Tag Archive: story development

How to Straighten Your Story’s Spine

Sometimes I write a story where lots of exciting stuff happens, my protagonist is proactive and has a goal, and I’m hitting all the right beats (if you don’t know what those are, check out this post on the 15 Story Beats), yet the story still feels flat. What’s wrong? What am I missing?

The truth of the matter is often I’m not missing anything. I spend a lot of time developing my stories and I know all the story parts that I need to make a story sing, but effectively implementing those parts into a manuscript is a whole other challenge. In a manuscript, those parts can get out of whack or lost or muddy. So how do you fix it?

By doing something we screenwriters often call “tracking the story’s spine.” A story’s spine is the character arc woven into the plot; the two should always go together just like your vertebrae and your spinal cord. Tracking a story’s spine means making sure the protagonist’s transformation (arc) is addressed in EVERY SCENE of the journey (plot). Because after all, as I’ve said before (specifically in this post about character journeys), every story is about change.

So let’s get started…

To track a story’s spine, you need to know these 3 Basic Story Parts:

  1. What’s the Character Change?

  2. What’s the Inner Conflict?

  3. What’s the Big Story Question?

Part 1: In order to have a character arc, the protagonist needs to change. They have to start out one way (flawed and not the best person they could be) and end up another (flaw overcome and better because of the journey – that is if the story follows a positive arc; negative arcs are the opposite). For example, in my WIP the heroine starts out doing bad things like using people to try to get ahead. By the end of the story she needs to change into someone who doesn’t do bad things to succeed.

Part 2: Because of their character flaw, the protagonist will have an Inner Conflict. For a detailed explanation of what that is, read this post. In general, Inner Conflict is a desire for two things the hero wants (one of which is their outer Goal), but the catch is the hero can’t have both. So the whole story the protagonist must constantly choose between these two wants. Back to my WIP example, the heroine wants to be a better person (stop doing bad things like using people) but also wants a better life (her Goal is to escape the cycle of poverty by getting a college scholarship), yet she believes she needs to do bad things to achieve that. So yeah, she’s conflicted.

Part 3: The Big Story Question is the will/won’t issue based on the Inner Conflict. Basically, in my story the question is: Will the heroine get a better life? The writer must make the protagonist face that question in every scene, and alternate between scenes that make us and the protagonist think they WILL succeed, followed by scenes that make us think they WON’T. And this question always pivots on the protagonist’s Inner Conflict.

Not lining up the story’s spine is an easy blunder for writers to make, mainly because though we may KNOW the character’s arc, we don’t SHOW it in the plot. Note that I said “show” it, not “tell” it. You can’t solve this problem with internal monologue alone. The character transformation (arc) must manifest itself through actions (plot).

In conclusion, to straighten your story’s spine, check each scene for these 3 things and make adjustments accordingly:

#1 – Change. How does this scene influence your character’s arc? It can be a step forward or a step back, as long as something changes.

#2 – Inner Conflict. Which “want” is your hero leaning towards in this scene? Make sure to alternate this from scene to scene. After all, a hero who favours one desire over the other isn’t very conflicted.

#3 – Big Story Question. Does this scene ask the big, overall question? If not, your story has probably veered off course. Either cut the scene or revise it to make it relevant.

You can test your own manuscript, or a book you’re reading. I bet a million smiley face emojis that books that aren’t very engaging don’t have straight spines! Let me know in the comments what you find out. 🙂 Now I’m off to straighten my story’s spine…


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A Pre-Writing Checklist

Starting a new project is always exciting. After I applied to a writers grant with my current WIP this February, I decided to start another novel, or rather resurrect an idea I’d developed a year earlier. I already had character sketches and a beat sheet complete, so I rushed right in to writing a scene-by-scene outline only to discover by Act II that I didn’t actually have a story.

How the hell did that happen?

Well, I skipped some pre-writing steps, things that I knew I should do, but I just got so excited about the characters I’d created and the world I’d built that I wanted to start writing asap!

