Streamline Your Writing: Know What Happens Next

Stressed WriterFinding time to write is a constant challenge, one that I know I don’t face alone as a storyteller. How do we produce books in a timely manner with the demands of work and family always pulling on us?

It feels like you only have two choices, give up writing or labor constantly until you fall over from exhaustion. I’ve tried both (and continue to wrestle with the last option) and neither one is a viable choice.

Luckily, there’s a third way: streamline your process as much as you can. One of the first steps in doing that is to create a solid story outline.

CREATING A STORY OUTLINE

I know, I know — yuck! Takes all the fun out of it. Where are the surprises if you know what’s going to happen?

Um…if you want surprises, READ a book. If you want to write a book in the most efficient way possible, ya gotta know where you’re going and how you’re going to get there.

Figure out your main scenes

The average scene is 10 pages. Therefore, a 300 page book has about 30 scenes. Mapping out the gist of each scene is advisable, but at the minimum, you have to know the answers to these main plot point/scene questions:

Shrek stops weddingWhat’s the big problem that must be solved? The big problem is the challenge the protagonist faces at the crisis point (and throughout the story as it leads up to the crisis point). The big bad of the book. For example, stop the wedding, catch the murderer, defeat the alien.

What’s the event that solves this problem? This is the big moment, the make-or-break confrontation between protagonist and his or her problem. For example, the hero humbles himself and declares his love, the protagonist outsmarts and catches the murderer, the alien is shot out into space.

What’s the moment when all seems lost? (This is right before the protagonist must remake himself to win.) For example, the girl picks the other guy, the next victim is about to die, the alien’s killed everyone on board but the protagonist.

Alien hatches

What happens when everything changes and gets turned on its head? For example, the hero realizes he’s in love with a girl who’s engaged to another guy, the protagonist discovers that his best friend is the killer, a baby alien bursts out of the stomach of a presumed-dead crew member.

What’s the scene that launches the story toward the big problem? For example, the hero stops a mugging and meets the girl of his dreams, the protagonist is accused of a murder he didn’t commit, a spaceship crew lands on a strange planet and one member investigates an alien egg a little too closely.

What event starts the story off with a bang? For example, the hero gets fired and goes to a seedy bar to drown his sorrows, the protagonist goes out with his buddies and wakes up in a hotel with a dead girl next to him, a spaceship crew arrives at the planet they’ve been sent to investigate.

Raise your hand if you noticed that I laid these scenes out backwards. Yay! Gold star. Creating your plot backwards is the key to curing story plotting angst.

Compose the flow of your story backwards

We read start to finish, so our tendency as writers is to plot the same way. Plotting backwards streamlines the creation of your story like you wouldn’t believe. It feels a little weird at first, but give it a try for yourself and you’ll see what I mean.

For example, your backwards pattern might go something like this:

Ok (you say to yourself), my hero has to catch the murderer. The next victim is his sister. He realizes the killer is his best friend when he goes to the friend’s house and finds pictures of the previously murdered women in a file plus information on an old embezzlement case. He seeks out his friend for help when he discovers that the first two victims and his sister were connected in an embezzlement case from five years ago. Acting as his lawyer, his best friend gets him out of jail when the cops arrest him on suspicion of murder. The protagonist is arrested when he wakes up in a fancy hotel room with a dead girl next to him. He goes out with some buddies to celebrate his best friend’s promotion in his law firm.

By doing it backwards, each scene hooks into the event that caused it. In about ten minutes I constructed this basic story from scratch with each turning point leading from the one before it.

Next, let’s rearrange these rough scenes so that you can see how the story comes together after initially plotting backwards. Notice how more and more details naturally come out now that you know how your story ends and how you got there.

The protagonist goes out with a group of guys to wildly celebrate his best friend’s promotion at a law firm. He wakes up the next morning in a hotel room with the body of a young woman next to him. He runs, but is arrested hours later. His best friend shows up at the precinct acting as his lawyer and gets him out on bail. The next weekend, the hero’s friend calls to tell him that another girl has been killed. The cops are on the way, and he needs to get out of there. 

As he dodges capture, the hero investigates the lives of the murdered girls and discovers they were both represented by his friend’s firm in an embezzlement case along with our hero’s sister. Fearing for her life, the hero takes the information and seeks help from his friend. At the friend’s house, he discovers evidence that his friend is the murderer. When the hero can’t reach his sister, he outs himself as the murderer to the cops to lure them after him as he tries to get to his sister before his friend does.

Dirty HarryWhen the cops catch him, he knows he’ll be too late. In desperation, he disarms an officer and escapes to make one last, dangerous attempt to save his sister’s life. In a final confrontation, he outsmarts his friend and frees her, only to have to kill his friend to save his own life. His sister clears his name with the cops and fingers the law firm as the bad guy behind the bad guy. Our hero gets a significant monetary reward from the monstrous company victimized by the embezzlement, buys a small yacht that he names for the childhood nickname of his friend, and cruises off to live the dream they had to someday sail around the world.

From there, you can work with the simple format, fiddle with the parts, elaborate with details, or expand your outline to describe each scene as it leads to the next (about 30 of them). Either way, by using this technique you’ll be able to create a basic story from scratch in about thirty minutes that tells you where you’re going with your story and gives you a grasp of how you’re going to get there.

Give it a try and share your results in the comment section!

3 thoughts on “Streamline Your Writing: Know What Happens Next

  1. Sharon Moore

    Well, how brilliant is that to work backwards??? I do the ten key scenes thing and then id scenes leading to those and from those, but I never thought to start at the end. Thanks, Judy. I’m going to give it a go! I am so stuck and facing a deadline and thus paralyzed and . . . and . . . and . . . Well, you know what I mean! Thanks for sharing this.

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