Story Plotting/Formulas

Each writer has their own way of plotting that works for them, and often they must go on a sort of writer’s journey to find that particular form of planning their stories that just clicks with the voices singing a chorus in their heads. For some, it’s as simple as writing a short synopsis of the story on a couple pages of paper; for others it’s a detailed mathematical process; and for one group down in Louisiana it involves spreadsheets, black magic and sacrificing gummy bears.

If you’re using Scrivener (as any smart writer should) then you already have an amazing tool for plotting and planning your book in their notecard system, but again, you need to know how to use their notecards and other tools in the most efficient ways, so even that isn’t a complete solution. Luckily, you don’t need to re-invent the wheel. Many writers have gone before you, and they’ve shared their secrets for you to pillage and use in finding your outlining style.

Note: Before you look at the sites and videos below, I should mention one more thing. Almost all of these methods ultimately reference a Three Act Structure (or some variation) at some point, so you’d better be familiar with it. It’s not a hard concept (Beginning-Middle-End) but it’s important to understand it to get the best out of your plotting, whether you use it or not.

Now, let’s look at some resources to help your prep your novel!

The Snowflake Method– A systematic method of outlining, this one starts with characters and eventually leads to a spreadsheet list of all of your scenes. (Speaking of which, here’s a Scene List Spreadsheet in Google Drive to use with the article, you can Make a Copy to your own Google Drive, or just plain download it in whatever your Spreadsheet format of choice is.) Here is a video of Randy explaining it.

Russell Blake’s Outlining Method– He uses spreadsheets to plan out his work in detail and has a system for color coding them and keeping the pace up. Rather impressive. This is a hyper-productive author who writes almost a book a month using this method.

Michael Moorcock’s How to Write a Book in 3 Days Method– Is basically a more detailed version of my “Chinese Method“. Moorcock’s approach is to assemble everything you need beforehand, even lists of equipment, characters, places, and random stuff, have a rough outline based on the Lester Dent formula, and then attack your keyboard with the fury of a great typhoon until your book is finished. Fantasy writers should definitely check this one out.

The Lester Dent Master Formula for Pulp Fiction Writing– Meant for short stories/novellas, but still a useful guide to writing adventure stories by one of the true masters of the pulp genre. (He said he never failed to sell a single story using this formula.) I’ve shortened it down to modified checklist you can find here.

The Eight Sequences Method, which is based off of Chris Soth’s “8 Mini Movie Method” and others. In this method (which is intended for movies, but would work for books) you break everything down into 8 sequences and then into 6-8 scenes. Each sequence is a mini-story by itself which fits into the larger whole to form a complete action-packed movie/novel.

Dan Harmon’s Story Circle, which is similar to the above 8 sequence method, but more character driven/focused and thus more flexible. Harmon (creator of the TV show Community, and co-creator of Rick and Morty) does a good job of laying it all out and this is a recommended read. I did my own modified take on Harmon’s Story Circle here, combining it with a method used by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park fame.

Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! is one of the best books on outlining a story in the classic Hollywood movie method you can read. Blake lays it all out, and adds a lot of great details. I personally think this is a book best read after you’ve had a little writing experience so you can really appreciate what he’s saying, but his Story Beats can work for anyone.

In How to Write a Better Screenplay (or Tell a Better Story) Victor Pineiro hybridizes a couple different methods and boils them down into a fairly straightforward movie plotting formula. It’s essentially a variant of Save the Cat! for the most part, but with a dash of a couple other storytelling gurus thrown in for good measure. I think Libby Hawker does it a bit better, and her approach is more geared toward novels.

Libby Hawker’s Take Off Your Pants Method– Libby wrote a whole book about becoming a plotter instead of a pantser, and her methods are pretty impressive. Ultimately I find her to be a variant of Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat story beats, but she has some interesting ideas of her own and this one is highly recommended.

Writing Teacher Dwight V Swain wrote one of the earlier books on how to write a novel which some people have used to great effect. Swain passed away back in 1992, but blogger and writer Karen Woodward wrote up a great summary of his method which she found useful.

25 Ways to Plot, Plan and Prep Your Story– This should be your first stop in trying to find an outlining style that works for you. While irreverent and profanity laden, Chuck Wendig does a great job of laying out the most common methods of story prep. The only flaw with this otherwise beautiful piece is that his descriptions of the methods are pretty bare-bones, so you’re going to have to go looking for more detailed examples in some cases.

Mary Robinette Kowal’s  4-Step Outlining Method- a good straightforward example of how to take a core idea and unfold it until you have a complete story. The example is good, but is a short story, not a novel.

Karen Woodward did a great blog post on different Short Story Structures. She lists four different basic structures you could use when putting together a short story or novella, and you might find them useful in your writing.

Writing Creative Procedural Fiction- How to tell stories about character who are shaping their worlds and building new ones as opposed to going on journeys of self discovery.

How I Plot a Novel in 5 Steps- this is Rachel Aaron’s more detailed approach to outlining she uses for planning her 10,000 word/day writing extravaganzas. A great article for beginners (to plotting) to check out.

How to Create a Plot Outline in 8 Easy Steps- This article outlines a very systematic approach to figuring out what needs to happen in your book and why. It almost takes a mathematical approach to outlining, which may or may not work for you.

The Phase Method– A unique method where you turn your story into a series of mini-beats and write them up in stream-of-consciousness point-form based around key ideas. It sounds weird, but if you’re a more visual or dialogue-based person, or a poet, this might be a method that could work well for you

Classic 12-Chapter Mystery Formula– This site outlines the standard formula used by mystery writers through countless stories in the past century.

The Quintessential Action Adventure Plot Outline lives up to its name, and you will find no more complete outline for writing a pulp adventure, spy story, martial arts story, superhero story, or other action-packed tale than this amazing outline by writer Dixon Kinquade. However, since so much choice can be a little intimidating, I’ve put together a Random Action Adventure Plot Generator based on Dixon’s outline that you might also find useful.

The Subway Method of Mapping Out Your Story- This is a technique for visual thinkers to use that would be helpful during the planning stage. Check the comments of the article for lots of links to software to help you with using the technique.

A Way to Build More Action into Your Writing– An extremely simple method to keep the story moving and interesting while outlining your story, inspired by Trey Parker and Matt Stone.

How to Plan a Scene- A nice video on planning scenes, and it comes with an amazing Scene Planner sheet (in PDF and Scrivener Template format)

Worksheets for Writers– Author Jami Gold curates this page that collects worksheets, spreadsheets and templates based on the plotting and planning advice of Blake Synder, Michael Hague and others. (It even has a specific Romance planning Beat Sheet if you want to write a romance novel.)

Scapple– The creators of Scrivener have also created this extremely intuitive mind-mapping software for those of you who are more visual planners. It’s got a free trial, and if you want to take a more visual approach this might help you a lot! (There’s other similar free programs called Freemind  and XMind you might check out as well.)

Speaking of Mind Mapping, I’ve found two noteworthy approaches to using mind mapping to plan stories. Paul Donovan Campos‘ method and this one from No Wasted Ink. I should note that most mind-mapping methods are more brainstorming and less about organizing, but the No Wasted Ink approach is a step by step one for putting together a solid book foundation.

PIXAR’s 22 Rules of Storytelling– is a collection of 22 “rules” that Pixar storyboard Artist Emma Coats picked up during her time there and which are good for any writer to consider and think about as they’re writing. It’s not so much a system for planning and plotting as a collection of things to help you write.