Monday, April 2, 2018

Why It's Important to Understand How Stories Work

Stephanie Morrill is the creator of and the author of several young adult novels, including the historical mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street (Blink/HarperCollins). Despite loving cloche hats and drop-waist dresses, Stephanie would have been a terrible flapper because she can’t do the Charleston and looks awful with bobbed hair. She and her near-constant ponytail live in Kansas City with her husband and three kids. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterPinterest, Instagram, and sign up for free books on her author website.

Thank you for all your encouragement last week when I shared that I was pushing my way through to the end of edits! My macro edits for Within These Lines were due on the 28th, and fortunately I turned them in on time. Usually after this many times reading my book, I feel kinda over it, but not this time! For whatever reason, I continue to feel so enthusiastic about this story.

As I looked back on my posts from the last few months, I saw that I skipped a part of my process. I forgot to talk about how I structure my story. Kind of a significant step to skip!

First, a bit about the tumultuous relationship between me and plotting:

As a teen writer, I loved the idea of planning out my novels. I would try to write an outline, but then when I wrote the book, nothing ever went like I thought it would, and I always abandoned my outline after a chapter or two. After several times, I concluded, "Plotting is stupid and it doesn't work for me." So, I decided I just wasn't going to do it.

I declared myself a seat-of-the-pants writer (sometimes called pantsers or discovery writers) in that moment and pressed on. Why waste time planning out books when I just threw the outline away during the drafting process?

The real issue was that I didn't understand how story worked and therefore didn't know how to plan one.

As a pantser, my strategy became to rewrite and revise stories until they eventually worked. Initially, this was fine. That's how I wrote the Skylar Hoyt series and the first Ellie Sweet book. You only learn how to write by writing, and I honed my craft with every draft of those books that I wrote.

But I kept finding myself drawn back to the idea of planning a story beforehand. I knew the way I "pantsed" my novels wasn't very efficient. I also knew that when I finally did get the story to work, I didn't really understand why it worked or how it worked, just that it did.

At first, I read a few books that helped me to understand story structure. If you haven't done
this yet, I highly recommend it. Even if you're committed to being a pantser, understanding story structure is only going to help you. Save the Cat by Blake Snyder and Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell are two books that I've read on the subject and recommend. I also really enjoyed Christopher Vogler and Michael Hauge's The Hero's Two Journey class, which I bought through Audible for an extremely reasonable price. Now it's pretty pricey so maybe check your library to see if they have a copy.

All this studying I did was crazy helpful to me. I wrote a post a few years ago about turning your story idea into a list of key scenes. That post and the scene list I put together for it are a mashup of all the things I learned from my journey of trying to better understand story structure. Here are the posts if you're interested:

Key Scenes List Part One
How To Effectively Test Your Characters
Key Scenes List Part Two
Get the free printables on my author site

That key scenes concept worked for me for several books, but the one I prefer now is from K. M. Weiland's teaching on the subject. The way she talks about character, story structure, and theme just works for my brain. Her series on Structuring Your Novel and Character Arcs were both lifesavers (or "booksavers" in this case) when I got stuck on Within These Lines and couldn't figure out what was wrong with my first draft.

Here are those links for you:

The Secrets of Story Structure
Character Arcs

I love the books too, but you can start with the posts.

These were a present from my husband this Christmas!
So now that you've taken the time to study story structure, what do you do with it?

For me it works best to make this list of scenes that my story needs (doorway of no return, big midpoint scene, dark night of the soul, etc.) and then use the list to brainstorm scene ideas for each of those story beats. For other writers, storyboarding, notecards, or digital corkboards work, so if you're not a lists person, you could try that way too.

I'm not always able to fill in all of the scenes, and I usually don't go in order. Sometimes I know my "Doorway of no return" before I know my "inciting incident" for example.

Once I have my list put together, then I like to create my synopsis. After that, I dive into the first draft.

When I first started trying to plan novels and couldn't do it very effectively, it was because I didn't yet know how to do either very well. Planning a novel is a skill set that's different than actually writing a novel. Both require practice to get better. 

There's no reason you have to learn how to plan your novels, of course. If discovery writing works for you, you certainly don't need to mess with your process.

But if you find yourself interested in learning how to outline your stories better, then I encourage you to embrace the fact that planning a novel is a skill set of it's own. Try out some of those resources above and don't be afraid to practice!

All writers fall on a spectrum, but do you lean more toward outlining your stories ahead of time or discovering them as you write the first draft?


  1. I'm a pretty stubborn Discovery Writer (I can't get over pantser because it sounds horrible), and haven never been good with planning. Still a lot of books 3 and 4 are planned to an extent because I've thought about them for about three years while writing the first two.
    Great post, I should read more about the pros and cons of different styles...

    1. Discovery writer really is a much better term. I didn't start hearing it until the last few years, but I agree that it's better.

      I don't know that this is exactly what you're looking for, but I wrote an article weighing the pros and cons of plotting and not plotting:

  2. I'm definitely an outliner. If I don't have an outline, I find myself getting lost and frustrated in my story. Sometimes I struggle with how detailed to go in outlining, so that's something I'm still learning about myself.

    1. Yes, that's a fun and frustrating part of the learning process! For me, it often depends on the book I'm writing. A historical mystery requires a different level of outlining than a contemporary romance.

  3. Using a conflict chart has changed how I outline/plan for the better. I'm able to see if my story has enough conflict and if it's properly paced. I've always been a planner, but a lot of times my stories would feel flat. Now they're much more exciting and easier to write.

    This post was awesome! I'm glad you were able to finish your edits!

    1. That's wonderful, Sarah. It can be so helpful to see one element of the story in a clear way like that.

      And thank you!

  4. I am a heavy outliner, but the last time I outlined a novel I thought I could get away with having lots of little conflicts (chapter by chapter) instead of having a driving conflict behind the story ... needless to say, it didn't work, and I not only had to re-outline but also re-write the entire book! But I've learned my lesson (I hope)! And the next time I sit down to plan a novel, I'll make sure I have a firm grasp on my overall goal before proceeding! Thanks for this post - I put the book by James Scott Bell on hold at my library!

  5. I'm a discovery writer all the way. I used to try to do outlines, but none of it ever ended up seeming right, and I always wound up jumping to a new idea and starting all over again. I do much better now that I let my intuition lead; if it feels right, then it's probably much better than the outline. My outlining now is just making a list of thoughts in an unspecified order, often furiously scribbled down in the middle of the night so I wouldn't forget them.

  6. OOhh, I've never heard of Discovery writer instead of Panster before! Though I don't mind the term Pantser I really love Discovery... because that's what my stories are all about ;D I must say I'm really not interested in plotting. It just works too well to write like I do. But for my series I'm working on I was forced to do a little plotting just to make sure each book flowed correctly. So, I guess there is a balance :)

  7. I like outlining my story before I write it. Normally, like what you said, I don't follow it at all. It's amazing how you can have a idea (or outline) but while you're writing it totally changes! :D I'm going to look into reading those books. Thank you!

    Lily @

  8. I'm more of a discovery writer, but I am trying to become more of a plotter!