Brainstorming

How do you come up with new story ideas? How do you brainstorm? How do you take a small idea and develop it into a big one?

New writers often fall into one of two categories. The first group has tons of ideas but isn’t sure how to actually write them. Often these stories have amazing concepts but need help on execution. If you’re in that group, we have a lot of articles on this site about writing fundamentals and story planning that can help you turn your great idea into a great story.

Other new writers find themselves in the opposite situation: they have good fundamentals, but they feel like they don’t have any ideas. Often these people see themselves as more “logical” or “mathematical” in nature and even might say “I’m just not a creative person.”

To that I say, baloney! Everyone is born creative, but for many of us, creativity was squelched by parents or teachers trying to rein in their children. Creativity can be learned and it can be improved with practice.

Even if you have an autism spectrum disorder, you can be creative. In fact, there are many successful writers today with those disorders, and many famous authors of the past had behaviors matching those that are common in ASDs.

So, step one is to let go of any negative views of your own creativity and say “Anyone can be creative.”

Sources for ideas

Before we start, I want to highlight two important things about brainstorming:

#1 – Write down your ideas! Use a note-taking app on your phone (I use Google Keep), carry around a notepad, just carry a pen and write them on your arm—whatever it takes. Keep it by your bedside table too, in case you get any good dreams.

#2 – Ask questions! A lot of brainstorming is about asking those six big questions you learned about as a kid: who, what, where, when, why, how? If you get stuck when developing an idea, ask yourself those six questions.

Okay, let’s get to it. Where do you get your ideas?

Dreams

Dreams are one of the easiest ways to unlock your creative potential, especially for people who struggle with idea generation. For me, this is the primary source of my story ideas. When I’m ready to write a new story, I just take a look at my dream journal.

“But I never remember my dreams!”

That’s okay. Remembering your dreams is a skill that takes some practice, like anything else. The best way is to keep your idea journal, notepad, or phone right next to your bed, and write down whatever you can remember as soon as you wake up.

The more you do it, the easier it will get. If you can’t remember anything, just write down, “I didn’t remember my dreams, but I will tomorrow.”

If you wake up at night from a dream, resist the urge to roll over and go back to sleep. Write it down, even if it’s just a few words. Otherwise, you will forget it, even if you think you won’t. That’s just the way dreams are.

“But my dreams make no sense!”

That’s okay. You don’t usually mine your dreams for stories, you mine them for ideas. In your dreams, you’ll probably find them as more of a series of emotionally-resonant images (also called a dream sequence) rather than something that has a sensible plot.

Your goal is to take one or more of those charged images and develop it into a story.

Dream Idea Development

A few nights ago, I had a dream that I was riding my bike through the woods and magma was erupting from the earth’s surface. That one emotionally charged image was all I was able to gather from it. But it’s a powerful image, and the emotion I felt was that “I have somewhere important to be, but oh no, lava!”

Let’s develop that idea by asking some questions about it:

  • Who? Well, who would be riding a bike in the woods? A mountain biker, for one, let’s say a young, fit guy with a mountain bike.
  • Why? Why do people go mountain biking? Exercise, or to go hunting, fishing, study nature. Let’s pick one and say he’s was looking for rare birds to catalogue.
  • What? What happens? A volcanic lava eruption.
  • How? How did lava start erupting? Here we can decide if we want a rational explanation (a volcano is about to blow, natural disaster imminent), or something more magical, like lava people coming from the center of the earth, or something science-fictiony like aliens melting the earth with a giant laser.
  • Where? Somewhere with volcanic possibilities. Let’s say Colorado, USA.
  • When? It has to be after the invention of the bicycle, but let’s say the 1980s for fun.

So, by asking some questions that lead to logical answers, you can develop a charged image into a story idea with a Character, a Plot, and a Setting. Note that Who and Why are usually character questions, What and How are usually plot questions, and Where and When are usually setting questions.

CharacterWho
Why
A mountain biker guy
He’s looking for rare birds
PlotWhat
How
A volcanic eruption
Magic lava people coming up
SettingWhere
When
Colorado, USA
1980s

There you go, now you have the bones of a story. To develop the character further, you could just follow the logic. A young guy is looking for rare birds. Who would do that? Probably a high school or college student working on a project. Maybe a nerd who’s into bird watching.

What about the magic lava people? Well, a plot is about conflict, and we’ve got two sides here: the lava people and the humans. Let’s go big and say the lava people want to destroy humanity, and humans don’t want to be destroyed. You just keep asking questions like “why?” Well, why would they want to do that? Maybe the lava people are overpopulated and need more space, so they need to usher in a new era of volcanic activity. “How?” They need the secrets of human atomic bombs so they build and detonate them to trigger a worldwide eruption. And so on, until you have an entire plot outlined—see the outlining article if you want to learn how to develop basic story ideas into full-length outlines.

Doing this back and forth Q&A, over and over again, is how you develop ideas. It may seem like it’s difficult, but it’s a skill like anything else: the more you practice, the easier it gets. Remember, this isn’t some magical, touchy-feely mumbo-jumbo, it’s just using logical Q&A. If you don’t like your first answer, try to come up with alternate possibilities, just like a detective exploring different ways the crime could have played out.

Shower thoughts

Shower thoughts are those ideas you have when you’ve unplugged your brain from distractions and let it wander. In the shower, the sound of the water overwhelms your ears, the smells of soap overwhelm your nose, and you usually shut your eyes so you don’t have any visual distractions either. It’s about as close as you can get to a sensory deprivation tank.

Without the distractions of sensory inputs, your brain’s processing power is freed up, which is why many people say they have their best ideas in the shower, lying in bed trying to fall asleep, meditating, or on a long walk by themselves.

Whatever it is, if you give yourself time to think without distractions, it will help your mind wander and come up with ideas. In the modern world of smartphones, 24-hour news, and instant access to all kinds of social media, it’s hard to find time to turn off all the distractions, and you might find that when you do, you suddenly are full of ideas when you never had any before.

These sensory-deprivation times are also great for thinking about story problems in your partly-written manuscript. I find that most of my big epiphanies come when I’m mulling over the story in the shower or on a long walk. Suddenly, an easy answer to that unsolvable plot problem just appears.

Again, just make sure to write those ideas down! Like dreams, these shower thoughts often evaporate when your brain gets busy again. Bring your notepad on your long walk (leave the phone at home) and for the shower, you can get a bathtub writing set, which they sell for kids to write while playing in the tub.

Stories from real life

My favorite novel is The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. According to Dumas, he based the villains of the novel on a case taken from the archives of the Paris police department. Likewise, Dumas also took much of the Count’s personal story from that of his own father, which is described in the 2012 book The Black Count.

However, there are key differences: Dumas gave the book a happy ending, unlike the story of his own father, and he also let the killer (the count) get away with his revenge plot, while the real killer did not. If you are writing books that are tragedies, there are plenty of real life examples, but if you want to sell the books to a large audience, they probably should have happy endings.

Of course, you may run into some legal trouble if you take ideas wholesale from the news or other people’s lives. If you’re writing for fun, that’s fine, but if you get a story published and someone recognizes themselves in the book, they could potentially sue you for defamation.

The best approach to staying out of legal trouble is to (1) never use the same or similar names as those of real people, and (2) change enough details so the story isn’t easily recognizable.

Now that you know how not to plagiarize, here are a few places to go:

One brainstorming game writers often play is that one person gathers a bunch of news headlines and pitches them to the group. Together, they try to come up with a story idea based on the headline. Often, this is done through Q&A thinking, as above, or through free association. Give it a try!

Free association

Free association uses randomness to generate the seeds of a story idea. The classic example is a therapist having someone look at inkblots and say the first word that comes to mind. You can try this with a friend (have them say words or show you pictures) or you can also use other randomizing tools, such as opening a random page in the dictionary ten times and dropping your finger on a random word. Write the words down and try to turn them into a story. You can also use an online dictionary.

