A simple method that makes it easier to fill in your blank pages
It may seem like a daunting task to turn a simple idea into a precisely structured outline, with fully developed A- and B-stories, exciting action and funny comedy. And it would be daunting if you tried to start writing your outline from the beginning of the story, straight through to the end. In fact, that’s just how to give yourself a good case of writer’s block, or what I call blank page syndrome. Fortunately, that’s not how stories are written. Writing this way would be like trying to build a house without any blueprints.
Writing a story is very similar to building a house. When you build a house you know you’re going to have bedrooms, bathrooms, a kitchen, garage, and a family room. These are the basic elements of any house. A story has its basic elements as well.
Just as you decide on what rooms you want before you build your house, you work out your story beats before you start writing an outline. A story beat, for our purposes, is simply a short description of what a scene will include. For example, in the opening scene of the original Star Wars movie, a description of the beat might be as simple as “Vader captures the princess while C-3PO and R2 escape.”
This gives the writer enough information to have a conceptual understanding of the scene, which is all one needs to know in order to begin stringing beats together.
It is at the beat stage where your story begins to take form. If you get your beats right, the rest is easy. The beats are where you find your structure, the backbone of the story.
Now, how do we come up with all these story beats? To the novice writer this may sound like an overwhelming question. You look at that blank monitor and the thought of filling screens with meaningful words sends you spinning. There’s an infinity of ideas out there. Where do I start? What do I do?
Relax! The answer is amazingly simple. All you have to do to start the process is ask yourself one question:
“What are the scenes that must be there?”
By answering this question over and over you will discover the basic beats of your story.
One of the things that makes this story development method so easy is that when coming up with scenes you don’t have to worry about the order in which you think of them. While answering the “must” scene question, just write down all of your beats in the order they come to you. Keep them as short as possible so that you can view them at a glance. When you’re done listing the beats, number each one. I use the auto-numbering feature in Word to do this so that the numbers are always in their proper sequence. Then all you have to do is drag-and-drop the beat you think should come first to the top of the list. Find the beat you think should come next and drag it to the second line. Continue this until you’ve got them in the order you think is right.
You’re not done with your beats at this point, but by having them in order you’ll be able to tell what new beats “must” be there in order to connect the beats you have. As you continue this process the most important beats will fall in place. Once you’ve got the basic structure down you can begin to have fun expanding and embellishing your outline.
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