How to use a story grid to build a solid plot (infographic included)

Story Building and Plotting by Tina KonstantIf your story is any more complicated than The Three Bears, then you might, at some point, get into plotting.

For years I was a “Pantster”, until I was told (in no uncertain terms by a very talented editor) that although I was getting better at character, dialogue, descriptions, show-not-tell… my plot was crap.

So I did a lot of reading and landed on this method of story building and plot development that, if you’re working on a novel, you might find useful.

How to use it?

First, build your grid (see below): Along the top put all the main elements of your story – use any structure you like – the one in this example I used for the current version of FF. Down the left column, list as many characters as you want to include.

Then…

  1. Starting with your lead, fill in the boxes. What happens at every stage of the story?
  2. Do the same for the other characters. For instance… if your lead is in deep conversation with with authorities about the bad guy, what exactly is the bad guy doing at that moment? Sitting in the wings waiting her turn? Noooooo, I’d hope not. Include each characters’ story line, even if not all of it will be included in the book. It will give you great context.
  3. When all the squares are full, look at the grid and identify which squares need to be included to weave your complete story. When you get down to writing, you’ll probably find that each box is a chapter.
  4. Pull all the words out of each box, bind them together and before you know it, you’ll have yourself a pretty decent plot and a synopsis you can submit to agents.

A side note…

You don’t have to complete the boxes in order. You might already know the main bits of your story and who plays them out. So fill those in first, then fill in the blanks.

When you look at every characters’ complete story you’ll be surprised what you find. There’ll be all sorts of connections and motivations that you might not of have noticed before.

Happy plotting
Tina

P.S. I can’t remember where I first found this idea. If someone knows, please let me know. I’ll add the reference and credit to this blog.

 

Can you force story ideas?

Can you force story ideas?Sometimes story ideas seem to blossom out of the ether. One moment your mind is wondering about the to-dos of daily life and the next you have an idea for a story that seems complete from beginning to end. Nice. Sweeeeeeeet! 

But what happens when these ideas just aren’t there and it’s been days and weeks and, like an addict, you feel the need for a bit of flash? What do you do?!! Can you force story ideas? Do you wrestle an idea from your imagination like some premature pimple or do you chill, sit back, relax and wait for it to mature and explode fully formed?

A bit of each, I think.

If your head seems void of story words, you need to feed it, fill it up, then switch on the tap and keep it flowing until all the dregs run out and pure water flows.

From my experience, here are a few things to keep the process flowing and story worlds building.

ONE: READ. Dammit! Just READ! Read fiction. Read flash fiction. Read short stories. Read story magazine. Read novels. Read newspapers (another kind of fiction all together).

TWO: Don’t bother about word count. If you get stuck on a short story that feels like it needs to end but you’re only 500 words in, then end it! The right length for a story is as long as it takes to tell. No more, no less.

THREE: Ask questions about what you see around you. It’ll spark story after story…

Examples:

If you want stories to flow, you need to give them something to feed on, then open the lid, switch on the tap, spill the bucket… whatever metaphor works for you, and write. It doesn’t matter if it’s a 140 character twitter story or a novel. A story is a story, no matter how long it takes to tell.

Be awesome folks.
Tina K.

How to get from the real world to a story idea?

How to go from real world to story ideasfind story ideas in the real worldThe short story is a fiction microcosm. A Petri dish where all the elements of a good read, from story idea to the afterglow you get when it stays with you, are present, but in small pieces.

As part of my own exploration into that Petri dish, I’m reading a lot of short stories by some very good writers, including Joanne Harris’s collection, “A Cat, a Hat and a Piece of String.”

Before the start of each short story she writes a short paragraph introducing the story and sometimes describes what inspired it. In many cases, the leap from the real world to the story idea is a big one.

I looked at my own short stories and realised that similarly, many of them bear little resemblance to what inspired them in the first place.

As I let that idea stroll around my head I began to see the “intangible something” that fills that gap between the real world and the story idea. After all that strolling and thinking, I also finally accepted that any time I tried to force the leap from “real world” to “story idea” the story just didn’t work. 

Hence the question: How to get from real world to story idea? What happens in the gap between real life and fiction? Where does the story evolve from? What is that spark that forms the bridge between fact and fiction? Where does it come from?

In the quest for a great story idea, the most elusive of all writing tools, inspiration, clearly plays a part. 