You can also search for images online in a Google image search based on some element of the story, such as “fantasy art” or “vienna 1800s” or “mountain climbers” and then pick an image you like and start the Q&A process to figure out a plot, characters, and setting that can be derived from that image (or group of images!).

In our Discord server, we have a bot with a large database of writing prompts, image prompts, book title generators, character name generators, and the like. There are also number of “book title generators“, “writing prompt generators“, and “character biography generators” online (try these links or google the phrases).

Using these elements of randomness isn’t cheating, it’s just a way to get new ideas. Eventually an AI will be writing all novels for $0.99 based on your inputs (“Alexa, write me a novel…”) so you might as well take advantage of it now.

Modify an existing story

The three core parts of story are characters, plot, and setting.

If you take an existing story and swap one or two of those items out, what do you get? A new story idea.

The Little Mermaid is a Disney romance movie about a mermaid who wants to become human, so she sells her soul to Ursula, a villainous octopus lady, in exchange for her voice. When she goes on land, she is mute but somehow falls in love with a handsome prince.

CharactersA mermaid, a prince, a villainous octopus lady
PlotRomance
SettingPre-industrial fishing town

First, let’s change it out the characters with some from The Sword in the Stone, a medieval Disney movie about King Arthur and wizards.

CharactersA wizard, an evil witch, and the future King Arthur
PlotRomance
SettingPre-industrial fishing town

Now you’ve got a bit of a different story. It’s no longer about fish and mermaids, it’s a romance about a wizard and witch who start out enemies and fall in love while they groom the future King together as if he’s their own kid. Since this is set in a Little Mermaid-style fishing town, maybe he’s the future king of Britain. Would anyone recognize the source material as those two movies? As long as you changed the names, probably not.

Now let’s change the plot instead.

CharactersA mermaid, a prince, the villainous octopus lady
PlotA war/history story
SettingPre-industrial fishing town

Now we’ve got a very different tale. A war—between who? There are essentially three factions in The Little Mermaid: the humans, the king of the sea (good guys), and Ursula’s underworld (bad guys).

So maybe the war is between the underworld and the king of the sea. The King needs to ask humans for help, using magical spells to allow them to breathe underwater and fight the evil forces.

Sound too much like Little Mermaid fan fiction? Maybe the war is because the humans have been hunting mer-people for a new meat source (a rare delicacy), and the king of the sea must ally with the evil underworld to turn the humans back, but at a great cost. The novel is primarily written from the King’s point of view, alternating with that of his daughter, who has fallen in love with a human who has a rare (possibly magical) ability to breathe underwater.

Would people recognize that as based on The Little Mermaid? As long as you changed the names and types of the characters, probably not.

Finally, let’s change the setting.

CharactersA mermaid, a prince, a villainous octopus lady
PlotRomance
SettingA human colony on an alien world

Here we’re going to reuse some characters and the basic plot archetype, but instead put it somewhere entirely different. Let’s make the colonist the “mermaid” of the story—someone who can breathe air when all of the natives live in water that’s toxic to humans. The colonist makes a deal with a villainous alien (a third race) to get a suit that lets her swim in the toxic water, but it has no speaking system. The colonist then falls in love with a native prince, and together they must defeat the villainous aliens.

Doesn’t sound like The Little Mermaid that much, does it? This is why “retellings” of old stories are so popular. Simply change the setting and it can become almost unrecognizable to all but the most astute observers.

The reason I used Disney movies here is that they are very good at retellings of old stories—primarily because the stories resonate, but also because they don’t have to pay royalties to an author. For example, if you take Hamlet and change the characters to African animals, you’ve got yourself The Lion King.

Retell old stories

As in the previous example (turning Hamlet into The Lion King) another great way to find story ideas is to copy something (public domain) from the past. These “retellings” are very popular. For example, Romeo and Juliet has been retold in movies and fiction countless times, as have most fables, children’s stories, and bible stories.

Obviously, you don’t want to copy something that’s already published and isn’t in the public domain, but there’s nothing wrong with taking an old story and retelling it, making changes to character, plot, and setting as you need to. If you go to a Christian bookstore, and open a few random books, I bet you’ll find most of the plots are based on one or more bible stories, but told in the modern era.

Another example: Agatha Christie took the detective formula from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock series, even down to the sidekick narrator, and made a few tweaks to it to create her famous Poirot detective series. Note that she didn’t steal the characters or the plots or the settings, but she copied the formula of the story: an oddball detective solves crimes that baffle police with the help of a less-skillful assistant/narrator who essentially acts as a stand-in for the reader.

Combine the old and new

You may know the saying “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.” Keep this in mind when writing (well, maybe not something blue). A lot of successful stories are essentially combinations of an familiar idea with a new one, often borrowing from both. Here are a few examples taken from real life.

  • Old idea: Shakespeare’s Hamlet
  • New idea: African safari
  • Result: Disney’s The Lion King
  • Old idea: The fall of the Roman empire
  • New idea: Space travel
  • Result: Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series
  • Old idea: Biography of Alexander Hamilton
  • New idea: Hip-hop music
  • Result: The Broadway show Hamilton
  • Old idea: A Pride and Prejudic style romance
  • New idea: Magic
  • Result: Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Glamourist Histories.
  • Old idea: Oceans 11 style heist story
  • New idea: Magic
  • Result: Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn

A lot of great books, movies, plays, and games can be thought of this way: a combination of something familiar with something new. The familiar component makes people feel comfortable; the new component keeps them interested.

How do you come up with the “old” and “new” item? There are a lot of ways, but one is to make a list of your favorite books, and then make a list of your favorite movies. Then pick one from each list and combine them into something new. Another is to use a list of genres (“fantasy”, “romance”, etc.) and a list of character archetypes or story archetypes. Or, combine one of those lists with your lists of movies, books, or plays.

Work with a group

Brainstorming with a group is often the best way to develop a story, but it can also be time-consuming. We do a lot of story brainstorming on our Discord server, so click the link at the top to join if that interests you. In addition to text chat, brainstorming with other writers in person or by video/phone can also be a great way to develop a story.

In general, the process is that one writer pitches a bare bones idea and the other people ask questions (the whole Q&A thing again) and discuss possible answers.

To get the idea of a group dynamic for brainstorming, give a listen to the Writing Excuses Podcast episodes on the subject.

Closing Thoughts

A writing concept you may hear is that ideas are cheap. What this means is that ideas are easy to come by, but few people do the work to turn a story idea into an actual piece of writing. This may not seem like the truth, especially if you’re struggling with idea generation, but hear me out.

As you learn to recognize story ideas, you’ll come up with a lot—probably more than you can even write in a lifetime. Some of these will be vague concepts, like “cyberpunk version of Tale of Two Cities” and others might be fully-fleshed out with stacks of notes. But odds are, someone else has had a similar idea, maybe dozens of other people. The difference for you is that you’re going to write it, and all those other people aren’t.

Some new writers guard their ideas jealously, refusing to even discuss them without making someone sign a non-disclosure agreement. In most writing circles, this is just going to get you laughed at. If your idea is so great, why do you need to discuss it with anyone—it’s already perfect. Just get to writing it already.

Another common concern is: this idea is so good that I’ve got to save it for later, when I’m a better writer. I would recommend not doing that. You can always come up with new ideas, and as you become a better writer, they will likely be better ideas. What seems like a great concept when you’re 14 ends up looking pretty silly when you’re 24 and even sillier when you’re 34. Worst case, if you still love the idea, you can edit your original draft or re-write it. But for now, write the story you are passionate about! Write it now! You may not get a chance later.

