I’m starting up a new novel and after doing six books I have realized one thing that I have been doing wrong. I didn’t outline the story the same way I used to do when I wrote movie screenplays. A story is a story even if it’s a book or a movie. I have always been a huge proponent of outlining. I figured this would be useful evergreen information that any writer could use so I thought I would share my list.
1) Making a list of 20 things that could happen. I’m starting here because I think it’s one of the most basic that most people don’t think about it. There is no trick here. You just come up with a bunch of random ideas and try to make a list of 20 things. I use this technique both when I start and also if I feel stuck. I like to make lists of lists. Give it a try. I generally take an hour with a cup of coffee and just come up with ideas.
2) I understand a lot of people feel like a beat sheet is too limiting and using adlibs for writing stifles creativity. I call BS on this. If you can’t do a beat sheet from start to finish you have no business starting to write. All stories are told with beats and every good story I have ever enjoyed had these same beats. A few beats might be slightly different or a little stretch but they served the same purpose. I do the majority of my rewrites using a beat sheet. In fact, I rewrite the beats numerous times during the process. I also add the 5 point finale into my beat sheet so I get 19 beats.
Check out the beat sheet calculator website (this page talks about how to break down the 40 cards)
40 Post Cards
3) This goes back to my movie writing days but I noticed a good novel is about 40 chapters just like a movie generally have 40 main scenes. The best way to do this is to use the postcard technique. This is outlined in detail in the Save The Cat Book. Yeah, I buy into Blake Snyders stuff. The big thing I add here is that every scene or chapter needs a beginning middle and an end.
4) I love character development and I think one key to interesting stories is to have interesting characters. I like to use the hero’s journey to flesh out my characters. It helps to build a character arc. I think a good arc makes for a compelling character. I might be a nerd but I find the wiki on this to be a fun read. I know there are various people associated with this but I like to think of it as Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey.
The Hero’s Journey is a classic story structure that’s shared by stories worldwide. Coined by academic Joseph Campbell in 1949, it refers to a wide-ranging category of tales in which a character ventures out to get what they need, faces conflict, and ultimately triumphs over adversity. (From Reedsy’s Hero’s Journey guide)
Then there is the writers journey version of this.
1. The Ordinary World
2. The Call of Adventure
3. Refusal of the Call
4. Meeting the Mentor
5. Crossing the First Threshold
6. Tests, Allies, Enemies
7. Approach to the Inmost Cave
8. The Ordeal
9. Reward (Seizing the Sword)
10. The Road Back
12. Return with the Elixir
Pixar Storytelling Formula – 22 Elements
5) I’m a grown baby. I love most things Disney and Pixar is generally some of my favorites. They managed to turn storytelling into a formula. So anyone who says beat sheets are too constraining, then I ask, how does Pixar manage to make good movie after good movie. At the time I wrote this blog post the last Pixar film I watched was Onward. I think the title was stupid but it’s a great example oh how Pixar is able to take a lame story and turn it into something magically. I mean that literally, not just that the elves used magic.
I like to write my story out. I mean, go through the process and when I have something tangible that I can tell from beginning to end then I put it through the 22 storytelling elements from Pixar to tear it apart and do a major rewrite.
Check out the nofilmschool summary of the Pixar formula.
One Page Synopsis
6) Honestly in my opinion this is the one tactic that no writer should skip. I don’t care what kind of book you are writing. I think you need to be able to do this well before you start writing any story fiction or non-fiction alike. Many writers don’t like outlining they just want to start writing but if you don’t know where you are going you will get lost many times during the journey. If you can’t write one solid page explaining your story you also won’t be able to write an effective blurb to sell it.
Check out this example using Starwars.
I submitted to the Sundance Writers Lab three years in a row with different story ideas. After all Reservoir Dogs and Fruitville Station and Whiplash got their starts here. Three of my favorite film makers. One task to submit is to write a one page synopsis. They don’t accept the actual script in the first round. Last year I applied without a script in hand. I just wrote the first 5 pages and a one pager. I realized that it’s not only a very important tool but also a skill you will need to succeed.
Mini Movie Method