First Draft, The Craft

Map the Story: How I Translate Nebulous Ideas into Plot

Camp NaNoWriMo July 2021 is here! On the blog this month, I’ll post snippets of my wacky creative process as I work through my new project, an audio drama. More details about it will be released as we move closer to October 2021.

I have this idea, right? It’s about vampires and mystery solving and thrilling, action-packed scenes. I know there is something about a stone? Or maybe a ring? No, wrong franchise. Definitely no love interest but maybe a hint of one in the background…

…and I’ve lost you, haven’t I?

Maybe like me, your stories shine bright in your mind’s eye. You have the images, the music, the climax, and the ending all wrapped in a bow. But when it comes time to actually get that vision onto paper, this glass wall refracts your ideas into something that vaguely resembles them.

It’s a frustratingly-beautiful-pain-in-my-butt process.

First Thing’s First: BrainDump Time

“Maybe if I close my eyes and let the pen move on its own, I’ll finally get the story down on paper.” *10 minutes later* “I’ve made a terrible mistake.”

I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time writing any sort of outline or story map without throwing all the ideas onto paper. Pantsing, as many NaNoWriMo participants define writing their works without any specific plan, just doesn’t work for me.

Enter the brain dump.

No matter how outlandish, no matter how chaotic, no matter how nonsensical it turns out to be, I take about 5-10 minutes to write down all the ideas I have related to the overall story idea. I don’t second-guess the ideas and let them flow from out of me.

I do regular brain dumps, even though they may end up on my phone’s Notes app than in my preferred notebook.

It’s actually from one of those regular brain dumps that we get my audio drama project.

Many writers use some form of braindumping during their creative process. I’m sure many creatives have done it but don’t quote me on that.

The goal of it is to get all those ideas you’ve been daydreaming out of your head so you can play with them in the tangible world.

Let’s Do the Story Map: Wait, There Are Methods?!

“You mean there’s actually a craft and names to things that you do in the writing process? Color me surprised. I was just calling it ‘doing the things’.”

In typical me fashion, I didn’t know there were official words to describe the various methods to map out a story. Shoutout to Writer’s CONduit to cluing me in on the Snowflake Method, and L. Penelope‘s workshop during VirtuousCon introducing me to Story Grid and the subsequent Foolscap Outline. (Seriously, if you’re a writer, you need to get on these people’s mailing lists so ya’ll don’t flounder like I am!)

Let me break these methods down short and sweet for you. (And if you already know them, then I guess you can skip to the end of this article and comment on how oblivious I am.)

Snowflake Method

The Snowflake Method has you start at a one-sentence summary of your story and expand outwards into the details until you end up describing how the soil composition affects the walking pace of your characters’ traveling party. It ends up looking something like the image below.

If you want to learn more about this method, check out Randy Ingermanson’s How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method. Ingermanson breaks it down very well and gives you step-by-step guidance on how to apply it to your own process. Not my preferred method but other writers attest to it.

Try it out and see if it works for you!

Foolscap Method

Instead of starting at your story’s one sentence summary and expanding outwards, the Foolscap Outline, as described by Shawn Coyne of Story Grid fame, has you answer six questions about your story idea. Keep it short, to the point, and don’t overthink it.

What’s the global genre?

What are the conventions and obligatory events for your genre?

What are the point of view and narrative devices you’re using?

What are the objects of desire?

What’s the controlling idea/theme?

What is the Beginning Hook, Middle Build, and Ending Payoff?

Check out the Story Grid 101 book, if not the Story Grid book itself!

My Personal Go-To: The “And-Then” Method

Ah, yes, the “And-Then” Method. It’s classic, simplistic, and the very first steps to creating a cohesive plot. You might have heard of it during your schooling or by osmosis from being in the larger writing community. You start off with your first sentence or beginning action. Then, you start every sentence after that with, “and then,” to connect the parts of the plot.

It ends up being something like:

Long ago, the planet known as Earth exploded into stardust with no survivors except one. And then that survivor somehow survives the vacuum of space to be found by sentient beings exploring the galaxy. And then, they bring the last Earthling to a planet called Lapix Delta-9. And then, this survivor learns that they cannot die…

Sure, it’s not highly-specialized craft but you can use it in conjunction with many other story mapping methods. It helps me stay focus on the story I want to tell to my readers and build out the skeleton from there. I can focus on the whys and characterization later.

I hope this article gave you some ideas on how to translate your own nebulous ideas into the story you’ve been dreaming about. Keep in mind that your creative process may not look the same between projects, but that just adds to the fun (and tears!).

Which method do you use? Have you used any of the methods mentioned in this article? How’d they work for you?

Let us know in the comments below!

What do you think? A topic you want me to cover? Leave a comment below!

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