Since I had a beat sheet and character sketches and world-building notes, basically everything that most people advise writers to do as part of the pre-writing stage, what exactly was I missing? Well, in short, I needed to flush out the story premise more. So I read some blogs and books aiming to help writers achieve a “Killer Concept” or “Steal-Worthy Premise”, but found them to be impractically vague. Instead, I took stock of what makes a great story, and came up with my own list of things to do before I begin writing…

Savvy Plotter-4 Story Elements-Pre-Writing

#1 Write a LOGLINE. Broken down to its components, a logline is: FLAWED PROTAGONIST + DESIRE + PROBLEM + GOAL. For example, the logline for ZOOTOPIA: “A too-small bunny (FP) wants to be a cop (D), but no one believes she can do the job and they put her on meter maid duty (P), so she sets out to prove she’s capable of real police work by solving an unsolved case (G).” If you can’t fill in those blanks, you don’t yet have a story. Now, I am a screenwriter so of course I wrote a logline before I began writing (it’d be sacrilege if I didn’t!), but in retrospect it was too vague: I had a protagonist, but didn’t know her flaw; I gave her a desire, but exactly who and what were standing in her way (the problem) was a bit unclear, and that resulted in an unfocused goal. Bottom line, this short sentence needs to be specific to be helpful. For more detailed tips on writing loglines, click here.

Logline Banner

#2 Clarify the STORY QUESTION. In other words, what does the reader want to find out from reading your book? Hint: this question revolves around whether the hero will succeed or fail at their goal. The burning desire to learn the answer is what “hooks” a reader into your story. For example, in the movie ZOOTOPIA the story question is, “Will Officer Hopps solve the case and prove she belongs on the police force?” This story question is the spine of the narrative; every scene must make the reader wonder how this question will be answered. For more on hooking your reader with a question, read this.

#3 Make a POINT. Every powerful story has a message, so what lesson or warning are you trying to communicate to the reader through your story? This does not mean your novel needs to be preachy; in fact, the point of most stories is very subtle, but if it’s not there, readers will come to the end and shrug, “So what?” To have a point, a human value (such as freedom, love or justice) must be at stake. For more information, read this post on Theme.

#4 Know the END CHOICE. Note the word “choice.” Most writers have a general idea of how they want their story to end — the prince and princess live happily-ever-after, the detective catches the criminal, the widow deals with her grief and moves on —  but they don’t know what choice the protagonist has to make to get to that ending. Or worse, they don’t have the protagonist choose between anything! It’s absolutely imperative that the hero has to choose between two opposing things that they want (read this post to find out why), and readers must know these things will collide at the end of the story, and not knowing what the hero will choose creates suspense! I dislike stories that don’t have this end choice because they are predictable and boring. Because this is a big pet peeve of mine, I have already blogged about it in this post: How To Write Unpredictable Stories.

Of course, there is so much more that goes into developing a story than just these four things (like character sketches, the hero’s arc, and worldbuilding), but in my opinion nailing down the above story elements before you start writing can save valuable time and help avoid dead-end-story frustration. At least for me, it does. 🙂

What about you guys? Do you have a pre-writing checklist? Or do you just dive right in to the prose?


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O is for Outlines

BLAST_OAs a screenwriter, outlines are mandatory. Not so for authors. If you’re penning a novel, it seems as if you must choose between two camps – plotter (those who outline) or pantser (those who start writing a manuscript sans outline). But it doesn’t have to be one or the other, and I think the vast space between these polar opposites is where most writers fit. So with that in mind, the following three tips for outlining are more like stages, moving from macro to micro in scope.

3 Stages for Writing Outlines

Tentpoles. These are crucial events in every story. I believe they’re called “tentpoles” because they give a story shape the way tentpoles structure a tent. Without tentpoles, your story (and your tent) will fall flat. Tentpoles are things like the Inciting Incident, Call to Action, Midpoint, Crisis and Resolution. Even writers who identify themselves as pantsers often have these tentpoles in mind before they begin writing. I follow this “Save the Cat Basic Beats” model to get all my tentpoles set up.

Beat Sheet. In the post noted above, I call tentpoles “basic beats” because they are the bare minimum needed. A full beat sheet, however, drafts all the little beats in between the big tentpoles. But what is a beat? It’s an action that moves the story forward. Each beat leads to the next. If you can erase a beat and not change the story, well, then, that’s not a beat. For me, the Beat Sheet is a fun game of fill-in-the-blanks, or if we want to stick with the tent metaphor, I’m filling my tent with supplies that will get me through the trip.

