Guest post: ‘Story Mapping and the 7 Stages’ by Nancy Dodd

Tonight’s guest blog post, on the topic of story mapping is brought to you by multi-genre writer and interviewee Nancy Dodd, author of The Writer’s Compass From Story Map to Finished Draft in 7 Stages.

You Know That Hole in Your Story? You Don’t? Here’s How to Find It

Using a story map is a great tool for figuring out where the holes are in your story and then developing ideas for filling in those gaps.

If you have read very many books on writing or listened to very many writing instructors, you have probably heard of the 3-act structure diagram.

Based on Aristotle’s principles of drama and Freytag’s pyramid, the diagram that starts something like this:

Across the structure will be various terms for what goes where in your story. For example, you would put something like “Hook” at the beginning of the horizontal line, “Plot Point” might be at the top of the first vertical line and “Climax” at the top of the second vertical line to show where these fall in the story. Denouement at the end of the horizontal line refers to tying up the final act.

Different authors use different terminology for what should go on the structure chart, but most authors are saying the same thing. What varies is where they put the emphasis they feel is most important.

The way to find the holes in your story is to turn this structure chart into a writing tool by creating a story map. Instead of writing “Hook,” write in a phrase for what the hook is in your story. What is the climax? How do you end the story? And so forth. By filling out a story map, you quickly learn what you know and don’t know about your story and where the important elements of storytelling are missing from your story.

There are at least three advantages to using a story map.

  1. The story map helps you to trick the analytical side of your brain into being creative. As you fill in the details you know, you quickly figure out the details you don’t know and you give your brain a problem to solve. Before long you are developing new ideas to fill in the gap.
  2. The story map helps you to develop a compass for your story. As you fill in your ideas, you get a nudge that says, “This is weak,” or “This isn’t very clear.” By following that gut instinct you work on making the story stronger and clearer.
  3. Once you replace the elements on the structure chart with your ideas across your story map, it is much easier to feel where the tension grows and where it wanes. It’s simpler to move your ideas around on the story map, to find the most dynamic way to tell your story, than it is to move whole sections of writing around in a manuscript.

The purpose of the story map is not to replace how you write, but to give you an additional tool to strengthen what you write. It’s an extra step in the development of your story, but it’s a step that will help you eliminate some of those drafts when you can’t quite figure out what is wrong. After all, isn’t that what we as writers would all like: to save time and effort in rewriting by figuring out what we don’t know about our stories?

Want to Do Fewer Rewrites? 7 Stages for Efficiently Completing Your Story

You wouldn’t decorate your living room before the drywall and the roof are installed, so why focus on the language in the story before the structure is right? Why spend time polishing dialogue before you have even gotten to know your characters well? Or why work on the pacing and tension when you haven’t gotten the structure worked out?

Probably like me, you’ve spent hours and hours on draft after draft of a story to get it right. However, after more than two decades and two master’s degrees of studying writing, I figured out there is a more efficient way to write—in stages.

Admittedly, I’m not the first or the only person to have figured this out, other people have put together their steps for building a good story. Below are the seven basic stages I’ve come up with for writing a story more efficiently.

Stage 1 – Developing Ideas

Stage 2 – Building a Strong Structure

Stage 3 – Creating Vibrant Characters

Stage 4 – Structuring Scenes, Sequences, and Transitions

Stage 5 – Increasing Tension and Adjusting Pacing

Stage 6 – Enriching Language and Dialogue

Stage 7 – Editing the Hard Copy, Submitting

The purpose of writing in stages is to focus on one level of your story at a time. Throughout each stage there are a series of questions I ask myself to help me to continue to develop ideas and expand the story and characters. That doesn’t mean you won’t be writing great language from the beginning, it just means you won’t be focusing on making the language even better until you get to that stage. By polishing the language in Stage 6, you will be less likely to cut a turn of phrase you love or have spent hours perfecting.

The process I suggest is to start compiling ideas in whatever form you prefer to write. I like putting my ideas on 5×8 cards that I can later shuffle for a better order. I also don’t worry about editing, grammar, or punctuation, I just focus on getting the idea—in the form of dialogue, a scene, setting, character development, whatever comes to mind—written down. Later when I have enough cards, I start transferring them into story form in my computer.

That’s where Stage 2, structure, begins. I shuffle the cards into an order I think will tell a good story. I also create a story map so that I can see where my holes are or where my ideas aren’t fully formed. In fact, the story map is such a useful tool that I use it at the end of every stage to see what I’ve changed or added and if it is logical or increases the tension. When I finish Stage 2, I won’t have a complete story, but I have a better idea of the foundation of my story and what I need to complete it.