Outlining

What is outlining? It’s planning your story. You might do this at the beginning, before writing anything—so-called “outliners” or “plotters.” Or maybe you outline at the end, after writing a draft and starting to revise it—so-called “discovery writers” or “pantsers.” Either way, you’ll need to do it.

“I don’t need to outline, ever,” you say. Maybe so, but unless you have the deep, innate understanding of story like a grand-master fiction writer (for example, Stephen King, who doesn’t outline), the first draft of what you write will probably not be very fun to read. Outlining is important because it makes our stories better, whether you do it before writing the first draft, or after.

Part I: Basic Outlining

Outlining is about organizing your story’s plot, characters, and setting. Imagine a story with zero structure: there’s no coherent plot conflict, the characters randomly do things or don’t, and the setting jumps from place to place. This is what most dreams are like, and you know how boring it is to listen to someone talk about what they dreamed last night—unless it was about you!

In short: a story needs structure, because without it, you don’t really have a story. You may have something, but a story is not what it is. The three primary pieces of structure are plot, character, and setting, so let’s start with plot.

Plot I

What is a plot? It’s a series of events in a story, usually organized into scenes, that describe a conflict and the result. Two opposing sides have two opposing goals. There is conflict between them, and then the conflict comes to an end, usually with one side winning. Almost any story worth its salt can be broken down this way. Take a moment to think about some of your favorite books and movies. Who represents each side? Who is the hero (protagonist)? Who is the villain (antagonist)? What are they in conflict about?

Here’s a few examples:

  • Toy Story is about a group of old toys (protagonists) in conflict with a new toy (first antagonist, Buzz Lightyear) and then the evil kid next door (second antagonist). After numerous conflicts, the old toys defeat the evil kid and the new toy is integrated into the group of toys (resolution of the two conflicts).
  • The Shawshank Redemption is about two prisoners (protagonists) in conflict with the prison system, its employees, and other prisoners (the antagonists). They are assisted and hindered by many other characters, and eventually they escape (resolution of the conflict).
  • Brokeback Mountain is a tragedy about two lovers (protagonists) in conflict with each other (about their relationship) and with the world (that dislikes their homosexuality) and with their wives (who they never truly love). The conflict between the protagonists and the antagonists is resolved tragically in all three cases: the lovers can’t be together, “the world” kills one of them, and they have strained-at-best relationships with their families.

What about inner conflict? Indeed, a protagonist can be their own antagonist, and that can be a good character arc. But if that’s the only conflict in the story, it’s going to be one-dimensional, and you will probably end up with a wishy-washy, navel-gazing protagonist that’s not that fun to read about. Most great stories, like the ones above, have layers of external and internal conflict, or put another way, multiple story arcs and character arcs within a single story.

As an exercise, take your story and write up a short paragraph about the central conflict like the ones above, so you’ve got at least a basic plot idea, some characters, and a setting. If you are an extreme discovery writer, you can start writing from that alone. If not, the next step is to add some detail to those characters.

Characters I

Stories have characters, and in modern commercial fiction, they have at least one compelling protagonist character that shows, to quote James Scott Bell, “strength of will against death stakes.” The stakes for that character may be literal death or a metaphorical death like loss of a loved one, career, or self-identity. A traditional protagonist typically is at least somewhat optimistic and hopeful about the future, and is action-oriented, meaning that they don’t do too much moping, waffling or navel-gazing. Can you have point-of-view characters who aren’t? Sure! George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones is full of these characters. Just make sure you have at least one character that the readers can root for—that’s your protagonist.

The other big character will probably be one or more antagonists. These characters should have goals that are opposite to those of the protagonist. Like the protagonist(s), they should have motivations for those goals that make sense and should be the hero of their own story. In some cases, your antagonist may be an environment (e.g. a harsh desert or a strange planet) but ideally this environment will drive other characters to act against the hero’s goals (stealing his water, attacking him for being an invading alien).

Now you’ve got characters representing the two sides of a conflict, and a good idea of their goals, their motivation/stakes that drive them to achieve those goals, and who they are (a basic backstory that helps you build their point-of-view/voice). There may be many other characters along the way, such as mentors and team members, a third faction that opposes both the hero and the villain (e.g. the police or government), and many other one-dimensional characters that are necessary for the plot. Make a list of all of these characters, and write down the details that you now have.

Setting I

Now you’ve got a basic plot and some character sketches. What’s the setting? Present day? 1840s London? The moons of Jupiter? A haunted temple that only exists in the dreams of Vishnu? All four of these places? Whatever it is, flesh it out with some notes on the setting(s).

Figure out how your characters interact with the setting. Is it unimportant, such as if the entire story takes place in a contemporary apartment? Or is the setting crucial, such as if the story is set in a fantasy world of your own making, where numerous world elements are involved in the plot. If you’re writing a historical, fantasy, or speculative/sci-fi setting, you may have to do some research to figure out how your important setting will interact with your plot and characters.

When you’re researching and planning your setting (often called “world-building”) beware of “world-builders disease,” which is when people become engrossed in research and world-building and end up not actually writing a story.

To avoid this, focus on plot questions you need answers to and then only research those. Unless something is a major plot element (e.g., the whole story takes place on a hydrogen dirigible, so you need to know a lot about those), save the research until you are writing and need to look something up.

Part II: Detailed Outlining

“Wait,” you say, “I only have a few sentences of plot, characters, and setting. How do I build a whole plot out of that?” Don’t worry, we’ll get there. Or, if you are a discovery writer, you might feel confident with what you’ve got and are ready to start writing and figure it out the rest as you go. If not, read on.

First, a note on organization. There are two popular ways to organize your outline: bullet points and spreadsheets, or effectively, lists and grids. Bullet-pointed lists are more familiar to most people, but arguably spreadsheets are more efficient, especially for long and complex projects. We’ll use bullet points here for simplicity, but if you’re interested in using spreadsheets, check out this post and this example.

Plot II

There are a lot of ways to structure a story, and even more systems for describing these structures. You may have heard of the hero’s journey, the three-act structure, the five-act structure, the arch-plot, the nine building blocks, etc. How you think about it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that you’ve got the what readers expect to find in a story:

  • Setup: introduce the main character(s), their occupation and situation, and their personal/emotional goals. Near the end of the setup, reveal the character’s plot-level goals, the antagonist with opposing goals, and the story-level conflict.
  • Conflict: the main character is drawn into the plot of the story. They have personal stakes in the outcome of the conflict (those “death stakes” mentioned above). The plot becomes increasingly complex, the stakes are raised, and the odds of success appear lower and lower. This is typically the bulk of the book.
  • Climax: the conflict comes to a head, and the main character triumphs and the antagonists are defeated (unless you’re writing a tragedy, which is the opposite).
  • Resolution: loose threads are wrapped up, and the audience is given some idea of how things will progress from here. This section is typically much shorter than the others.

Sounds simple? It is, honestly, although it’s frequently over-complicated in books and websites about writing.

The best way to study story structure is just watch a few episodes of a top-rated TV show or some top-rated movies. I would suggest studying books, but those take much more time to study than TV and movies, and the ideas are essentially the same.

Let’s break down the plot of one of my favorite movies, Disney’s animated musical Frozen. If you haven’t seen it, don’t worry—the first thing we do is a quick plot summary (spoiler warning).