Scene Outline. This is the itinerary part of the camping trip. Not everyone likes this stage, and that’s okay because there’s no obligation to do it! However, some of us like to work out the fine points before hitting the road. For this step, I take the action in the beats and develop it into scenes that outline the hero’s want, conflict and change for each one. For more information, check out this handy scene checklist!

2 Examples of Outlines

There are lots of ways to outline. You can scribble notes on scrap pieces of paper. You can make flow charts. You can use Scrivener (I hear they have templates for outlining, though I haven’t checked out the program yet). You can even pin index cards to a bulletin board, like this:

The Board: I've begun plotting scenes on index cards.

The Board: I’ve begun plotting scenes on index cards.

Or if you’re J.K. Rowling, you can make a spreadsheet!


1 Link for more help

If you’re not sure why you’d ever want to outline, check out this post: 5 Reasons To Outline Your Novel.

And in case you’re just dropping in now, here’s our April A to Z list thus far:

A is for Antagonist

B is for Backstory

C is for Character Change

D is for Dialogue

E is for External Conflict

F is for False Stakes

G is for Genre

H is for Heroes

I is for Internal Conflict

J is for Juxtaposition

K is for Kittens!

L is for Laughs

M is for Midpoint

N is for Narrative

Coming up:

P is for Pinch Point

Q is for Questions

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Clearing the Writer’s Clogged Pipes


26229875-image-of-a-young-journalist-sitting-at-the-table-for-a-typewriterPersonally, I don’t believe in Writer’s Block. There is no such thing in my book. Yes, there are days you just can’t get moving, but completely blocked? Nah. That’s an excuse. You have to push through, like Roto Rootering your pipes. Most of the time this occurs during the saggy middle (which the Sisters have posted about several times), because we are all jacked up about beginning, and then energized at the other end about finishing the damn thing.

Just one woman’s humble opinion.

Advice abounds: take a walk, distract yourself, write down other ideas, work on a different project, meditate, clear your head, take a nap(!), or whatever is advised on a passive level. Then try these proactive steps to actually work with your characters and get them to open up and to, excuse the expression, flush out your characters and your plot line. Add some excitement by going through these exercises in your head, and, if you are so inclined, writing out the scenes to cement it. Just get it moving and you’ll be on your way in no time.

1)   Have your protagonist come out of left field and confess something that adds a dimension to her character. It should not have anything to do with the story itself, something in her past that colors her outlook. Did she hit a child in a fit of temper? Lose somebody else’s child? Have an accident and run away? Damage somebody else’s property and hide it? Find something your goody-two-shoes did that shows a crack in her character. Develop it. Use it to define who she is in your mind. You don’t have to use it unless it moves the story forward, but just knowing this is in her psyche can unclog the pipeline. Sometimes I do this by sitting like a therapist, pen in hand, legs crossed, with a steno pad in my lap, and actually interviewing my character. Somebody call the men in white jackets.

2)   Ask a question that’s unanswerable and see how your characters deal with it. Put yourself with all the characters in one room a la Hercule Poirot. Start asking inane questions. Who’s going to say something without thinking? What is it going to be? Who will gasp and clutch their chest?

3)   Have your character walk through a process: “Start at the beginning. You were here…” Where was she standing when something momentous occurred, what was she thinking, doing, saying? What was she doing with her hands? How was she dressed? Get into minute detail and something will pop up. Play detective if you have to.

4)   Pick a fight. Back to the interviewing technique. Get into it with a character by egging them on, pushing them to the edge to get an answer. Why did they go there? What was their motivation in taking a certain action? Script it out. Something pops up from him that you didn’t think of. Play word association games with your characters, go for the jugular. Get them to confess, to talk, to plead, whatever will move the story forward.

5)   Have a heart-stopping that-didn’t-just-happen shock right there in the middle of the book. Remember Gone Girl? Exactly halfway through the book I, and, I suspect everyone else who read it, stopped reading, eyes focused while the shock ran through my body. The story was going along nicely until – BAM – the surprise hit you dead on and then the race was on to finish it and see where it went because it came out of left field and you weren’t sure which way it was going at that point. Brilliant.

There are lots of ways you can slog through and get moving again. Roto-Rooter it with these suggestions. You don’t have to make it part of the story, just use it in your own head to keep things moving along. Before you know it, the pipes are clean and the story moves smoothly to its inevitable end.

Writers’ Block? Nah. Just move it along…




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