resources for story plotting
May 11, 2020 3:29 AM   Subscribe

What are some great online/book/podcast etc resources about plotting a story?

I am an aspiring writer of genre fiction but I seem to flounder at plotting. I like to write scenes but getting scene 1 to lead naturally to scene 2 is very hard for me. I end up making shit up as I go along, which is fine, and fun, but I'd like to learn a bit more about how to create an underlying structure. I know the basic tenets of character and narrative arcs, etc, but I am very bad at actually writing this way.

I realise that structures like the Hero's Journey are considered somewhat reductive but I personally find it really helpful to be able to identify the structures, archetypes and arcs underlying a well-told story. I recently finished watching The Mandalorian which was very satisfying to me because it had very traditional story beats and harked to very basic, primal tropes and it got me re-interested in the whole plotting thing.

What are some great resources that look specifically at creating a plot for your story? My genres of particular interest are romance and adventure, but I'm open to more general resources as well.
posted by unicorn chaser to Writing & Language (9 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
I'm favouriting this as I'm an English teacher, and generally I teach creative writing to 12-14 year olds. I'll give you the advice I can, but I'm keen to see what other mefites share.

I really like this article from Cult of Pedagogy that covers narrative structure- scroll down for a really useful story mapping technique.

I was talking to a friend who's kid had to write a story (primary school) - they had to include a 'pebble, rock and boulder' which I thought was an interesting way of putting problem-complication-climax!
posted by freethefeet at 4:21 AM on May 11

There are a number of books that outline different plot structures. You might want to try searching for the phrase "beat sheets"—there are templates out there including some specific to different genres.

Save the Cat is one that gets mentioned a lot for genre work. It was written about screenplays, but there's also a version of it about novels.

Story Engineering describes a plot structure for genre fiction as well.
posted by synecdoche at 4:57 AM on May 11

Freytag's pyramid (the "plot mountain") and its progeny were intended as descriptive tools of traditional German theatre structure, not as a proscriptive writing aids. They're mostly useful in helping a reader/viewer assess the experience of passing through a narrative, not in helping a creative person break a story. The (now-generalized) language of exposition, inciting incident, rising action, culmination, falling action, resolution or denouement. etc., are too broadly and colloquially applied to use as anything more than rough signposts, or diagnostics in the case of a story that *isn't* working.

Although it comes from a very specific tradition (New-Wave Czech cinema, if I recall correctly), screenwriting teacher Frank Daniel's advice on creating good stories applies to most satisfying literature, and it's pithy:

1 . The story is about somebody with whom we have some empathy.
2 . This somebody wants something very badly.
3 . This something is difficult, but possible to do, get, or achieve.
4 . The story is told for maximum emotional impact and audience participation in the proceedings.
5 . The story must come to a satisfactory ending (which does not necessarily mean a happy ending).

As an aspiring writer, you want to follow your character's narrative through a rough draft without obsessing too much about plot and structure. Forget about arcs and beats and Joseph Campbell and so forth, and just write the story that interests you. All of these ideas work better as (eventual) editorial tools than in-the-moment creative supports.

Somewhat counterintuitively, I find the best way of freeing my mind from plotting/structural obsessions/insecurities during months or years of drafting (when I'm wandering in a story thicket, following a character or thread I've come to resent) is to nail down a solid draft of the story before I actually begin writing. I like to imagine my story in broad strokes (a page? two pages) fitting into any of a bazillion extant dramatic structures that have strong track-records at entertaining readers/audiences. One act, three act, four sequence (TV), five act (Elizabethan), or eight sequence (cinema) structures all work... I'll iterate and reiterate my outline for a long time, until I have something that has a roughly satisfying shape. These plot forms aren't occult, they're not as rigid as they seem, and you don't need to be too fussy with how you adhere to them them - and they're all just a google away. I use them to make sure that my shaggy ball of an idea has some sort of shape... that it?