Next I start on Stage 3, characterization. Creating strong characters doesn’t happen by accident, it takes work to get to know who the characters are and what their motivation and goals will be. As I go through my story working on developing my characters, the story becomes richer and generally longer since I am filling it out with new ideas related to my character’s behavior.

Stage 4 is a way to look at each scene and the exposition or narration and transitions to see what opportunities I’ve missed or where I’ve overwritten. Sometimes what I thought to be a scene really doesn’t have the complexity of a scene. Sometimes what I thought was just a sequence of narration or a transition has the potential for a great scene.

Now that my structure is sound, I have strong characters, and my scenes and sequences are correctly developed, it makes sense to work on tension and pacing, Stage 5. Sometimes I use more details and slow down the pacing to increase the tension, or sometimes I cut details to increase the pacing.

At last we come to Stage 6, polishing the language and dialogue. By now I know what my story is about and who my characters are and that the tension and pacing is developed, but during this time the language has been evolving as the story evolved. So polishing is much simpler.

Stage 7 is printing out the hard copy, a final edit and proof, and prepping for submission.

With a more focused look at your story in stages, hopefully you will find it takes fewer drafts to finish and you will find that your story developed more efficiently.

That was great, thank you, Nancy!

Nancy Ellen Dodd earned two graduate degrees in writing from the University of Southern California. She has received numerous awards for writing, and her book, The Writer’s Compass: From Story Map to Finished Draft in 7 Stages (published by Writers Digest Books, June 2011), covers the full creative writing process and is available in print and eBooks around the world. On faculty at the Graziadio School at Pepperdine University, Dodd serves as academic editor and teaches screenwriting at Pepperdine’s Seaver College. Her collection of short stories, Women Alone, is now available on Kindle. You can see all her books listed here.

Ooh, short stories… ooh, Kindle. 🙂

If you would like to write a writing-related guest post for my blog then feel free to email me with an outline of what you would like to write about. If it’s writing-related then it’s highly likely I’d email back and say “yes please”.

The blog interviews return as normal tomorrow morning with contemporary romance author Marina Martindale – the three hundred and fifteenth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, bloggers, autobiographers and more. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further. And I enjoy hearing from readers of my blog; do either leave a comment on the relevant interview (the interviewees love to hear from you too!) and / or email me. You can also read / download my eBooks and free eShorts at Smashwords, Sony Reader Store, Barnes & Noble, iTunes Bookstore and Kobo. And I have a new forum at http://morgenbailey.freeforums.org.

Guest post: Screenwriting 101 by Nancy Dodd

Tonight’s guest blog post, on the topic of screenwriting is brought to you by Nancy Ellen Dodd, MPW, MFA, author of The Writer’s Compass: From Story Map to Finished Draft in 7 Stages.

Screenwriting 101

Maybe even tougher than selling poetry is selling a screenplay. While there is nonstop television programming and movies available, how many of those are reruns? The cost of creating a movie or a new television show is high and only limited financing is available. Getting distribution can be as daunting as getting financing.

But, wait! That being said, with today’s technology and new media, it is easier than ever to create your own video and get it seen by an audience on the internet. This is what I tell my screenwriting students, “Get together with your friends and do it yourself.” However, you’ll want to start with a good screenplay.

What You Should Know About Screenplays

Creating films is a collaborative effort and the screenwriter is usually less important than the director and actors, and often even the producers. The exception to that is a screenwriter who is well known or the auteur—the director who has the vision and writes the story. Just think of the last movie you watched, do you know who the screenwriter was? The screenplay is often only considered a blueprint because many changes may be made from the original screenplay to the shooting script to what happens on location, to what winds up on the cutting room floor—with input from many sources.

A screenplay is a very condensed form of storytelling. The most important aspect of a screenplay is the imagery with dialogue running a close second. Because you are forced to show / not tell, metaphors often work well in developing the imagery. The trick in screenwriting is to create imagery while using fewer words.  I often remind my students that when you write a screenplay you have to leave room for the director to direct, the actor to act, the cinematographer to film, the set and costume designers to design—all of that to say that when you write you have to tell a story without telling these people how to do their jobs. Again, the exception would be the director who is writing the screenplay.

It is generally considered that each page of a screenplay is approximately a minute of finished video. In other words, a 120-page script would be a 2-hour movie. Because there are so many people and costs involved, every minute of the final footage can be very expensive and there are lots of scenes that are shot more than once and / or by more than one camera. Everything in that minute of film has to be procured and placed by a crew. Lighting and sound crews also have to be incorporated into the process for the best outcome.

