Building the Story

I am a believer in planning one’s novel. That isn’t to say that a more improvisational style is less effective. It is simply what works for me. I follow tangible steps in building a storyline:

  1. Determine the main “Suppose – That is, decide on the one-sentence that outlines what your story will be about. For instance, Suppose, there were an ice age that redefined society, one where there was insufficient arable land to feed all the world’s people.  What would happen when people wanted to exercise their God-given right to reproduce?” This “suppose” defines the main setting, and opens up possibilities to explore when plotting.
  2. Define the main characters, Antagonist and Protagonist– Who are they? What motivates each? What obstacles does the protagonist need to overcome to achieve growth in the story? I tend to define the main supporting cast here (1 or 2) but that isn’t as important.
  3. Think about the Theme – It is hard to define what is meant here. It’s not quite the same as the Suppose, nor is it exactly what the book is about. It is less the answer, than the question. As Pablo Picasso stated, “If there were only one truth, you couldn’t paint a hundred canvases on the same theme.” Or, as another example, Anne Rice defined her theme for Interview with the Vampire: “The whole theme of Interview with the Vampire was Louis’s quest for meaning in a godless world. He searched to find the oldest existing immortal simply to ask, What is the meaning of what we are?”In my new web serial, the theme is survival. The protagonist states: “There is but one way to survive: any way you can.” Her daughter replies, “What’s the point of having a future if no one is civilized?” Those are the only two lines of the story I’ve written, and they serve as the central theme: darkness can only be defeated by light. More about theme in another post.
  4. Fix the Physical Setting – Where and when does the story take place? For Fantasy, exploring the possibilities here can be the most important, and most detailed part of the plot outline. For others, it could be as simple as “a vacation cottage on the New England coast. The only rule I follow here is that when written, it must be vivid enough to allow the reader to “see” the story as it progresses. That being said, much of this is fleshed out after my first draft is complete.
  5. Outline the “Story – Here, I tend to follow the general guidelines outlined by Evan Marshall (The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing), but there are a number of valid methods. Here, the outline is at a fairly high level, mostly defining the main “failure” points, climax, etc. (There is also a Marshall Plan software package for about $149, but I have not used it.)
  6. Complete the Plotting – As I plot in more depth, I define the story flow in more detail, listing the flow of events, as well as define whose Point of View each scene will be in, as well as their motivations, the emotional context, etc.

It is important to note a distinction between plot and story, although they are often used interchangeably. In her book, Writing Fiction: A Guide to the Narrative Craft, Janet Burroway writes:

“A story is a series of events recorded in their chronological order. A plot is a series of events deliberately arranged so as to reveal their dramatic, thematic, and emotional significance.”

Put differently, a story is “what happened next ” whereas a plot is “what, how, and why.” Personally, I find it impossible to finish plotting until I’m finished writing.

So what is needed to start? That depends on you, the writer. I would suggest at a minimum, the “Suppose” and the main characters. If you don’t know who they are, how will you know what they would do? For my post-Apocalypse web serial, I decided the Setting is the part of planning that required the most work. (Even before deciding on the Theme, in this case.) So, given my story begins in the early 22nd  century, I needed to know what life could look like them. In effect, I needed to build the Apocalypse, even though I wouldn’t be writing about it.

Now I know others would beg to differ. One could, for example, cover this in one line: “The world has become nomadic, with small cultures that are a mix of agrarian and high-tech societies.” Being the Planning type, I fleshed this out, using a number of future-cast resources to “Age” the Earth 102 years. By fifteen years out, I was no longer using anyone’s timeline ideas but my own.

The serial had begun.

I think any amount of planning will help your work. My first novel was built on impulse, and most of  the following 5 drafts were spent fixing the plotting issues of the first. For my next WIP, I followed the method I described here, and the book flowed well enough that I felt like a different writer.

I’d love to hear your own experiences, so feel free to chime in below. And, if you happen to be interested in my web serial, I hope you will join in and follow Hard as Roxx. And the timeline, I mentioned? You can read that by clicking on the Roxx link, and clicking the page marked “A History of the 21st Century.”

Yeah, I’m pretty anal.


  1. Hi, I am the exact opposite, I have a rough idea of the subject matter and the main character in mind and then I write what comes into my head at the time.

  2. Rebecca, I think it has to be in-sync with your personality. Spontaneity is important when writing. I try not to go overboard. A lot of times all I’ll have is a goal for the scene: “Charlie and Robin dream of dragons.” That way I have some structure but not too much.

    I wish I could just flow like you without getting lost. 🙂

  3. I think everyone needs to do what feels right and not fight it but learn to do their best and be most efficient in that area. If I plot out a book- or try to- I lose all motivation for the story and want to cry at how boring it is. I just write and let the story flow – I know who the people are and the basic of beginning, middle, and end. About half way through the book I do a very lose outline just to make sure I can get from where I am in the story to the ending. But it has to come together like that.
    I guess I’m just another temperamental artist.

  4. One thing I should have added. A plan is like a path – just because it’s there doesn’t mean you have to follow it.

  5. Dora Hiers says:

    Hey Bill. Great post. I’m totally with you on the planning. Wish I could do it…lol

    I’m organized to the point of making a shopping list that correlates to the aisles in the grocery store, but try to plot a book? Ha! I’d stare at a blank screen until my eyeballs pop. So, I try not to let it bother me and just accept that I’m a pantser. My goal is to give birth to great characters and hook a reader into an opening scene, and let the story flow organically from there.

    Awesome information here.

  6. Yep! You’re definitely anal. ; ) Kudos for knowing what works for you. Good post, by the way. One that struggling writers can refer to and get started.

  7. Sherry Isaac says:

    Waving hello from the campaign!

    I had a similar journey. Writing my first novel, I did not know what I did not know. I’ve become more of a plotter now, in my own fashion. I love order and organization because it pleases the eye, I just don’t like doing it. I don’t want to plot, I want to write!

    See you around the campaign, Bill, and hope to see you on Romance & Beyond.

  8. Mel Corbett says:

    Hi Bill,

    I used to be a pure pantser, but I’ve started ‘plotting’ very loosely by studying story structure. I set out with a rough idea of my characters and my big suppose and I choose my first plot point/inciting incident/whatever-you-call-it. I write to that point, then I decide what the next big point will be. As I go, I try to keep a list of 10 things for my characters to do, but it doesn’t have to stay at ten and the next thing my characters do doesn’t have to be on my list. So long as they reach the next plot point, although having the list of things for them to do (ie romantic faux pas or so and so hits on so and so, or go to the store for y) does tend to keep me from getting stuck.

    Like Alicia if I have a set outline to the end of the book the mystery is gone for me and I lose interest in the story.

    ~ Mel

    1. Mel. That sounds very similar. Although I have a plot, it’s very fluid. I don’t think it should be a trap.

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