you may think. The result: you meet characters that are more than two-dimensional and are immersed in an enriching environment (all of which contributes to a captivating story that has you on the edge of your seat).
How do you get there?
By planning, revising, planning some more, revising some more, and planning yet again!
Stories never stop developing, but it’s easier when you’ve given yourself a map, rather than trying to read off a scrap piece of paper.
The goal of this workshop series: to provide material people can reference so they can grow as a storyteller.
Story Basics: Structure & Getting Started
All stories contain the following three essential building blocks: a beginning, middle, and end. You may be familiar with stories following a three-act structure. This is quite common in feature-length films and television episodes; Act 1 = the setup or exposition, Act 2 = confrontation or complication, and Act 3 = climax and resolution. For this workshop writing series, we’ll also be using this structure.
You think when writing a story you’d start at the beginning, but actually – it’s better to start at the end.
Why would you start at the end?!
If you start at the end, you know where you’re going. Remember the map I was talking about? It’s important to mark the following ‘signposts’/events for easy navigation:
- Inciting Incident
- Plot Point #1 (end of Act 1)
- Plot Point #2 (end of Act 2)
- The Climax (leads to Resolution, end of Act 3)
Okay, now it’s time for me to go against my point about creating organized and well-planned documents. Right now, you’re probably itching to get your idea out. Whenever I start story planning, I begin with what I call a “braindump” document. It’s super chaotic, the timelines jump around EVERYWHERE and characters are half thought out. In the primary stages of story development, that is A-OK. The bottom line is you need to document your ideas so you can start from somewhere. So task #1 for this workshop is to create YOUR braindump document. Open up Microsoft Word, Google Docs, etc. If you write faster, write everything down in a notebook.
Don’t worry about being rambly and most importantly – don’t edit anything. Just type (or write). Whenever you begin a new thought, create a new paragraph. Keep going until you’re confident everything is out there. Your braindump document can keep growing as more ideas come.
After you throw everything into your braindump document, see if you can organize the file. Cut paragraphs and paste them where they’d fit sequentially, group paragraphs into sections with a bolded header, etc. Once you add more paragraphs, it’s easier to figure out where they fit.
After a bit of cleanup, you’ll find it obvious where the beginning, middle, and end of your story lie. Other parts may be more filler material-ish, but it’s filler material with a purpose. Actions with purpose are key to creating an engaging story throughout. Be sure to sift through and ask yourself the following question: does this point impact the story overall? How does point A lead to point B (the bigger picture)?
Converting Braindump Points into Structural Building Blocks:
Okay, so we have an unstructured document with a bunch of story points. Now it’s time to organize it a bit more. Remember when I mentioned the common three-act structure? We’re going to begin modeling our ideas under that.
Throughout developing your story, your braindump document is going to grow a lot. I recommend creating a new document, titled “structure” or something of that nature. Here, we’ll be plotting the giant building blocks of our story…
Building Block #1: Inciting Incident (Beginning)
- This is an event that upsets the balance in your protagonist’s life
- Sets the story in motion: without it, “life would continue as before”.
- Introduces the main conflict (or main plot)
- It can be immediate or follow after the audience are shown the hero and learn a bit of his/her life
- Can be a random occurrence or result of action taken by another character
- Creates a clear objective for the main character (the hero may or may not know this yet)
To get you thinking about your inciting incident, here are some examples from a few iconic stories:
Jaws: shark eats swimmer.
Monsters Inc. (2001): the arrival of an adorable little girl on the scare floor.
Mean Girls: the “Plastics,” the cool girls, ask Cady to sit with them at lunch.
Note: your inciting incident and resolution (or climax) are closely linked. The problem presents a resolution. A question must be answered. The answer doesn’t always need to be positive – it can end in negative tension too.
Once you’ve figured out your inciting incident, it’s now time to consider your…
Building Block #4: Climax/Resolution
- The moment of great tension
- Where tension or action reaches its highest point
- Represented by a high point… from there, the rest of the story falls until the problems are resolved
- Always seen in the perspective of how it affects our hero
This is famously portrayed as…
- The gunfight in a Western
- The final summation of a jury’s decision
- The operation
- The pursuit & arrest
Okay woah! Hold on… you just gave me Building Block #1 and #4… what about #2 and #3?
Yes, I did that on purpose. Like said before, your inciting incident naturally leads to your climax/resolution. I find it’s useful to have the two one after the other during this process. Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten about the other two!
From the inciting incident at the beginning, to the climax/resolution at the end – you have to hold your audience’s interest. How do you do this? You build drama through conflict, the hero takes greater & greater risks, pressure increases as more obstacles arise, your heroes take action to restore balance, etc.
Like I mentioned earlier when analyzing and organizing your braindump document – each event must have a clear purpose in the story. Events unfold in a way that creates and continually heighten dramatic tension!
The following two building blocks do just that… they’re called Plot Points.
First, let’s define what the heck those are:
Plot Points are often referred to as Plot Twists or Turning Points. They do just that. They provide layers to your story, they enrich the overarching plot, they create more tension. There’s no limit to how many can be in your story – HOWEVER! The most profound Plot Points occur at the end of an act…
Below, are the following essential plot points to include at the end of each act…
Building Block #2: Plot Point I (End of Act I)
- Usually, a revelation or decision that propels the hero forward in terms of achieving his/her goal
- The point of no return. The stakes are raised.
Building Block #3: Plot Point II (End of Act II)
- Most commonly, the place where it seems your hero will not get what he/she wants
- The “ritual death” or “major reversal”
Alright, I just threw a lot at you. For a quick refresher, here’s the structure breakdown once more:
- Inciting Incident:
- The balance is upset
- Plot Point I:
- A revelation or decision the propels the hero forward
- Plot Point II:
- The worst place in the world
- The problem is solved (or not) when we know balance will be restored (or not)
Creating a Logline:
So! We got the foundation to our story laid out, there’s one final component – the logline. Not gonna lie, this is probably the trickiest thing to write because you must keep it to one sentence. The logline is a summary of a television program, film, or book that states the central conflict of the story, often providing both a synopsis of the story’s plot and an emotional “hook” to stimulate interest.
Whew. A lot right? When you’re on Netflix and click on a film or TV show for ‘more information’ you’re met with the one-liner logline. There’s a lot of pressure in writing a good logline. You want to entice your audience enough for them to engage in your material. I’d include this in your more formal “story structure” document.
Luckily, there’s a recipe for creating this…
Writing a Logline: The Formula
“This is a (true/fictional) (genre) about a (age#) (adjective/ghost/need) (M/F) (profession/relationship) who (inciting incident) and therefore (consequence).”
In addition to the above, you can also include…
“So in order to (achieve the goal), the (protagonist) must (take certain action) (VS antagonist/antagonism).”
Loglines are a great way to anchor your thoughts as well. I find at times, I get lost when writing my stories. In 10 seconds, you can reread your entire story summary to ensure you’re still on track! Some of these things seem super mundane, but trust me – they’re essential. You’ll thank yourself later for taking the time to plan these things out!
Now, you have all your ideas out and central parts of your story planned. You’re well on your way to developing a highly engaging story. In the meantime… keep thinking and tracking your thoughts. Add to your braindump document and modify any of your structural building blocks if needed.