Frozen: Basic Plot

  • Setup:
    • The sisters Elsa and Anna are princesses in an 1840s Nordic seaport city-state.
    • Elsa has magic powers that can produce ice and snow.
    • When she accidentally hurts Anna with her powers, their parents decide they should grow up separately.
    • The parents are killed at sea and Elsa is to be crowned Queen at a coronation ceremony.
  • Conflict:
    • On the day of the ceremony, Anna, neglected and desperate for affection, meets Prince Hans and they agree to marry that same day.
    • When Anna asks for her sister’s blessing, Elsa becomes upset, unleashes an eternal winter, and flees the city to an ice fortress of her own making. The plot-level conflict is now revealed, and the heroes cannot escape it.
    • Anna sets off to search for Elsa, meeting some friends along the way. They find Elsa in her ice fortress, but she rejects them and accidentally strikes Anna with her ice powers again.
    • Anna and friends flee Elsa’s snow monster and learn that an act of true love will heal Anna’s frozen heart. They go to seek out her betrothed, Prince Hans, who is meanwhile off capturing Elsa to end the eternal winter.
    • When Anna and Hans reunite back in the city, it’s a plot twist: Hans reveals his evil plan to murder his way to the throne. He leaves Anna to die, and sentences Elsa to death for supposedly killing Anna.
  • Climax:
    • Anna’s friends come to the rescue, but the city is in a worsening eternal winter and Anna is still slowly dying of a frozen heart.
    • The final confrontation occurs in a blizzard on the frozen, icy bay, where Prince Hans comes to execute Elsa and finish off Anna.
    • As Hans’ sword comes down, Anna decides to shield her sister Elsa instead of saving herself. Anna’s frozen heart turns her body into magical ice, and the ice causes Prince Hans’ blade to break.
    • Elsa weeps for her frozen sister and Anna thaws out. It’s unclear which act of true love heals Anna: protecting Elsa, or her sister weeping for her and realizing what she’s done, or both. The message is clear, however: love heals a frozen heart and love conquers all.
  • Resolution:
    • Anna’s loyal friends are rewarded for their help, the city is back in springtime without the magical winter because love is the answer to controlling magical ice powers (somehow).
    • Prince Hans and other minor villains are banished, Anna and her true love Kristoff have a kiss, and Elsa is done being a cold-hearted ice queen and opens the gates of Arendelle for good. Anna and Elsa are friends again and everything is great (unless you’re a commoner slaving away to support the entrenched nobility).

In general, a story is about a conflict, and this is the basic shape of conflict in stories: set up the conflict, work through the conflict, and end the conflict. You could call these Act I (setup), Act II (conflict, complications), and Act III (climax and resolution), or break them down further into smaller sections, or a thousand other things, but we’ll leave it open-ended because there are a lot of ways to do it.

And boy does it get overdone. For example, here’s a graphic that I found on Reddit, comparing 23 different plot structure archetypes that are all basically the same thing. But don’t worry about all that. Focus on setting up a conflict, building it up and complicating it, and then resolving it. Focus on how the plot affects the character’s inner journeys, and likewise how character journeys, motivations, and decisions affect the plot. These are the important things, not some big diagram or checklist.

In general, plots should become more complex, stakes should build, and tension should increase up until the final climax of the conflict. This is what keeps people turning those pages. You can complicate your plot in a lot of ways: introduce other factions, throw in surprises (plot twists), have the antagonist show their power, have more tragedies strike the hero, and generally just make it seem less and less likely that the protagonist will win, and more likely that the antagonists mounting forces will crush the protagonist. Watch some quality movies and TV shows, or read some good books, and pay attention to how conflict is set up, escalated, and resolved.

The next step is to take your plot and divide it into scenes. You don’t need a ton of details, but you should have a list of what happens in each one. Start with that plot summary that you’ve got divided up into a Setup, Conflict, Climax, Resolution. Now take each bullet point and figure out what scene(s) need to take place for that to thing to happen. Here are the scenes in Frozen, expanding on the plot outline we already have. The section titles are those from the DVD menu, and these may contain one or more actual scenes.

Frozen: Detailed Plot with List of Scenes

  • Setup:
    • The Accident
      • A young Kristoff harvests ice with a baby reindeer Sven (how long do reindeer live again?) and they sing a song with the refrain “beware the frozen heart”, setting up the theme.
      • A young Elsa and Anna play with Elsa’s snow powers. Anna is wounded by them.
    • Concealing Her Powers
      • The parents take the girls to the “wise savages”, the Trolls, to be healed. At the Troll Village, the Trolls explain Elsa’s magic to her parents and heal Anna, erasing her memories of Elsa’s powers. A young Kristoff watches all this (odd that he never mentions it later, isn’t it).
      • The girls are separated so that Elsa can’t hurt anyone. Anna sings Do You Want to Build a Snowman, showcasing her loneliness and setting up her character arc (detailed in the next section).
      • A montage is shown of the girls growing up segregated, then the parents go on a trip and are lost at sea, then there is a funeral.
    • Coronation Day
      • With her parents dead, Elsa is the new queen. They are finally opening up the gates of the castle, which they kept closed to isolate Elsa. Kristoff is in town, and the camera pans from group to group, introducing the many of the minor characters.
      • Anna sings For the First Time in Forever, about her isolation and her need for love.
      • Anna meets Prince Hans, Elsa is crowned in the church and barely controls her ice magic
  • Conflict:
    • Puppy Love
      • The two sisters awkwardly talk at the ball. Anna dances with the villainous and comedic Duke of Weselton.
      • Anna and Prince Hans dance, then sing the duet Love is an Open Door, which ends with Hans proposing marriage and her accepting
      • The two go to Elsa for her blessing but she refuses, then loses control of her ice magic and flees the city, plunging it into an eternal winter.
      • Anna vows to find her sister Elsa and sets off on horseback.
    • The Search for Elsa
      • Elsa flees to the north mountain, builds an ice fortress of solitude, and sings Let it Go.
        • Note that this song is where Elsa is rejecting the change in her character arc, and siding with what she wants (isolation), but not what she needs (her sister’s love, to become the Queen and stop running away from her problems).
      • Anna rides through the snow on her horse, but the horse is spooked and flees. She is dumped in the snow with no practical clothing, food, or shelter, then happens upon Oaken’s Trading Post (what luck).
      • At the trading post, Anna meets Kristoff, who is trying to buy supplies but doesn’t have enough money. Apparently Anna at least remembered her purse, if not anything practical.
    • A Ride
      • Anna hires Kristoff to lead her on a search for Elsa. Kristoff sings a song revealing his arc, Reindeer are Better than People. His arc is a mirror of Elsa’s.
      • Kristoff takes Anna up the mountain in his sleigh, pulled by Sven. They have character-revealing discussions, are chased by wolves, and lose the sled in a ludicrously unlikely leap over a chasm. Somehow the sled explodes in flames.
    • Olaf
      • The meet the snowman Olaf, who sings his song about wanting to experience summertime, setting up his arc (a minor and comedic one). Olaf knows where to go to find Elsa, so they let him tag along.
      • Meanwhile, Prince Hans is back in the city handing out blankets and appearing very noble. Then he sets out to find Anna and Elsa, with two of the Duke of Weselton’s goons. The association of these two factions foreshadows Hans’s treachery later.
    • Finding Elsa
      • Anna, Kristoff, Olaf, and Sven reach Elsa’s fortress. She tells them to get lost. Anna sing’s a few bars of Do You Want to Build a Snowman?, echoing some themes from the beginning.
      • At roughly the midpoint of the story, their relationship hits it’s lowest point and Elsa and Anna get in a fight (midpoint lows are very common). Elsa accidentally wounds Anna with her ice magic again, repeating the action from the beginning of the film and showing that Elsa still refuses to change, and Anna still wants her sister back. Nothing’s really changed, yet somehow everything is worse, which makes this a great midpoint low.
    • Snow Monster
      • Elsa summons the snow monster Marshmallow to throw out the intruders of her ice fortress, and he chases them off in a thrilling and unrealistic chase scene.
      • Anna begins to show symptoms of Elsa’s second attack, so they decide to take her to the Troll Village for help.
    • Family
      • The Trolls meet them, and sing a song about true love called Fixer Upper, and diagnose Anna.
      • Both Kristoff and Anna’s arcs begin to nudge from what they want to what they really need. However, Anna’s condition worsens, and Kristoff, noble as he is, sets off to deliver her to Prince Hans so his act of true love can save her.
    • Discovered
      • Prince Hans and the Duke of Weselton’s goons assault Elsa’s ice fortress.
      • Marshmallow the Snow Monster is defeated and Elsa is captured and put in chains back in the city’s dungeon.
    • Betrayal
      • Kristoff delivers Anna to Hans then Kristoff heads back out into the wilderness, feeling gloomy and resolving to stay with his isolationist ways (rejecting his change arc even though he’s beginning to realize that what he wants is not what he really needs).
      • Anna begs Hans to kiss her but he reveals himself as a villain all along. In classic villain style, he doesn’t actually wait around to make sure she dies, but tells everyone she did (groan).
    • What is Love?
      • Elsa is in prison but easily breaks out cause… ice powers can blow up castle walls… I guess.
      • Anna nearly dies of a frozen heart but Olaf saves her and she learns what true love really is. Her character arc is nearly complete.
  • Climax:
    • An Act of Love
      • Anna, Elsa, Hans, and Kristoff all stumble around in a blizzard (a metaphor?) on the frozen bay, where Prince Hans comes to execute Elsa and finish off Anna.
      • As Hans’ sword comes down, Anna shields her sister Elsa, Anna’s frozen heart turns her to magical ice, and the ice causes Prince Hans’ blade to break.
      • Elsa weeps for her frozen sister and thaws her out. It’s unclear which act of true love heals Anna: her protecting her sister, or her sister weeping for her. The message is clear, however: love heals a frozen heart and true love conquers all.
  • Resolution:
    • Open Gates
      • Anna’s loyal friends are rewarded for their help, the city is back in springtime without the magical winter because love is the answer to controlling magical ice powers (somehow).
      • Prince Hans and other minor villains are banished, Anna and her true love Kristoff have a kiss, and Elsa is done being a cold-hearted ice queen and opens the gates of Arendelle for good. Anna and Elsa are friends again and everything is great (unless you’re a commoner slaving away to support the entrenched nobility).

