Story Design

Summary

This chapter describes an iterative, recursive process for developing both the Plot and the Story, popularized by Randy Ingermanson. This process starts with the briefest description of your project that speaks to both aspects. Through this chapter, I expect you have a working knowledge of this process.

The Plot grows by expanding a sentence to a paragraph, then each sentence in that paragraph to a separate paragraph. Depending on the depth and detail you need, this can go from one page to dozens. (I read about one author who had a 50-page outline.) The Story grows by developing the POV Characters from the external objectives to rich emotional depth.

As a project matures in this process, earlier descriptions may prove flawed. When that happens, go back and rework the earlier steps. Then, work back through the process.

Eight Steps to Project Development

Development alternates between Plot and Character development as shown below. This helps ensure the plot and story integrate effectively. I grouped the Plot and Character development steps together in this chapter to show how the development of each is more clear.

  1. Logline
  2. Plot Summary
  3. Character Summary
  4. Plot Synopsis
  5. Character Synopsis
  6. Plot Treatment
  7. Character Treatment
  8. Section Logline
  9. Section Summary (optional)

Stakes

When you develop the plot, consider the Public, Personal and Private stakes:

  • Public - what society stands to lose
  • Personal - what the Hero stands to lose
  • Private - a split of values where Hero surrenders Personal stake for the Truth

Logline

The logline is about selling the project in a phrase. Like an elevator pitch, you should be able to say the logline in one breath. The typical logline follows the following pattern:

When [INCITING INCIDENT], a [DESCRIPTIVE HERO]
must [OBJECTIVE], or else [STAKES].

The problem with this logline is it speaks to the plot, but not the story. To address this, I write the logline as two sentences. The first sentence lays out the project’s plot. The second sentence asks the thematic question back-lit by the consequences of not learning the lesson. Your thematic question may not develop until you have developed the project further, so come back to it later.

[DESCRIPTIVE HERO] must [OBJECTIVE]
when [INCITING EVENT].
Can they [LEARN THEME] before [STAKES]?

To give an example from Shakespeare:

A [HESITANT YOUNG NOBLE] [SEEKS REVENGE]
after [HIS FATHER’S GHOST EXPOSES HIS MURDER].
Can he [LEARN TO BE DECISIVE] before [ALL IS LOST]?

When the project is villain-focused, the logline should include the villain as part of the objective. As we see in the quintessential Christmas classic Die Hard:

A [DUTY-DRIVEN COP] must [THWART TERRORISTS]
who [HAVE TAKEN A SKYSCRAPER, AND HIS WIFE, HOSTAGE].
Can he [SET DUTY ASIDE]
before [HE LOSES THE LOVE OF HIS LIFE]?

When describing the Hero, use a descriptive adjective that speaks to their Wound.

Plot Development

Of the eight steps, four are dedicated to developing a cohesive plot. These steps alternate with the character maturation steps.

Plot Summary

Once the Logline is developed, move on to the Plot Summary. This is a one-paragraph description of your Project. I advocate an eight-segment plot structure. Therefore, this paragraph should comprise eight sentences; one per segment. The one sentence per major section of the project works whether you are following the eight-segment or a more traditional three or four act structure.

The “Therefore-But” paradigm helps ensure you have compelling conflict. If you do, the first sentence may not have a “therefore,” as we do not have the catalyst. The last one will not have a “But,” as we have tied up all the relevant loose ends.

As an alternative, you may consider writing a logline for each segment. This would include the thematic question relative to that segment.

Plot Synopsis

The Plot Synopsis expands the eight-segment sentences into eight paragraphs. Each paragraph should stand on its own as a mini-story. You could align each paragraph to a four-act structure; yielding four sentences per paragraph. Only the last paragraph will yield a payoff.

While working on the Synopsis, think of the thematic questions each one raises. You may have developed this during the Plot Summary step. Or, you may bake the thematic question in when circling back to this step.

Plot Treatment

In the Plot Treatment, we expand on the Plot Synopsis by converting each sentence to a paragraph. By this stage, each sentence is likely going to be an actual section in the final project. This is especially true if you are using the “Therefore-But” sentence structure.

