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  • Writer's pictureStuart Wakefield

7 Story Planning Methods That Don't Give a Stuff About Structure

Structure. Bleurgh.

If you're a novelist who just isn't feeling structure, you're definitely not alone. You're ready to dive into the deep end and start planning your novel without structure, but you don't know where to start. Fear not, intrepid writer! I'm here to guide you in the mysterious and wild world of novel planning—and sometimes writing—without traditional structures.

At all.

Let's start with the basics, then ignore them. What is a three act structure, four act structure, or five act structure? Simply put, these are the most common forms of writing structure for novels. They all follow a basic outline of a beginning, middle, and end. The fundamental difference between them is the number of acts.


Now that we've gotten that out of the way, let's move on to planning a novel without this any of this traditional nonsense.

The Bookend Method.

Just wing it!

Well, not quite, but you are winging most of it.

This is the ideal method for writers who don’t want to be tied down with pesky details like plot and characterisation. Simply sketch out the beginning, end, and perhaps some characters, then let your creative juices run wild. Come up with a spectacular climax or take a detour in an unexpected direction—anything goes!

Recommended for writers who are daring enough to throw caution to the wind. I couldn't find who created this method, but it's one I use with my clients during Story Development, albeit without ignoring what comes between the beginning and end. The bookend method can surprisingly effective.

Here are three of examples:

The King's Speech

Beginning - Makes dreadful speech.

End - Makes brilliant speech.

The Fabulous Baker Boys

Beginning - "Will I see you again?" "No."

End - "Will I see you again?" "Maybe."

The Godfather

Beginning - Wedding. Michael is honest with Kay.

End - Funeral. Michael lies to Kay.

John Gardner's Fichtean Curve

The Fichtean Curve focuses on conflict and crises and has three key components: rising action, climax, and falling action.

During the rising action, the story increases in tension by starting quickly with the inciting incident nearly immediately, which is then followed by various crises. This often takes up the first two-thirds of the book. This is similar to the 'in medias res' story structure.

The climax is the height of tension, the point in the story that each crisis has been building toward. This is the largest crisis that the characters face in the story, the tippy-top of the fin.

Falling action consists of the final resolutions that follow the climax. This usually finishes out the last third of the story.

The Fichtean Curve is unique because it is simple and flexible. The unique dorsal fin shape illustrates the progress and tension of the story. While other narrative plotting devices will often have a certain number of steps, such as Dan Harmon’s Story Circle or the Snowflake Method, the Fichtean Curve really allows you freedom in your plotting. The only set rules are that various crises must occur during rising action, which build to the climax, and resolve in the falling action. You can include as many crises as you’d like and can use this simple structure to build out your story any way that you would like.

David Foster Wallace's Five-Draft Method

Get ready to strap in, aspiring writers! The Five-Draft Method is the theme park of writing processes - and you're about to experience its twists and turns.

First up, we've got the Messy Draft. It's a wild ride full of crazy ideas and no structure, so hold on tight!

Then, prepare for the out-of-control reorganization in Draft Two - this baby's all about refining your material and getting your story back on track.

Ready for some serious language polishing? Draft Three's here to smooth out all those rough edges and focus on clarity. And don't forget the beta readers - they're your trustworthy sidekick on this journey.

Draft Four's approaching fast - grab your editing goggles! This draft is all about making final revisions and getting rid of any pesky typos or inconsistencies that may have snuck aboard.

Last but not least, it's time for Draft Five: Proofread & Publish. You're almost ready to release your masterpiece into the world - but first, let's check for formatting issues and make sure everything looks spic and span before launch.

So there you have it, folks! The Five-Draft Method: where revision meets absolutely no structure at all. That said, some writers like to think about structure in the second act, but they're all losers.

The 5-Step Method

The 5-Step Method is the for writing a novel. It's basically like this:

Step 1: Brainstorming and outlining

This is when you come up with your idea and build the framework of your story. Make characters, situations, drama, and plot points in a messy outline that will lead you through the rest.

Step 2: Writing the first draft

Grab your outline and start throwing words on paper. Let your imagination have fun and get all your ideas down. Don't stress about being perfect – just put it out there!

Step 3: Revising and editing

Now that you have a rough draft, it's time to go through it again. This is where you'll add depth to characters, make sure your plot follows logically, and refine everything until you love it. You may need to do several rounds of revisions and edits before it's ready.

Step 4: Beta readers and feedback

After doing any necessary changes yourself, put it into the hands of beta readers. These are people who will read your book and provide honest feedback on what works and what doesn’t. Take their advice so you can make improvements to your story.