So I did some web research into inspiration. Here are a few views from other people:

ONE: I like this one most… From a blog by Ariel Constantinof: How to find inspiration for writing? Don’t: Ariel says you don’t find it, you make it. It’s not some magic that floats into your head. You seek it out and if it doesn’t happen, just start writing anyway. I agree. I do this a lot. Start with a few words and sometimes an image, and it goes from there. The ending, you’ll find, is as much a surprise to you as your audience.

TWO: Write to Done gives 31 ways to find inspiration, from blogs to people watching. The common factor with most of these suggestions is that you get into the world! Why? Because more often than not the conversations we have with ourselves are nonsense. If you’re looking for inspiration, you need to get out of your own head!

THREE: Another approach is taken by Henri Junttila in his article Inspire to Write. Meditation, silence, quietude. Getting out of your own head by going deeper into it 🙂 Very cool.

To be inspired, you need raw material.

Stephen King’s famous comment on reading, I think, sums it up: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

When all that raw material from a thousand different sources stews and simmers in our minds, the ideas, no matter now disparate merge and a story idea blossoms whether we like it or not.

This blooming happens at the most random of times (in the shower, in a hot tub, walking the dogs, washing dishes…) which is why, perhaps, we think there is some magic behind inspiration. The truth is, if you read and think, explore and converse with the world, then inspiration is inevitable. All those small ideas bind together making it possible to make the leap from carpets to cats.

Make magic today folks.
Tina

Is there a danger in knowing your characters TOO well? (108 Character Development Questions)

Know your characters! But not so much that they don't surprise you anymore.The general advice on character development is to KNOW YOUR CHARACTERS!!!! Know everything about them – their likes, dislikes, fears, nightmares, loves, passions, favourite colour, favourite food, whether they’re a secret chocoholic or a vegan with a burger fetish. Know it ALL!

But as I’m writing the second draft of my novel a few surprises are sneaking in. My character is behaving differently and doing things I don’t expect. I like it. His thoughts, actions and responses make sense. But they’re still unexpected. So, I had to ask, do I not my character well enough?

Then I thought about my very best friends and more important, my husband of 20 years! He still surprises me! Does things I don’t expect. Behaves in ways that make me go “eh!?”. I like that too.

So maybe it’s not realistic to know our characters so well that they can’t surprise us any more. Maybe we should know them just about as well as we know our best friends. That way, when their story takes twists and turns, we don’t have to force a solution, we can leave it to our characters, stand back a little, and see what they’ll do.

Happy writing today. I hope your characters freak you out just a bit!
Tina

P.S. In case you want to go all out, below is a document with 108 questions you can ask your characters (editable .doc and .pdf). If they have any sense, they tell you to stop being nosy and won’t answer you! But it might nudge them out of their cocoons if they’re shy.

– 108 Questions to ask your characters (editable .doc)
– 108 Questions to ask characters (.pdf)

You’re writing a novel, so why bother with short stories?

A short story or two could be the solution to all your writing issues!Whether you’re in the thick of writing your novel, working hard at starting it, stuck in writer’s block or dreaming about your career as an author, you might find some answers in the unlikely lap of a short story or two.

But why take the time (that you probably don’t have) and effort (that’s dwindled to a puddle) to write a short story when every moment of your day is absorbed by either working on or freaking out over your novel???

In no particular order… 11 ways a short story can make you a better writer

ONE: Short stories are quick to write. If you’re stuck on your novel and need a distraction, pick a character and genre you’d never normally write in and blast a story out. You’ll be surprised how many rusted bolts that loosens up.

TWO: Short stories are an amazing way to develop a character. If yours are feeling a little two dimensional, pick an era in their lives (outwith the timeline of your novel) and write a short story about that. It will give you incredible insight into their back story and might reveal a few things about them that you didn’t know.

THREE: If getting your stuff out there seems terrifying, write a dozen short stories (at least) then send them ALL out for sale. Not competition. SALE. You’ll soon feel comfortable sending your work out, writing cover letters, finding the right publications and feeling OK if they say no. Why? Because if they do come back unaccepted, you tweak it and send it out again!

FOUR: Short stories are perfect for developing and experimenting with story worlds. Write a short story titled “A day in the life of a lizard in my story world”. You’ll be surprised what you find out. Most of the time you view your world from character head height. What happens on the street? What do things look like from the ground up? What does your world look like from a totally different angle? If your main characters are very rich, write a short story about someone in your world who is very poor.