Now we have a detailed list of scenes that fit into our plot framework of setup, conflict, climax, resolution. You could further subdivide this into other plot frameworks as well, it’s not hard, but it’s also not really necessary unless you’re struggling with your plot.

Are you ready to write yet? This might be enough. If not, read on for more outlining.

Characters II

Now that we’ve expanded our plot, let’s do the same for the characters and their developmental arcs (how they change over time). You may have noticed some references to that in the scene outline. Here’s a list of characters for Frozen.

Frozen: Character List

  • Major Characters
    • Elsa
      • Description: The eldest sister, has ice magic powers, blonde, blue eyed
      • Wants: to be a recluse and ignore society and her family and her royal responsibilities because of her shame/fear of her ice powers
      • Needs: to be accepted and loved by her family and society and to claim the throne of Arendelle.
    • Anna
      • Description: The younger sister, has no powers, red-haired, blue-eyed
      • Wants: to be loved, so she agrees to marry some guy she just met
      • Needs: to have a loving relationship with her sister again, needs to meet and fall in love with a guy who is a good fit for her
    • Prince Hans
      • Description: Anna’s (false) love interest, primary villain (but not revealed until just before the climax). Has twelve brothers and no chance of ever getting his own throne.
      • Wants: to marry into the Arendelle royal family and murder his way to the top
      • Needs: to be defeated, or get some therapy I guess
    • Kristoff
      • Description: Anna’s (true) love interest, a seller of ice, raised by trolls, big and woke blonde oaf
      • Wants: to deliver ice and to be a solitary woodsman
      • Needs: true love and an end to his loneliness
    • Olaf
      • Description: A reanimated snowman conjured by Elsa’s powers who acts primarily as comedy relief and emotional support
      • Wants: to experience summer, but doesn’t understand that he’ll melt
      • Needs: friendship, a way to prevent being melted
  • Minor Characters
    • Duke of Weselton
      • A minor villain / comedic relief with two unnamed henchmen
    • Sven
      • A reindeer owned by Kristoff. He likes to eat carrots.
    • Oaken and family
      • A sporting goods retailer. He has a barn where Kristoff stays the night.
    • Marshmallow
      • A snow monster conjured by Elsa to scare people away from her ice fortress
    • Pabbie and Bulda and others
      • Trolls who act as “wise savages”. They raise the orphan Kristoff and help the humans understand Elsa’s ice curse and how to heal it.
    • King Agnarr and Queen Iduna
      • Elsa and Anna’s parents who are only present in one early scene
    • Kai and Gerda (commoners), the Bishop, and other miscellaneous  townsfolk, including ice-harvesting men who train Kristoff in the trade

Here we have basic character arcs designed for the main characters (what they think they want, versus what they actually need). You can make character arcs as simple or complex as you need to, but I find the want/need dichotomy to be flexible and easy to work with. You may also have multiple arcs for the same character (e.g. Anna has to learn about romantic love, and also needs to reconcile with her estranged sister).

If you want to expand those bullet points on arcs, the next step is to tie each arc to the parts of the plot where developments actually happen. You want characters to change gradually and naturally, just like real people, not just in one sudden jump. You can identify points in your story where change happens and then make notes on each scene.

For example, here are the key points for Anna’s two character arcs (romantic love, sister relationship), most of which come through as songs rather than dialogue—this is a musical, after all.

Frozen: Detail of a Character’s Arcs

  • The initial state:
    • Anna is emotionally starved as a child, which is clearly communicated in her song, Do you Want to Build a Snowman? This sets up the sisterhood arc.
    • On the day of the coronation, Anna is overflowing with a need for human contact and love, and sings the song For the First time in Forever about this.
  • The rejection of the truth:
    • When Anna meets Prince Hans, she falls in love even though they just met and agrees to marry him. This is communicated in their duet Love is an Open Door.
    • Note that Anna is getting what she wants, but not what she needs, which is an important part of most character arcs: the character often has to discover what they really need by trying to get the wrong thing first.
  • Questioning herself:
    • Anna’s arc begins to bend when she meets Kristoff, and she starts questioning what she thought she wanted (marriage to Hans). This really comes across in the song Fixer Upper, which is a more realistic portrayal of love. This is the first big step on her road to discovery of what she truly needs.
  • The big change:
    • There aren’t any musical numbers after this, as the plot moves faster, the conflict intensifies, and the stakes are raised. The next big change for her is a conversation with Olaf by the fireplace after the traitorous Prince Hans is revealed, and she admits that she doesn’t know anything about love, and realizes that Kristoff is the right person for her, not Hans.
    • Note that this big personal change comes at a great cost—she is nearly killed by Hans’ treachery. Big personal changes should come at extreme moments, and typically at a great cost, just like in real life (e.g. you don’t start eating right until you have that heart attack).
  • Closure of Sisterhood arc:
    • With this new knowledge of what love is, Anna goes to rescue her sister Elsa, and ultimately sacrifices herself to save Elsa by deflecting the evil Prince Han’s execution blade. The first of her two major arcs (sisterhood with Elsa) is complete.
  • Closure of Romance arc:
    • With the new knowledge that Kristoff is the right guy for her, Anna punches Prince Hans over the edge of a boat, and then she and Kristoff kiss. The second of her two arcs (romance) is complete.

If you want to add this level of detail to your character notes, by all means, do so. It will help you understand your characters and link them more strongly to your plot, creating more emotional resonance for your readers.

You may also want expand your character descriptions, such as their looks, emotions, emotional goals, and their backstory, which will affect the character’s dialogue and voice. You may also want to make a note of what emotions characters are feeling in each scene, and attach those notes to the scene list.