Step 5: Publication

Once you've taken everyone’s feedback into consideration, it's time to hit publish. Publish conventionally or self-publish - whatever works best for you! Make sure your book looks fire with good formatting, an awesome cover design, and availability in different formats.

Randy Ingermanson Snowflake Method

What is Randy Ingermanson Snowflake Method for writing a book?

1. One Sentence Summary

Come up with a snarky, one-sentence summary of your novel. Something along the lines of: A nerdy kid goes head-to-head against an evil lord who murdered his parents--Harry Potter #1, J.K. Rowling.

2. Expand The Sentence

Expand this sentence to a paragraph so you can gloat about yourself and your magnum opus. Here’s what it might look like:

My amazing book tells the story of a brave young wizard embarking on a thrilling fight for survival against a malevolent Dark Lord who annihilated his beloved folks. His journey takes him through three intense turning points and when all is said and done, he triumphs in the end, gaining new insight into life’s greatest challenges.

3. Main Character Summary

Take some time to craft one-page summaries for each character, including:

  • A one-sentence summary that really drives home how awesome they are.

  • The character’s motivation (what do they want from life?).

  • The character’s goal (what are they aiming to achieve?).

  • The character’s conflict (who or what stands in their way?).

  • The character’s epiphany (What will they learn at the end?).

And lastly, write a paragraph summarizing their entire narrative arc with sass and pizzaz!

This part should take no less than six hours total - because your characters need to be larger than life.

4. Sentence To A Paragraph

Go back to the summary you wrote in 2 and expand each sentence into a hubristic soliloquy.The Snowflake Method means that you are taking an insignificant idea and inflating it like a balloon until it's too big for anyone to handle.

Randy’s advice here is:

Take several hours and expand each sentence of your summary paragraph into a full paragraph. All but the last paragraph should end in a disaster. The final paragraph should tell how the book ends.

5. Description Of Characters

Next, write a one-page description for each major character, so they can all achieve their martyrdom in their own special way. You will now add depth to your characters…or perhaps pull them off a cliff? Go back to Step 3 and write at least one page for each character, then another twenty just in case. Include as much information as possible, even if it doesn't make sense or relate to anything else in the story. The more obscure details you can include, the more authentic your novel will be (at least according to your own standards). One tip is to tell the story from the viewpoint of each character, because everyone has something to say about crazy things happening in novels. This will allow you to see the chaos from their perspective - probably with some hilarious repartees thrown in - and help iron out any potential issues with motivation (other than the obvious ones which don't require further explanation).

6. Expand Plot Synopsis

Now you need to expand your one-page plot synopsis into a four-page shaggy dog story. Return to the synopsis you write in Step 4 and look for ways to create suspense without making any sense whatsoever. Take each of those paragraphs, throw some random plot points at them, and spread out your chaos over at least one page per point made!

This is the time to mess around with any major plot devices and let fly whatever comes into your mind – no matter how harebrained it seems!

7. Create Character Charts

Expand your character descriptions from 3 into full ‘character charts’. Time to go back to your characters. For each major character, you need to create a 'character chart'. This should be an outline of the character and their lives. You can't have too much detail.

Some things to consider include:

  • Birthdate.

  • Physical description.

  • History.

  • Motivations.

  • Life goals.

8. Create Scene List

Using the expanded synopsis, make a list of every scene you will need to write to complete the novel. You are now in a position to plot out the scenes for your novel. Go back to your expanded synopsis and break the story down into scenes. At this point, you just need to give each scene a one-line description. For example, 'Mad scientist tests time machine'. A scene will normally occur in one location and will see the characters changing or learning something new.

A novel will typically contain between 50 and 100 scenes.

9. Describe Each Scene

Using the scene list, write a multi-paragraph narrative description of each scene. Once you have a list of scenes, you can now write a description for each scene. Include a list of characters and a description of what happens in the scene. These descriptions should be about one paragraph in length.

10. First Draft

You are now ready to write your first draft. Pick a scene and start.

Kenn Adams's Story Spine

If you want to make something truly entertaining, this is the method for you! Disney, Pixar, Lucasfilm - they all use it to ensure all their stories are heated up before they're served to hungry audiences. It's like a basic foundation that keeps those audiences hungry for more no matter how many times they watch the same thing. This is another method I use with client during Story Development. It looks simple, but it's a challenge once you get stuck in.