And then I'll write. Within the first few days I'll veer from the outline, and every few days after that, until the draft is done or given up for good. Whenever I'm stuck, lost, irritable, ... I'll go back to the outline and say 'where was I supposed to be now? When I had an idealized, top-down view of the story? and "correct" my narrative to bring it back in line. This way, even if I've got digressions, dead chapters, non-sequiturs, I know that I'm fulfilling a minimum expectation of narrative form. In other words... I might meander through the thicket, pick some mushrooms and sleep in a blanket of dandelions, but I will definitely make it to the far side of the narrative forest. During future editing, I'll have plenty of time go back and true-up the structure.

tl;dr: any kind of explicit plotting is good as pre-writing, and as a corrective during moments of doubt - but don't feel beholden to any one structure as you're working through a draft. three act/eight sequence or five acts or 60 scenes or something weirder can work.

book rec #1: writing from the inside out - dennis palombo
book rec #2: the courage to write - ralph keyes
book rec #3: from where you dream - robert olen butler
book rec #4: the making of a story - a norton guide to creative writing - alice laplante
posted by mr. remy at 8:03 AM on May 11 [1 favorite]

This is geared toward screenwriting, but should be helpful to you: check out Scriptnotes, ep. 403: How to Write A Movie. You can read the transcript for free, or, if you want to listen to the original podcast, you may have to subscribe to the premium feed for $5/month.

Either way, this refreshing point of view on how to approach story might be helpful to you.
posted by cleverevans at 9:21 AM on May 11

I prefer making it up as I go too, but it's nice to have options. Some resources I've found helpful for plotting are Bickham's Scene and Structure, Kress's Beginnings, Middles & Ends, and the seven-point story structure.
posted by xenization at 9:37 AM on May 11

I'll start with a disclaimer: how-to-write books are like parenting books. You should either read zero of them (and figure it out yourself) or read a dozen (so that you can pick and choose whatever advice speaks to you). Never, ever read just one, because you risk believing the author when they insist they've got the One True Way of doing something that is, in real life, messy and subjective.

That said, I'd include The Art of Dramatic Writing among the many books you read. It's explicitly about playwrighting, but the theory is equally applicable to other forms of writing.

I'd also recommend William Goldman's Adventures In The Screen Trade. It mostly consists of anecdotal accounts of his adventures in Hollywood, but there's one section where he talks you through how he'd adapt one of his short stories into a screenplay, and it's a great demonstration of how a really great plotter looks at story structure.

If you read enough books on story structure, you'll notice that many of them claim to be simply repeating universal truths that were first identified by Aristotle. Most of these writers are lying. Or, perhaps more kindly, they are projecting their own very specific theories onto some vague statement from Aristotle's Poetics. So you should also read Aristotle's Poetics, if only so that you'll know that Aristotle didn't actually say 90% of the stuff that books about story structure claim he did.
posted by yankeefog at 10:30 AM on May 11

If there are contemporary genre authors you enjoy, you should check out their social media for posts about writing. From this rec list, I think Save the Cat! and Story both have an emphasis on structure that you might find useful (the Cat one is a much faster read).
posted by betweenthebars at 1:24 PM on May 11

I am a big big fan of "My Story Can Beat Up Your Story".
I never hear it mentioned along with the usual storytelling or screenwriting suspects, but I really like his take.
posted by Bill Watches Movies Podcast at 2:55 PM on May 11

I am a plotter, not one of those who writes by the seat of their pants. I want to know where I'm going, so structure and plotting are really important to me.

My personal favorite story structure guru is K.M. Weiland, who writes books and runs the website. She is probably deeper into the weeds on story structure than most, but her advice is valuable, her blog is comprehensive, and she's written a number of books on the topic of structure, outlining, theme and characters (she podcasts, too). Bonus: She illustrates a lot of her techniques by looking at movies, because though they are different art forms, they are both storytelling art forms.

Finally, I want to recommend two videos by screenwriter Michael Arndt's (Little Miss Sunshine, Toy Story 2, and others). The best and most comprehensive of the two is ENDINGS: The Good, The Bad and The Insanely Great. Despite the title, the video is a complete analysis what makes Little Miss Sunshine, Star Wars and The Graduate work as stories. His other video, Beginnings, is also good.
posted by lhauser at 5:47 PM on May 11 [1 favorite]

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