Setting II

Disney is typically weak on the detail and logic in their settings, and Frozen is no exception. While the setting works well in a fantasy movie for kids, if you’re working on setting for a full novel, make sure you do your research (if needed) and make sure your setting makes sense.

For example, if you have a city in the desert, you should have an idea of how they get food, water, and building materials. Everything has a cost, so what does this city use to pay for the things they can’t produce themselves?

If you have a space station, how do people earn their keep? What technologies are used to grow food, recycle water, and generate oxygen? What are the rules of the society that lives there? What is their culture like? This kind of stuff is called world-building, and you should at least do enough of it so that you’re not leaving giant plot holes in your story.

Disney settings often do not consider these basics and consequently create some plot holes. Here’s the setting outline for Frozen, which is fairly simple.

Frozen: Detail of the Setting

  • Arendelle: an 1840s Nordic seaport city-state, where much of the story takes place. Their economy is (presumably) based on fishing, farming, and selling ice. Despite gunpowder having been invented, they seem to prefer the sword and crossbow. Social class is strictly enforced, with a monarchy controlling nearly all of the wealth, supported by a thin merchant class and a large underclass, but the underclass is perfectly fine with this. There appears to be no disease, hunger, or poverty. The only physically attractive people are members of the ruling class or those destined for it (i.e. Kristoff). Commoners are ugly, so we don’t feel bad for them.
    • The castle: Where Anna and Elsa grow up, and where many of the plot events take place
    • The town square: A bog-standard fantasy-world town square
    • The harbor: Where boats are moored and the scene of the climax
    • The church: Used for the coronation ceremony
  • The path to the North Mountain: a snowy road where Anna must travel to seek out her sister Elsa
    • Oaken’s sporting goods store, which is inexplicably and conveniently located in the middle of nowhere. This is where Anna first meets Kristoff and hires him to take her to the North Mountain.
    • The Troll Village, where the trolls live. Somehow it’s not buried in snow, even though everything else is. Magic!
  • The North Mountain: a steep, snowy mountain
    • Elsa’s ice fortress of solitude is built on the mountainside. The fortress doesn’t seem to have a kitchen or plumbing but I guess she doesn’t need to eat or drink or go to the bathroom or anything.

Okay, so now you have a plot summary, a list of scenes, a list of characters and their arcs, and a list of settings with your research notes, if any. You could easily start writing at this point, but if you really like to nail everything down with your outline, here are some more things you can think about adding to your outline.

Part III: Advanced Outlining

Plot III

Scene Structure

So you have a list of scenes. But how do you make these scenes compelling to read? This is scene structure. There are whole books on this, but it’s actually quite simple.

  • Goal: start your scene with a goal for the character, and ideally, a good hook related to that goal that draws the reader into the scene.
  • Conflict: this is the bulk of your scene by far. The character wants something, but has trouble getting it.
  • Result: how the scene-level conflict ends. Usually this will not be in the character’s favor (a disaster, a hollow victory, a win but at a great cost), which raises the stakes and increases the pressure on the character.
  • Reaction: how does your character feel about the Result?
  • Dilemma: what does your character do now?
  • Decision: your character decides what to do, and this leads to the new Goal for the next scene that they’re in.

So, the next level of outlining for plot is to determine the structure of each scene. Who is the point-of-view character? What does that character want (Goal)? What trouble do they face in getting it (conflict)? and so forth.

Note that the Goal, Reaction, Dilemma, and Decision are typically quite short and may even be implied. If you spend too much time in these sections of the scene, it will slow down your pacing, but this may be desirable, as the dilemma is similar to the conflict, and you can get some good character development done there.

Lets take one of the scenes from Frozen and break it into its parts:

Frozen: Detail of a Scene

One of my favorite scenes is when Kristoff and Anna visit the Troll Village to seek out help for Anna’s frozen heart and instead get a crazy song.

  • Goal
    • Get some help from the Trolls for Anna’s frozen heart. This goal was established at the end of the last scene, and is the result of Anna getting blasted in the heart by Elsa’s ice magic.
  • Conflict (the bulk of the scene):
    • At first the Trolls don’t show up, and Olaf suggests that Kristoff is making it all up and may be delusional. Anna turns to go, oh no!
    • The trolls appear, and are so chatty they won’t let Kristoff explain what he wants: his goal keeps getting delayed. Worse, they think that he’s bringing home a girl (Anna) to “meet the parents.”
    • The trolls start a big musical number to try and convince Anna to marry Kristoff, to his great embarrassment (more conflict, and more delay of his achievement of his scene goal). The trolls go on about “the clumpy way he walks” and the “grumpy way he talks”, etc.
    • Kristoff becomes more exasperated, and tells them Anna’s engaged to someone else. Do they pipe down? No, it’s time for verse two! The Trolls are the antagonist here, delaying the achievement of the scene goal and frustrating and embarrassing Kristoff (and to a lesser degree, Anna).
    • The trolls end their big musical number with an attempt to make Kristoff and Anna get married (literally, they place them at an altar), but Kristoff stops it.
  • Result (disaster):
    • The conflict with the belligerent-yet-musical trolls is over, but then Anna collapses. Oh no, a disaster!
    • The trolls tell Kristoff that her frozen heart will kill her, and it can only be healed by an act of true love.
  • Reaction (implied):
    • Kristoff is upset by this, naturally. This is barely shown by more than a facial expression. In a book, there might be some thoughts or dialogue from the point-of-view character. Or maybe not.
  • Dilemma (implied):
    • Kristoff only takes a moment. He’s a hero, so he knows what to do. The dilemma almost doesn’t exist in this scene, and that’s okay—there’s nothing to really agonize over. If he was less of a Disney hero, he might argue that they should leave her behind with the Trolls, or try to kiss her himself, or maybe steal her wallet.
  • Decision:
    • Kristoff calls to his reindeer Sven, then they hop on and he announces the new goal: to get Anna to her betrothed, Prince Hans, for true love’s kiss, which must be the act of true love that the Trolls are talking about.

Theme

Theme is “what your story is really all about.”

For most Disney the theme is that “true love conquers all” (Frozen) or “friendship is what happiness” (Toy Story) or something similar to that. You may have an idea for your theme, but then when you write it, it ends up being something else. Or maybe, you want to outline your theme and really make sure it shows up in the key moments in your story.

Let’s look at the things that drive home the “true love” theme in Frozen. You start out with two isolated sisters who love each other but can’t be together. One of them falls into a puppy-love situation with the wrong guy. These are the beginnings of the two big “love” arcs, and like all good arcs, they start out in the “wrong place” and move to the “right place” — the characters want one thing, but they truly need something else.

Throughout the rest of the movie, we get a lot of looks at love:

  • parental love (King/Queen caring for injured Anna)
  • puppy love (Anna and Hans)
  • friendship love (Olaf and Anna, Olaf and Sven)
  • familial love (the Oaken family, the Trolls)
  • the love of a pet/steed (Kristoff and Sven the reindeer)
  • sibling love (Anna and Elsa, by the end)
  • romantic love (Anna and Kristoff, by the end)
  • self-love (Elsa, by the end)

The story is steeped in love, but it’s not slapping you in the face—it’s just there, as part of the story and part of the lives of the characters—if you know where to look.

Meanwhile, the antagonists represent the opposite of love. The Duke of Weselton only cares about money, and fears things he can’t understand. The evil Prince Hans uses false love to manipulate people to gain power.

Theme can seem complex, but it’s really not that big of a deal. Pick a good theme, and make sure you show a lot of different takes on it throughout the story. Make the protagonists the ones who develop, through their character arcs, to realize that theme. Meanwhile, make the antagonists represent the opposite of that theme, and then make sure they’re defeated.

