5 min read

The Architecture of Narrative: Story Planning

The Architecture of Narrative: Story Planning

In the vast landscape of the writing world, there are many paths to the summit of a completed novel. Some writers prefer the winding, serendipitous trail of discovery, letting their story unfold organically with each step. Others choose the more structured route, meticulously mapping out each turn and detour before setting foot on the path. 

While both approaches have merits, there is a compelling case for the power of story planning and the benefits of crafting a solid narrative architecture before laying the first brick of prose.

Come with us as we discuss what goes into story planning and how it allows you to develop a well-rounded story.

The Case for Structure

The debate between "pantsers" and "plotters" is as old as the craft. The former, so named for their propensity to write "by the seat of their pants," argue that too much planning stifles creativity and that the magic of storytelling lies in the spontaneous unfolding of character and plot. The latter counters that a well-constructed outline is not a straitjacket but a scaffold, a structure that supports and enables the creative process rather than constraining it.

And while there is no one-size-fits-all approach to writing, there are compelling reasons to consider the benefits of story planning. A clear outline can save time in the long run, preventing the need for extensive rewrites and revisions. It can also help to ensure narrative coherence and consistency, guiding the writer towards a satisfying and well-crafted conclusion.

The Tools of the Trade

There is no shortage of tools and techniques for those who choose to embrace the power of planning. From simple story planner templates to sophisticated software like Scrivener and Now Novel's own story dashboard, writers have many options for organizing their ideas and narratives.

The key is to find a system that works for you and strikes the right balance between structure and flexibility. Some writers prefer the tactile experience of index cards and cork boards, physically arranging and rearranging scenes and story beats. Others find that digital tools offer a more streamlined and efficient way to manage the complexities of a novel-length work.

Laying the Foundation

Regardless of the specific tools and techniques employed, the story planning process typically begins with clearly articulating the central premise or scenario. This core idea drives the narrative, the "what if" question that sets the story in motion. It might be a simple, one-sentence summary or an elaborate elevator pitch. The key is to distill the essence of the story into a concise and compelling form.

From there, the writer can begin fleshing out the key elements of the narrative, using the "Five W's" as a guide. Who are the main characters? What do they want? Why do they want it? Where and when does the story take place? Answering these questions helps establish the foundation of the story, the basic building blocks upon which the rest of the narrative will be constructed.

Crafting the Cast

One of the most crucial aspects of story planning is developing a strong and compelling cast of characters. These are the beating hearts of the narrative, the vessels through which the story will be told. A well-crafted character is not just a collection of traits and quirks but a fully realized individual with desires, fears, and contradictions.

In the planning stage, it can be helpful to create detailed character profiles, outlining each character's background, motivations, and arc. This does not mean that every aspect of the character must be rigidly defined from the outset. Rather, it provides a starting point, a foundation to build as the story unfolds.

Some writers find it helpful to begin with a "skeleton crew" of main characters, fleshing out secondary and tertiary characters as needed. Others prefer a more complete picture of the cast from the beginning. The key is to balance planning and flexibility, leaving room for characters to grow and evolve as the story progresses.

Orchestrating the Symphony

With the characters in place, the next step is to consider the structure and pacing of the narrative itself. This is where understanding genre conventions and story beats can be invaluable. Each genre has its rhythms and patterns, expectations, and payoffs. A romance novel, for example, will typically feature a "meet cute," a series of obstacles and misunderstandings, and an ultimate reconciliation. A mystery will have its own set of beats, from the initial crime to the gradual unraveling of clues and red herrings.

While adhering slavishly to these conventions is not necessary, awareness of them can help guide the planning process, ensuring that the story hits the right notes at the right moments. A simple outline of key beats—the inciting incident, the midpoint, the climax—can provide a roadmap for the narrative, a sense of direction and purpose.

Iterative Refinement

As the story begins to take shape, it can be helpful to engage in iterative refinement, gradually honing and polishing the narrative through a series of increasingly detailed outlines and synopses. This might begin with a simple one-sentence summary, expanding to a paragraph, a page, and beyond.

Each iteration clarifies and crystallizes the core elements of the story, revealing areas that need further development or refinement. It is a process of discovery as much as creation, a way of uncovering the hidden depths and dimensions of the narrative.

For some writers, this process may involve writing a short story version of the larger work, testing the waters, and exploring the premise's potential. For others, it may mean creating a series of scene cards or a detailed spreadsheet, breaking the story into its components.

The Art of Annotation

As the writing process begins earnestly, the story plan becomes a living document, a guide and companion to the unfolding narrative. But it is not a static blueprint set in stone from the outset. Instead, it is a flexible and adaptable tool that evolves and changes as the story takes on a life of its own.

One powerful technique for managing this evolution is the art of annotation. By leaving comments and notes in the margins of the draft, the writer can track the development of characters and themes, highlight areas that need further exploration, and identify potential inconsistencies or plot holes.

These annotations serve as a form of ongoing conversation between the writer and the work, a way of stepping back from the immersive flow of the prose to consider the larger picture. They remind us that writing is not just an act of creation but also one of reflection and analysis.

The Power of Process

For those who resist the idea of planning and fear that it will stifle their creativity or rob the writing process of its magic, there is still value in considering the power of the process. Even if the story is not planned in advance, there is much to be gained from establishing a regular writing routine, setting achievable goals and milestones, and tracking progress.

This might involve joining a writing group or participating in regular writing sprints, setting aside dedicated time each day to put words on the page. It might mean keeping a chart of daily or weekly word count targets and celebrating each small victory on the path to completion.

The key is finding a process that works for you, balancing structure and spontaneity, planning and discovery. For some, this may mean embracing the full power of story planning crafting detailed outlines and character profiles before beginning to write. For others, it may mean a more organic approach, allowing the story to unfold in its own time and way.

Plan a Well-Crafted Story

Ultimately, the choice between planning and "pantsing" is a deeply personal one, shaped by each writer's unique needs and preferences. There is no one right way to approach storytelling, no singular path to success.

However, there are many rewards for those who embrace the power of planning and see value in the narrative architecture. A well-crafted story plan can be a map, compass, guide, and guardian. It can save time and heartache, ensuring the finished work is as solid and compelling as possible.

So, whether you plan your story in meticulous detail or establish a regular writing routine, remember that the power of the process is yours to harness. The path to a completed novel may be extended and winding, but with the right tools and techniques at your disposal, the summit is always within reach.

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