Until now, we have likely focused on the Hero’s plotline. While drafting the Treatment, layer in the Hero’s subplot and other POV characters subplot.

Given that each sentence in the Treatment is a section, the size of the Treatment will vary based on the size of the project. Using the 1,250 words per section rule of thumb, an 80,000-word novel comprises 64 sections. This neatly fits into eight sections per segment.

Section Summary

In his assorted books on writing, Chris Fox discusses his productivity via dictation. He introduces the 2-5-10-20 layering approach to story boarding a section.

  • 2 minutes - Dictate the goals for the section
  • 5 minutes - Dictate the major beats for the section (~500 words)
  • 10 minutes - Dictate a draft of the section (~1,000 words)
  • 20 minutes - Dictate a draft of the section (~2,000 words)

The first block sets the goal for the section. The second block lays out the major beats. The third and fourth expand the section through to the first draft. Thus, in one session he goes from section goal to the first draft. He explains that the five-minute block produces a roughly 150-word description, and the 10-minute block about 250.

Randy Ingermanson talks about the scene synopsis, which is a rough paragraph of the major beats. An English paragraph averages between 100 and 200 words. So Chris and Randy agree that you should target a one-paragraph summary of the scene.

If you used the “Therefore-But” paradigm, you have already stated the POV’s section goal and the setback. Use this step to flesh the section out.

If you are going for a 64-section, 80Kw project, the Section Summary step would yield a fairly detailed outline between 7-13Kw.

Character Development

Of the eight steps, four are dedicated to developing a cohesive character–the Story. These steps alternate with the plot maturation steps.

Character Summary

The first step of developing the Story side of the project is to list out the Point of View characters identified in the Plot Summary. We then spend some time fleshing out the plot-relevant details of each character. This is described in Character Development.

Character Synopsis

The Character Synopsis develops from the Plot Synopsis. At this phase, we focus on the character’s version of the story. That is, we write the plot synopsis as viewed by each character.

We should also develop the Character’s Backstory. The Backstory helps us understand the character’s emotional state throughout the project.

Character Treatment

By the time we reach the Character Treatment, we should have a decent understanding of the Plot and the characters. Here we add in the other relevant details of the character that add richness to the project.

Therefore-But-Meanwhile

Except for sections establishing a plotline or concluding one, sections should demonstrate causality. The section’s Viewpoint Character should pursue a specific (SMART-ish) goal. The section should resolve with that character experiencing some setback. This could either be that they failed to obtain their goal, or that the goal was pyrrhic.

Trey Parker, co-creator of South Park, provides the best mechanism to maintain causality, while at the same time ensuring our characters are forced to overcome obstacles: Therefore, But & Meanwhile.

Therefore-But. Each sentence starts with the Viewpoint Character reacting to a previous section’s setback. “Therefore, [Character] [pursues a section goal],…” In each section, there is a new setback. “…but [Someone] prevents them [how].”

Meanwhile. We use “Meanwhile” instead of “Therefore” when we are changing the Viewpoint Character. This allows us to switch off of a plotline when we need to sustain tension or prevent fatigue.

(Therefore/Meanwhile), [Character] [pursues a section goal], but [Someone] [prevents them by].

Applicability. The “Therefore-But-Meanwhile” sentence structure helps when developing plotlines. Use them for the Plot Summary, Synopsis and Treatment. This structure can also be used when outlining a section’s beats.

Action / Reaction Sections

Not all sections are goal related. Some setbacks are significant enough that the character’s next section reacts to it. Action Scenes have a goal, conflict and setback. The “Therefore-But” described above is for an Action scene.

In Reaction Scenes, there is the emotional reaction to the setback. When the character tries to find a goal, they find no clear options and are forced to pick the least-bad option. When writing a Reaction Scene summary sentence, write the emotional reaction as the Therefore. Then, the But phrase involves the two difficult choices the character must make.

(Therefore), [Character] [reacts to the previous disaster], but must choose between [bad choice] and [worse choice].

Conclusion

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