Can you have multiple themes? Sure thing. You could even have one for each character. But the more you have, the more complicated your story gets, the longer it gets, and the less likely your reader will be to find the threads of the theme in this giant tapestry.

Emotion and Resonance

What emotions are in this scene? If you had to boil this scene down to one emotional word, what would it be? What emotion is each character feeling? What emotion is the reader supposed to feel? Is it the same as the characters? Will it resonate with the reader, or will they shrug? Do the emotions resonate with the theme?

In your outline, you may want to add space to answer these questions for each scene. Another way to do it is to ask yourself, “what purpose does this scene have, why is it here?” and then provide answers from the perspective of plot, character, setting, theme, emotion, etc.

Let’s take a look at the scene above, where Kristoff and Anna visit the Troll Village.

  • What purpose does this scene serve? It brings Anna and Kristoff closer together, it shows Kristoff’s backstory, and it show’s that Anna is in grave danger.
  • What character developments happen? Kristoff’s soft side is shown more, Anna gets ill from her sister’s poison and also begins to realize she has a lot to learn about Love.
  • What purpose does the setting serve in this scene? It hearkens back to the beginning when Anna’s parents visit the Troll Village, this time with Kristoff taking Anna there for help instead of her parents. This reuse of setting implies (symbols/theme) that Kristoff cares as much about her as her parents (or, more cynically, that he is her new daddy now that the old one is dead, fulfilling the traditional/stereotypical male role of “taking care of the weak woman”)
  • What emotions do the characters feel? Kristoff is worried about Anna. Anna is curious about Kristoff. The trolls are jubilant, thinking that they are going to marry, then serious when they discover Anna’s illness. These all make sense.
  • What emotions do the viewers feel? At first, it ain’t all that serious and so we enjoy the humorous song from the Trolls and the setup of Kristoff trying to interrupt them. Kristoff’s worries begin to mount, however, and we start to feel worried for Anna when she is stricken with another fainting spell from her sister’s ice. We transition from Anna’s curiosity and humor to Kristoff’s concern throughout the scene.

Symbols

Symbols are repeated elements in your story that help your themes or character arcs resonate.

Be careful with symbols—they’re often overwrought. You want them to subtly represent the themes and/or conflicts in your story. You don’t really need them if you don’t want, but they do help make a theme resonate and tie plot to character.

Two big symbolic elements in Frozen are ice and doors.

The ice is the most obvious. The first scene is cutting ice and the song about “beware the frozen heart”. Throughout the story, Elsa makes more and more ice as she resists her sister’s love, and the ice/winter gets worse and worse until the character arcs are realized and the plot climax (which takes place literally on blocks of ice) is complete, at which point everything thaws.

The use of doors is a bit more subtle, but is found throughout the story. During the sister’s childhood, there are numerous closed doors during their segregation, and the castle gates are kept permanently closed. On coronation day, they plan to open the doors for one day, representative of Anna finally seeing her sister Elsa. Then there’s the duet Love is an Open Door, which has a montage of the two lovers running through a whole bunch of open doors. As the conflict rises, there are several “doors bursting open” and “doors slamming” moments. A particularly poignant one is when the castle gates are shut on Kristoff after he drops off the frozen-hearted Anna and he realizes he’s in love with her, but now she’s on the other side of the door and going back to her betrothed. Finally, Elsa declares that the castle gates will never be close again.

You can plan out your symbols, or they may come to you when you write, or you might not want to use any at all and not worry about it. Framing is the same way.

Framing

Framing is when you use similar things to bookend or wrap around a series of events.

For example, you may use the same setting or plot elements or dialogue lines at the beginning and end of a story, or even at the beginning and end of a scene. Like symbols, framing isn’t necessary, but when used well it can help your theme, plot, and characters resonate with the reader.

Frozen doesn’t do much framing. The beginning of the story starts harvesting ice high in the mountains and with Elsa and Anna playing in the castle. The end takes place in the town square with the gates open. We get a bit of it with the gates closed / open in the beginning / end, but it’s not exceptionally strong (and that’s okay).

A better example of framing is in the book The Count of Monte Cristo. The first scenes take place in the town of Marseilles, where a young Edmond Dantes returns from a sea voyage to marry his betrothed, visits his loving father at his apartment, and then has everything ripped away from him when he is wrongfully arrested at the wedding dinner.

At the end of this 1000+ page book, many years later, the Count returns to Marseilles and walks past the places he used to know. He visits his father’s apartment, now a ruin, and confronts his former fiancee who betrayed him. The story begins and ends with the same settings and characters, bringing closure, but also showing how much things have changed.

You can do use framing for the whole book, for acts, or for scenes, or for the beginning and end of a character arc, or for whenever you want to drive home how things have changed from the beginning to the end of something.

Characters III

How do you go deeper into characters than we already did? You develop them further to make them more unique, which typically involves beefing up their backstory and strengthening their voice. This is best done with characters where you think, “hmm, maybe this character is a bit of a cliche or a stereotype.”

You can also add layers to their arcs, you add more arcs, and you tie them more strongly to the plot. In Frozen, take a look at the example of Anna’s two arcs in Part II, and then imagine some more arcs for her. For example, maybe she has unresolved issues about her parents deaths or anger at them or at Elsa for being pushed away and sidelined for so many years. Then you would take these arcs and find (or create) the scenes where those developmental moments occur. You can also tie the characters to specific settings, themes, and symbols, and plan all that out in your outline.

An important part of further developing and planning your characters is understanding their emotions, because this guides their reactions and decisions in each scene. This will strengthen their voice and also strengthen the emotional resonance of your story with the reader. You may want to figure out answers to questions like “what’s the main emotion each character is feeling in each scene” and combine that with the list of “what emotion do I want the reader to feel in this scene, and what parts of the scene drive that effect” (above) and note that in your outline. Spreadsheets or bullet points can give you columns or sections, respectively, on the emotional goals of your scene.

Be careful: there is an optimal amount of character complexity: too little and you have a stereotype or a boring nobody, but too much and you have an unrelatable, inconsistent mess. Somewhere in the middle, you have gold.

In general, the longer your story is and the fewer developed characters you have, the more complex your characters can be, the more developmental arcs they can have, and the more you can tie their changes to the plot. For example, the Count of Monte Cristo is a very complex character, but he’s also the sole protagonist in a 1000+ page novel, so he has the room to be complex. Most of the other characters don’t undergo much change.

I could dive into another Frozen example here, but it’s already done for me in the movie Frozen II, where we get substantially greater detail on the character’s backstories and their trials and tribulations. Imagine taking some of those backstories and plot lines in the sequel and making them subplots for a novel-length version of Frozen. You could also take some of the minor characters and expand them to major characters—for example, take the Duke of Weselton and make him a full-fledged antagonist.

Setting III

How do you further expand on setting? You keep doing research, you keep world-building, and you keep expanding on what you’ve got—but only so that it serves the end goal of creating a richer story and a stronger, more unique, and more thematic setting. Don’t just world-build because you’re afraid of actually writing.

Most of the settings in Disney movies are cliches or tropes, and like the character example above, they could benefit from being worked over by beefing up their history, sociology, economies, and descriptive details, then working those things into the plot.

As an exercise, let’s take a setting and beef it up.

For example, maybe your notes for a setting are just “a snowy forest”. What else is in that forest? What kind of plants and animals live there? Was this forest once a battlefield and it has old rusty swords and petrified skeletons everywhere? Is it pristine old growth, or has it been cut an logged for generations and has the scars to prove it? Are there streams and creeks or is this a dry mountainside? How steep is the terrain? What elevation are you at? Are there risks of avalanches? How old is the snow? How many layers down does it go? Is it soft, or hard and icy? Is it on the trees or not? Are their glaciers? Frozen waterfalls? Inexplicable trading posts in the middle of nowhere?

