How I Plot a Story

November 27, 2021

Do you have a couple of scene ideas or the rough concept of a story and want a process to plan out a satisfying story? I like to use Post-Its in a story circle. Here’s my loose formula for getting the ball rolling, for thinking out the key elements.

Step 0: Start the Board

To get things off the ground, check out Padlet with some starting points. Note: The circle moves counter-clockwise. I don’t know why, really… it’s “symbolizing synchronization with mythological time?”

My Example’s Backstory

To model my process, I’ll be discussing a story I’ve kicked around with some of my students. Glave, the app I’m building at school, what if it were alive? What if it were from the future trying to get us to do service hours in order to save humanity? It was a fun goof session.

Step 1: Pick a Theme

In On Writing, Stephen King comes down pretty hard on thinking about themes first. Even if you don’t stick with your theme and pants your way through a story that has nothing to do with your theme, I still think it’s a helpful way to flesh out your rough ideas.

Step 2: Pick a Movie

I don’t want a story that just wanders around. I want to plant the gun, as they say. I want to work towards big ah-ha! moments. The argument that genre is just something bookstores invent to determine where to shelf a book is counterproductive. Genre is real because readers understand mood and tone and form expectations. Figure out what the expectations are for a story like yours.

Step 3: Pick a Character Arc

I’ve said before how much I love when the resolution of the plot has thematic parallelism with the growth of the character. There are so many archetypal characters.

Step 4: Research Notes

Research on behalf of a passion project is so darn rewarding, it surprises me every time. My socks roll up and down every time I find an inspirational nugget.

Step 5: Scene Ideas

Now comes the real fun part! It’s best to do this in conversation. Talk to yourself and kick around story ideas or brainstorm with a friend.

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