The 7 steps of great storytelling start with the opening in every fairy tale that we know like the back of our hand:

1. Once Upon a Time…

You don't have to be boring! Give the audience something a little bit spicy. Set the scene; is this story going to take place in a distant past, like medieval times? Your viewers will want to know who your main character is and what kind of situation they're in. Don't give away everything at once though—that would be too easy. Let them get a taste of your plot and leave them wanting more.

2. And Every Day…

With the basics in place, it's time to explore what life looks like for your characters. Take Rocky for instance: He hates his job and knows he'll never get the respect or success he wants if he just keeps punching a clock. This sets up an uncomfortable status quo that only changes when he rises to a dare and shakes things up. Ready for some chaos?

3. Until One day…

The plot thickens! Suddenly, the protagonist's life is turned upside down and everything changes. This fateful event could be exciting, like starting a quest, or it could be damn near catastrophic. Writers call this moment the inciting incident.

4. And Because of This… (Part 1)

In this step, our protagonist leaps into action to make it rain objectives. If this narrative were a play, we'd be in the second act--where the plot thickens and we get ready for the big showdown!

5. And Because of This… (Part 2)

Our hero manages to slip past the hurdle, but this barely marks the beginning of their journey. The next challenge lies ahead — and it's going to be a doozy!

6. Until Finally…

This part of the Story Spine is the wild ride. It's when the craziest twists and turns happen and all bets are off!

7. And Ever Since That Day…

After the thrilling crescendo, this last scene unveils the significance of the narrative to the protagonist, the other characters that stood by them and - of course - the viewers.

Jennie Nash's Inside Outline

The Inside Outline is a dream come true – it's user-friendly, with an obvious aim: tie the external, plot-based events of their story to the internal, emotion-based truths that inform it. All while keeping the Story Spine method's cause-n'-effect trajectory on track.

When novelists talk about outlining, they usually mean plotting out every last detail. It can look like something straight outta NASA, but without any of the fun stuff. Plot grids almost always leave out what really matters in a story – the juicy why and substantial meaning behind it.

The Inside Outline lets you bring these two elements together. Now you don't have to worry about missing out on any of that exciting stuff – or screwing up your whole plot

Writers who refuse to plan ahead think stopping to plot a story will ruin their creative flow. They'd rather just jump in and write like maniacs, without considering the logic or purpose of their stories. The Inside Outline is a simple way for these writers to get the essentials down without totally strangling their creativity and inspiration. Surprisingly, most find the process enjoyable!

It only takes an hour or two to make an Inside Outline - but it could save you years of agony.

The Inside Outline is a snappy little list, where each bullet point details the pivotal plot points of the story (the good stuff). Plus, there's an extra bonus - each entry comes with a second bullet point that explains why it's so darn important to the main character.

Here’s an example from Legally Blonde (the movie script):

Scene: Warner and Elle are seated at a cozy table on the patio. Nervous and excited, Elle sips champagne, convinced Warner’s going to ask her to marry him, but he dumps her instead, saying that he needs to have a girlfriend more “serious” if he’s going to become a senator.

Point: “Just because I’m not a Vanderbilt, suddenly I'm white trash? I did everything I could to make him love me, but it wasn't enough. Now what am I supposed to do?”

Because of that…

Scene: Elle plunges herself into days of self-pity. When her friends persuade her to go to the salon with them, she picks up a society magazine, reading a news article about Warner’s older brother, Putnam, who’s a third-year law student at Yale. He's engaged to the fantastically drab Layne Walker Vanderbilt.

Point: “This is the type of girl Warner wants to marry. This is what I need to become to be taken seriously.”

Because of that…

Scene: Elle’s goes to her school’s career advisor, announcing that she’s going to apply to Harvard Law School. The advisor discourages her, saying that Elle’s major in Fashion Merchandising won’t impress Harvard unless she has glowing recommendations, an outstanding personal essay, and a score of at least 174 on her LSATs.

Point: “I once had to judge a Theta Chi Tighty-Whitey contest. How hard can getting into Harvard be?”

Because of that… and so on.

Try to keep your Inside Outline to two pages, max. Think of the major occurrences in your novel and nothing else. It can be tempting to add all the bells and whistles but resist the urge!

The challenge here is to capture the storyline *and* the emotional core of the story in a way that you can really envision it. And don't worry if it takes more than one run through- just make sure you stick to the two-page limit.

Final Thoughts

So that's it. Seven methods that don't give a stuff about structure!

Have you tried any of them? Are you tempted to try any of them?

I've already mentioned the Story Development method I use with my writers, and that incorporates several of the methods I've just outlined for you.

And guess what? Story Development doesn't give a stuff either. What it does give a stuff about is writing the very best story you can.


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