Really getting into these questions on setting will help you describe it better, help your characters interact with it, and allow you to use it to boost your story’s plot, theme, and resonance.

Final Thoughts

Well, you made it all this way. Are you sick of talking about the movie Frozen yet? I know I am. Here are a few key points to close:

  • You only have to outline as much as you feel you need to. If you are good starting a story with a one-line premise, by all means, go for it. Once you’re done, the ideas here will help you revise the story and whip it into shape.
  • Spreadsheets can be really handy for organizing big outlines, because you don’t have to repeat the structure. For example, you can have a spreadsheet with a list of scenes down the side. Then across the top, you can have a header row with labels like Goal, Conflict, Resolution, Reaction, Dilemma, Decision. You can then fill out this grid and design all your scenes. Character spreadsheets are also very useful for the same reason. More on this here and here.
  • Watch out for getting bogged down in outlining and world-building. If you spend a year outlining and world-building your first novel without ever writing it, you probably aren’t going to be a very good writer, and you’ll need a lot of practice to get better—practice that you didn’t get, because you were creating a five-hundred-page outline.
  • A lot of writing approaches over-complicate things, usually to sell books and drive advertising revenue (we don’t do that here). They give you fifty-point checklists for scene or story structure, huge lists of character questions for arcs, and workbooks for forcing your story into a specific box. Stick to the essentials of plot, character and setting, and then write the story that you want to write and make it the best story you can. And if you don’t like it, you can always change it later.

Good luck!

Style and Voice

The word “style” typically refers to the author’s writing style, while “voice” describes how the point-of-view character communicates to the reader. They are sometimes used interchangeably, and there is some overlap, so that’s why they’re in the same article.

Style

Let’s tackle style first since it’s simpler. Is your prose florid, poetic, and circumspect, or is it short, choppy and direct? Do you write long paragraphs and sentences, or short ones? Big words or simple words? Lots of metaphor or not? Do you act as a narrator to your reader, or go deep into a point of view and not get in between the reader and the character? What kinds of stories and themes do you usually write about? Are there commonalities between your characters and plots across your works? Are you a clean, G-rated author or do you write adult themes?

In some ways, your style determines your target readership. For example, a G-rated Christian author writing at an average reading level will appeal to a very different group of readers than, say, an English PhD author who packs their prose with metaphor, complexity, dark comedy, and violence.

All of those things, and anything else that differentiates your stories from those of other authors, are what make up your style.

Voice

Moving on to Voice, which arises from the point of view character in your story. Voice is built up from that character’s:

  • dialogue (sentence structure, word choice, accents, catch phrases),
  • life outlook (optimistic vs. pessimistic, religious vs. secular, trusting vs. suspicious, etc.), and
  • backstory (social class, education level, occupation, past trauma, and so forth).

Character voice arises from all the things that make one person different from another person, which are ultimately driven by the character’s life experience.

How do you create a character voice? By studying real people (and characters in well-written stories).

What does your character believe about the world? Is it fair? Is it just? Is science how we improve our lives, or is it religion/faith—or something else? Are they educated? Do they show it? How do they react to new things, with curiosity or fear? Do they love freedom, or do they want to control people? Or both? Do they say one thing and do the other, or are they true to their word? What are their soft spots (animals, kids, old movies, teddy bears, etc)? What are they uncompromising about? What made them this way? Are they racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. or are they open minded? Why? What are their hobbies? What is their passion? What do they love? What do they hate? Do they tend to have strong opinions, or are they easily swayed into believing in whatever comes along?

All these things and more shape how your character reacts to the world and to events in the story. Those reactions determine their feelings, thoughts, speech, decisions/actions, and how they tell their own story—which is where character voice comes through.

When you write in a deep point of view, you write it through the character, like you’re looking at the world through their eyes, but more importantly, through all those filters in their mind.

If you’re not writing deep point of view (that is, omniscient or cinematic), their voice still going to affect their actions and dialogue, even if you don’t have access to their thoughts.

Here’s an exercise for working on voice. Pick two people you know personally, and pick people that are as different as possible. For example, pick two from your family, school, job, club, sports team, etc. Now figure out what makes them tick (outlook on life, backstory, etc. listed above) and write down some notes.

Now, take those two different people and put each one of them in the same story, such as your favorite book or movie. Imagine how different the story would have been with your Grandpa as the protagonist in The Hobbit, versus your cousin, your best friend, your coach—how different their character thoughts, speech, decisions, and actions would all be, and how different the story would be from their point of view. That’s their voice.

You often hear publishers say “we’re looking for a fresh voice”, which often means multiple things. First, they’re looking for authors who can write character voice well, which is required to get published. Second, they don’t want a carbon copy of another famous character. They have enough Harry Potters and Katniss Everdeens. Third, they want a character voice that has mass appeal so they can sell books, so please make your character marketable (that is, they have strength of will and are enjoyable to read about, and not some unsympathetic psycho, sad sack, or jerk).

How complex and layered can you make your character’s voice? I think you have to be very careful with changing it too much during a story, especially if you write for younger audiences or lower reading levels. People growing up on TV, movies, and low-grade fiction generally expect characters to have stable, even archetypal moods and not change much in the story (think of any superhero movie, for example). You also have to be careful not to linger too long in negative moods (e.g. whining, aggression, cruelty) for your protagonists and vice versa with antagonists, lest you make your protagonist too unsympathetic and your antagonist too sympathetic.

Hopefully that helps clear up the differences between style and voice, and how voice is linked to point of view. Good luck!

Tracking Character Development

If your character changes throughout a story, it can be difficult to track their development. This is especially true in longer works, or if multiple characters undergo complex changes.

Solving this issue is deceptively simple. All you need to do is make a list of the changes each character has and link them to events in the story. At a minimum, jot down these five things about a character:

  • Character’s state at the beginning (the lie they believe)
  • Character’s state at the end (the truth they discover)
  • Event(s) that show the beginning state (living the lie)
  • Event(s) that drive the change (discovery of the truth)
  • Event(s) that show the ending state (acceptance of the truth)

By linking the changes to specific events (scenes, actions, even just a bit of dialogue), you will show the why and how of the change to the reader, and you will be able to identify any incomplete or unexplored character arcs.

Spreadsheets can be helpful for laying out the information:

In many cases, you will have a single character go through multiple arcs.  For example, if this was a longer piece of writing, Benjamin could also struggle with his relationship with his mother, which ultimately drove his clingy nature. Just add a new row on the spreadsheet (or another set of bullet points).

For a novel, imagine if this story was told via switching the point of view between the two characters, and each could have a dozen or more changes that they go through in this life-altering encounter. Keeping track of it all would be a hassle, but now you know how!

For more on character arcs, check out K.M. Weiland’s excellent series on the subject.

How to use diagrams in your outline

Sure, you can outline in a word document using bullet points, or you can keep track of characters and scenes in a spreadsheet, but what else can you do?


One of the most helpful ways to think about characters is called a character map, which shows the interactions between characters.  Here’s a simple one from Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities:

Here is another one, a character map for my favorite book, Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo.


You can also create diagrams for one single character, sometimes called a “mind map” of all the things that describe a character.  Images can be helpful.  Here’s one for Harry Potter.


Another type of helpful diagram is a plot diagram.  Here are a few from around the internet that break up some popular movies into the standard three-act structure.

Your plot may not actually follow this structure, and that’s OK.  As long as it’s a good read, you can do whatever you want.  The point is that diagramming it can lead to insight into how to outline or edit your story.

Here’s the structure for The Matrix (above) and Thelma and Louise (below) for some examples.

Hopefully these examples will give you some ideas about how you can think about outlining and editing your story visually, as well as with the more standard spreadsheets and bullet-point outlines.  Now back to writing!