FIVE: Use short stories to fix your writing challenges. If you have a problem with good dialogue, write short stories packed with it. If narrative is an issue, write one with narrative only. Whatever your writing weakness, use short stories to work it. Once you’re done, send a few into competitions that offer a review. Get feedback from professionals, rewrite based on the feedback, then send it out for SALE!

SIX: If you can’t think of anything to write, then write a short story that starts with your name. Don’t plan. Don’t think. Just free flow. It won’t take much time and it’ll get things going.

SEVEN: Practice your editing skills. A novel is a mammoth thing to edit. More often than not it takes way longer than we expect, and certainly longer than we’d like! Get better at it. Write short stories, edit them well, then send them out into the world.

EIGHT: When you send your novel out, you’re at the mercy of other people’s schedules. If all you’re doing is waiting to hear back about ONE piece of work, you’re likely to crash and burn when/if you get a no. But if you always have multiple bits of work in the market, getting a no won’t have that much impact on your soul. You’ll have a bunch of other pieces of work out there. So rework what came back, and send it out again.

NINE: They’re fun! There isn’t a huge investment of time. You can write flash fiction if you like. A mere 500 words. When things are getting too serious, look around the space you’re in, pick 3 words and write a story that incorporates them. Make is as crazy and ridiculous as you can. Make yourself laugh! Then, if you like it, edit it and send it out to WORK!

TEN: Short stories allow you to build a great portfolio. One day, when you have a bunch of stories you love, you can gather them all together and publish a compilation. Never a word wasted.

ELEVEN: One of a writer’s fears it the notion of spending years on something that doesn’t go anywhere. A short story will give you a reprieve from that. Spend an hour or two writing it (1500-2000 words) then a week or so to edit and stew, then send it out. Use this little tool to beat your writing fears whether they stem from the quality of your work to judgement of it. Sod it. Put it out there anyway. What’s the worst that can happen? Oh… say it ain’t so… you might actually get really good at it and get result. RESULTS!

There are 11 reasons to write short stories. Any more? Let me know…

Happy writing today!
Tina

Finding your literary soul mate

Find your literary soul mateAs a writer, finding your literary soul mate will most likely be a subject as close to your heart as the blood that runs through it.

There are a few ways you can approach what you write. You can make up a character and invent a bunch of different, varied and brilliant stories. That’s wonderful. Or, you can take the time and make the effort to find your literary soul mate.

Agatha Christie has Miss Marple and Poirot. Jeff Lindsay has Dexter. Lee Child has Jack Reacher. Author Conan Doyle has Sherlock Holmes. Shakespeare has Hamlet (and a few others…).

The difference between these characters and others we forget the moment we read the last words on the page? These ones are genuine. They have depth and a kind of reality and makes us believe the story they’re living no matter how insane.

I’m willing to bet that all the best books you’ve read have characters that you remember. You will most likely not recall all the details of their story, but you’ll remember them. You’ll know their height, their moods, their look, their feel, their smell, their attitude, how they walk, what they eat, what they like, what they don’t like, what they will and won’t do, how far they can be pushed, what their breaking point is and what is likely to happen when they reach it.

As a READER you know these things even if they aren’t explicitly detailed in the books.

The great thing with these literary soul mates is that authors can put them into just about any situation they choose because they’re so well known and understood that their responses, no matter what the crisis, will be true. They never let us down. It’s like the author has stepped out of the way and the character has taken on their own life.

Here’s my thinking on the subject of finding your literary soul mate

There’s a literary soul mate (or more than one if you keep looking) for every dedicated writer. A character that will come back again and again and again. A character that no other author but you can write. It’s a character that feels as much a part of the you as your own liver.

You’ll know when you’ve found your literary soul mate because it feels like coming home. The character makes sense to you. You see them as an entire person, not a list of attributes and pivotal moments. That character will wake you in the morning, shadow you through the day and fall asleep with you at night. Any other character will feel like a cardboard cutout compared. You will love this character and want to spend time with them. You’ll want to put them through hell just to see how they save themselves. For them, you’ll want to be the best writer you can be. They’ll demand it. When your writing stumbles, they’ll tell you you’re being an idiot and get  you back on track. They will take the story over.

The best series are led by literary soul mates. The reader knows that, so they come back for more when the next book comes out.

So how you find your literary soul mate? How do you find the character you want to spend hours and days, months and years of your life with?

STEP ONE: Get out the way.
STEP TWO: Don’t try too hard.
STEP THREE: Shut up.

They’ll speak to you when you’re ready.

Happy hunting.
Tina