Written by JJ Barnes
There are different ways to plan your story depending on your own way of thinking.
When you come up with an initial idea for a story, it can be very exciting. Perhaps you’ve invented a world, or thought of a character you want to write about. It fills you with creative urge and you’re dying to start pouring your story out. But then you sit down to write…
I’m going to talk you through the process of brainstorming that initial story nugget idea so you can turn one small idea into the plan for a story.
Plan Your Story With A Story Map
If you’re very visual, like me, you might find a story map helps you plan your story. It’ll contain the same information and be a very similar process of building up, but not everybody thinks in the same way. It’ll talk you through how I draw out mine and then you can adapt it for you.
When I story map I end up with a spiderweb of lines across the page, connecting characters, motivations, and any histories. My map will get bigger and bigger from the initial idea until I have a working plan.
For my example, I’ll assume that the initial idea you’ve come up with is your Protagonist, because that’s usually my starting point. I am usually drawn most to a person to write about and everything grows from that.
Map Your Protagonist Vs Antagonist
In the middle of the page on one side, write the name of the Protagonist, then underneath note details about her. Who is she, what does she want. Your story will follow her on her journey from not having something to trying to get it. It will end with her either getting what she wants, or having to accept she can’t have it.
Once you’ve worked out what she wants, as an example I’ll say she wants to sing on stage, you can start to figure out the rest of your story. Why isn’t she singing on the stage yet, why does she want to. What’s stopping her?
In the middle of the page on the other side, write the name of your Antagonist. Your Antagonist is motivated throughout your story to stop your Protagonist from getting what she wants. She could want the same thing, so to sing on the same stage at the same event, and only one of them can have it. Or, she is motivated to stop your Protagonist for her own reasons. Perhaps she’s an over protective parent.
Once you’ve established who your Protagonist and Antagonist are and what they want, you know your story. So you can start to work out the rest of the details as you plan your story.
Plan Your Story Side Characters
Your Protagonist and Antagonist will both have people in their lives that the talk to and depend on. For this story, perhaps they both have friends, singing teachers, agents.
From each name, put a little line out to another name. Who are those side characters and what do they want. They need to be as equally motivated as your main characters, their story just isn’t the focus. Perhaps one friend is really supportive and wants to help, another is jealous and toxic. Are their singing teachers pushy or kind, do their agents believe in them or are they close to firing them?
Now work out which of those side characters is going to betray them? And why? A story needs conflict, and side characters secretly working against main characters is a great way to add conflict.
Build up some love interests. Draw lines from different characters to work out who’s attracted to whom. Then work out who’s willing to betray somebody else for a love interest. If a man is in love with your Protagonist, but one of her friends is in love with him, then that could be motivation to betray her.
If you’re anything like me, you’ll end up with a sheet of paper covered in names, motivations, and lines connecting them with little plot points. However, if you prefer bullet points or spreadsheets, it’s totally fine. Just make sure your characters are mapped out so you know who you’re playing with.
Plan Your Story Plot Points
When you’ve established your Protagonist and Antagonist, what their story goal is, and who the surrounding characters are, you can start mapping how your story will play out.
This is when I move from a spiderweb map to more of a list, with my spiderweb to refer back to.
First, your Inciting Incident. Work out why your Protagonist and Antagonist become active. A big event is coming up to sing on stage in front of a music manager. There’s only a slot for one singer left, auditions are in two weeks. Whoever nails that audition gets the stage.
Work out your midpoint. Your midpoint reframes the story. So, in this case, perhaps your Protagonist is asked to work at her real job on the night of the audition. If she misses it she’ll be fired. There’s no guarantee her singing career will take off, she needs her job. That conflict changes how the story plays out, she’s torn in two directions, and different people in her life will want different things from her.
Work out your climax. The Antagonist has been adding pressure to the Protagonist and thinks she won’t show up. The Protagonist does show up and they both have to sing. You pick who wins, you pick the consequences.
Stepping Away From Your Map
If you plan your story it can be incredibly helpful. It’ll help you feel in control of your story. If you start to wander off plot and realise you’re not moving towards the story climax anymore it can help you get back on course. Make sure at all times your characters are all motivated to get what they want, and check your map to be sure.
However, sometimes it can be a hindrance. And it’s okay to recognise that. Do not feel so wedded to your story map that you can’t make changes as you go. Your story map isn’t designed to stop you writing or restrict creativity. Your story map is a help to make you feel in control of your story and familiar with the characters you’re moving about on your metaphorical stage. If it stop helping, either remap with your new framework as you’ve reached, or just skip it.
As long as planning helped you start writing your story and feel confident enough to do that, then your map has done it’s job. Any help it gives along the way is a bonus. I always find having my map really helpful, but sometimes I’ll step away if the story moves me. The story matters more than the map, after all.
More From JJ Barnes:
I am an author, filmmaker, artist and youtuber, and I am the creator and editor of The Table Read.
You can find links to all my work and social media on my website: www.jjbarnes.co.uk
Buy my books: www.sirenstories.co.uk/books
Follow me on Twitter: @JudieannRose