Updating previous posts about my writing process, this is a more accurate picture of what I do and how I do it.
Finding the Hero’s 12 Waypoints
Every long-form story shares the same structure. Every television drama or comedy, every movie, every novel, every memoir has some version of these 12 waypoints:
- It begins with a hook to get you interested,
- then spends time in some setup to invest you in the protagonist
- whose world turns upside down in an important first plot point
- and so the hero spends time flailing and failing in response
- during which we see the antagonist, raw and threatening, in a first pinch point.
- At the midpoint our hero learns or gains something and stops failing and
- starts gaining ground in their attack on the challenge.
- Once again we see the villain clearly in a second pinch point
- and 3/4 of the way through our story, it appears all is lost when our hero discovers that everything they’ve believed about the challenge is wrong
- until a second plot point gives our hero the information they need to dive into the
- climax of the story, the final chase scene or problem-solving process which leads to
- the final resolution and our happily ever after—or not.
If you’re familiar with Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler’s work regarding the Hero’s Journey, those will look familiar.
My first rudimentary story planning consisted of writing one sentence to describe each of those 12 elements. This is the expanded version, though I wrote more than one book using only those 12 sentences as a guide.
Laying the Foundation with Global Story Elements
When I discovered Shawn Coyne’s Story Grid I learned the value of clearly identifying other global story elements and points of specific movement. I’ll simply list these items; if you’d like an explanation of what each is and why it matters, I highly recommend reading the Story Grid blog or getting the book.
- External Genre
- External Value at Stake
- Internal Genre
- Internal Value at Stake
- Obligatory Scenes & Conventions for the Genre
- Point of View
- Objects of Desire
- Controlling Idea/Theme
Coyne calls the parts of the traditional three-act structure the Hook, Build, and Payoff. Each act needs these five parts:
- Inciting Incident
Once I realized the value of having all this information figured out up front, I started filling in a Story Grid spreadsheet (see below) first, then going back to write my 12 sentences to describe the 12 waypoints above.
The two processes are complementary, so I end up going back and forth, applying something I discover in one to my work on the other. Nothing gets filled in sequentially. Plan for a messy, organic process at this phase, which can be fun for pantsers. Making the mess here reduces messes during writing.
There isn’t a 1-to-1 relationship between the 12 waypoints in my interpretation of the Hero’s Journey and the 15 elements of the Story Grid 3-act layout, but there are connections. For instance Waypoint #1, The Hook, matches the Inciting Incident of the Hook in the Story Grid spreadsheet, and the Crisis of the Story Grid’s Middle Build section is Waypoint #9, the All Is Lost Moment.
Here’s the 3-act overview spreadsheet for my work in progress. Note the brevity. Clarity here saves struggle later.
Adding the 8 global story descriptors and the 15 critical story movement elements from the Story Grid is exponentially more complex than planning with the 12 waypoint sentences alone. It is also exponentially more rewarding in both my planning process and my understanding of story. If your writing process allows you to work from the 12 sentences without using the Story Grid elements, apply the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ adage.
Listing the Scenes
When I’ve identified my 8 global story descriptors and the 15 critical story movement elements from the Story Grid, and written the 12 sentences for the Hero’s Journey waypoints, I’m ready to write a scene list.
I’ve learned that my scenes average 1,000 words. Many writers average double that, but my brain thinks in smaller bits I guess. For my scene list, I arbitrarily decide how long I want the book to be (yes, I just make it up) and put that many lines on a new spreadsheet.
For my mysteries, I shoot for 64 scenes, 64,000 words. The time-traveling-Indiana-Jones scifi adventure I’m working on now needed to be longer, so I created a list of 100 scenes.
The story movement elements and journey waypoints fill in about 20 scenes in the new scene list spreadsheet. (The 12 sentences overlap the 15 Story Grid elements to some extent, which is why we get about 20 scenes rather than 27.)
Each of those scenes calls for other scenes to set them up or explain the fallout, which I add to the scene list spreadsheet. Some scenes naturally grow into entire sequences, small story arcs of three or more scenes tied together to deliver an important story point.
By the time I’m done jotting quick, high-level notes about all the scenes I know have to be written, I usually have about two-thirds of the scene list filled in.
Aside: Which Comes First, the Planning or the Pantsing? Answer: Either. Or Is It Both?
It is entirely possible that it works better to pants the entire story, then retrofit the structure. I did that with the first Jesse Donovan novel That She Is Made of Truth.
If you can write the whole story down quickly, it allows you to go back and find the theme, the underlying life lesson your book is secretly about. Trust me (or trust Steven Pressfield) most writers have no clue what the theme of their work is until they’ve had time to ruminate, or had it explained by an editor or reader. (As I’ve always said, it’s hard to read the label when you’re inside the bottle.) Once you have your theme, you can write your 12 sentences based on the theme.
Sometimes pantsing hits a wall. The process I’m sharing is the best way I know to bust through, either by switching to planning mode completely, or until the dam bursts and you dive back into the maelstrom of mad writing.
Even if you plan first, the brevity of the 12 sentence process allows you infinite freedom to pants from waypoint to waypoint as freely as any other process.
The Rest of the Story
Subplots, logical deduction, and discoveries along the way fill in the rest of my scene list.
I always try to include at least one subplot, two if I can. One parallels the main plot in a minor fashion, tying into the main plot’s resolution near the end. The other is a mirror, the opposite of the main plot, failing where the main plot succeeds or otherwise playing out differently from the main plot.
Once I get that far, I have very few holes in my scene list. Those fill themselves in as single scenes expand into two or three, or as other necessary scenes are discovered when I start pantsing my way through the first draft.
The scene list rescued me from the crisis I described in Part 1, wondering how a shift from a technical environment to an ancient jungle could make sense in my story.
Now the Hard Part Isn’t as Hard
Once I have the list, I do what most writers consider the hard part: I sit down, every weekday, and write.
I usually start with a single scene per day, but before long I’m writing two or three, and as I near the end, I’ll write 4,000-5,000 words a day in a race with my hero to the end of the book.
Because I did the hard work of finding the story’s structure and creating a plan, getting words out every day isn’t the struggle it used to be. There are still days I have to fight resistance to sit down and do it, and days I’m not sure where I’m going or what I’m doing. Those are the days I have to trust that I knew what I was doing when I created the plan.
It’s not magic. It doesn’t take the work out of writing. It allows me to do the hard work at the right times, and to use the correct side of my brain for each part of the writing process.
When I’m confused or stuck, I know what to do. It’s right there in the plan.