Plot problems? Plan your story like a party
Shawna Ayoub Ainslie breaks down the process of creating a narrative plot into manageable bites, so you can write the who, what, where, when, why of your story as clearly as you see it in your mind.
Stuck in your story and wondering what happens next? Can’t get your scene and characters out of your mind and onto the page? There’s nothing quite as wonderful as the story that tells itself, and nothing quite as frustrating as the story that won’t come out.
If you find yourself unable to advance a narrative, you can further your plot by treating it like an invitation to a party. Answer these five questions:
Where is the story being told?
The answer to this question is your story’s setting, your party’s venue. Be ready to answer this question with more than a city name. Get specific by showing your reader where they are with concrete and sensory details. Then, move beyond details and consider how your characters will interact with the setting, and how those interactions will further define both. Why is the place important to your story?
When does the story take place?
Night? Day? Past? Present? Future? All of the above? Your when is also part of the story’s setting and will influence the sensory details you choose to include in your narrative. For example, a story set in the American Wild West will be much different than one that takes place entirely in a modern bathroom in Japan. Birds chirping in the morning sound differently than they do at night. Flashing backward and forward in a narrative requires a clear signal to the reader that the time-setting has changed—and you want your invitees to know where they are. Spend some time thinking about how much time you will cover in your piece.
Why are you telling this story?
This is the heart of your plot. The answer to the why question is more than the main event or occasion of the story; it includes the main character(s). If you aren’t sure why this story is being told, consider what would happen to your character(s) if the story went unwritten. What would happen to you, the writer?
Who are you inviting into the story?
This question is not only about who is going to read the story, but also to whom the characters are speaking. Who is the narrator sharing her story with? Is the person older than her or younger? Is she talking to herself or someone else? And yes, who is your audience? Who are you trying to reach or entertain? Knowing who will help you write an authentic narrative.
What does the reader need to bring to the story?
The answer to this need not be “nothing.” It’s okay to let your reader do some of the thinking. The point of this question is to check that you have laid a proper framework for your readers understanding. You’ve invited them into your story; what do they need to know upon arrival? Knowing what you are requesting of the reader can help you fill gaps and remove plot holes as you go forward. You might also consider what you want the reader to take away. Your characters will change during the course of the story, and your reader should, too.
Another benefit of this party-plotting method: invite yourself to respond to these questions with any story (in-progress or published) and you will be able to write a synopsis for query letters or submissions, or simply to understand your own work better.
Will you or have you tried Shawna’s party-invitation method of developing your plot? Share with us in the comments!
Related reading: 5 techniques for accessing your creative flow
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