The screenwriter has to take all of this into consideration, including what it will cost to create every scene and to pay extras when writing the screenplay. An unknown screenwriter will have a difficult time selling a screenplay requiring a $100 million in financing, especially in these economic times.

Formatting a Screenplay

Screenplays have their own unique formatting. There are several websites and books that will give margins for correct formatting of screenplays. A couple of books I use are The Screenwriter’s Bible by David Trottier and The Hollywood Standard by Christopher Riley.

Most screenplays are 90-120 pages. If this is your first screenplay, keep it closer to 90-110 pages. Courier font in 12 is generally used. The screenplay is constructed with narrow and brief sections of dialogue, under a centered character name, to make them easy to read and to remember. Wider description or “action shots” in between contain needed description and information to move the story forward. Scenes in screenplays are denoted by a change of setting and there are special lines called “Headings” or “Slug lines.” These consist simply of whether it is an interior INT. or exterior EXT. camera shot; the location, MARLEY’S HOUSE; and the time MORNING.

Acronyms are often used such as V.O. means “voice over” and C.U. means “close-up”. The character is capitalized the first time being introduced and sometimes words that are noted for sounds are capitalized. Scenes are often ended with words such as “Fade Out” or “Cut to” or “Smash Cut” along with other words to denote which special transition, if any, should be used to change scenes.

Search for examples online to get a feel for how a screenplay is written and worded. Look for the “original” screenplay or drafts, not shooting scripts or transcripts, both come at later stages, the transcript being only the dialogue of the actual film used for closed captioning and not written in correct formatting.

Writing a Screenplay

There are several things to remember when writing a screenplay. A well-written screenplay will not have too much white space, meaning too much dialogue, or too little white space, meaning too much narrative and not enough dialogue. Yes, appearance of the screenplay does matter. Incorrectly formatted screenplays are a tipoff that the writer is a novice and will be given less credibility.

The movie will be seen and should be shown and not told, therefore what the film will look like matters. However, remember the rule about not telling people how to do their jobs. The scenes should be written with minimal details—enough to make the reading interesting, not enough to bog it down or be too precise. Same thing with camera angles and shots, let the director and cinematographer determine the best angles and shots. However, the exception to that would be giving key information. For example. If a ring on the character’s hand is key to the story, in the action shot you will want to say something like:

The details of the four-leaf clover on his gold ring are visible, even while he hides his hand behind his back.

In this case you are telling both the cinematographer and the actor how to do their jobs, but rather than being overt, you are being subtle in showing that the ring is important to focus on and that the character is trying to hide the information.

I always suggest that you write the screenplay out fully, then go back and condense it down as much as possible once the structure is in place.

The best way to get a feel for the rhythm of a screenplay is to read the final drafts before the shooting draft in the genre you are interested in writing. Remember, you are telling a story, but the story will be seen and you can’t tell or explain the things you would through narrative in a book, you have to show them.

Below is a brief sample from the opening of my screenplay Seventy Times Seven, which has received several awards. V.O. means voice over. The character is capitalized the first time being introduced and sometimes words that are noted for sounds are capitalized.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That’s brilliant. Thank you, Nancy!

For more than 25 years Nancy has invested thousands of hours of studying writing including two graduate degrees: a master’s in Professional Writing (MPW, which is a multi-discipline approach to writing) from the University of Southern California and an MFA in playwriting at USC’s School of Theatre. She has received numerous awards for her writing and some of her stories have been read on public radio. Nancy has also studied writing with several successful, award-winning writers. Her book, The Writer’s Compass: From Story Map to Finished Draft in 7 Stages, covers the full creative writing process. She’s published more than 130 articles and been editor of two print and two online publications. Presently Nancy is academic editor of the Graziadio Business Review, a business journal for the Graziadio School at Pepperdine, and currently teaches screenwriting at Pepperdine University to undergraduate and graduate students. Her website is http://nancyellendodd.com.

If you would like to write a writing-related guest post for my blog then feel free to email me with an outline of what you would like to write about. If it’s writing-related then it’s highly likely I’d email back and say “yes please”.

The blog interviews return as normal tomorrow morning with article and short story author and dating novelist Siggy Buckley – the two hundred and seventy-eighth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, bloggers, autobiographers and more. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further. And I enjoy hearing from readers of my blog; do either leave a comment on the relevant interview (the interviewees love to hear from you too!) and / or email me. You can also read / download my eBooks and free eShorts at Smashwords.

Guest post: How Do You Handle the Big “C”? (Or What Do You Do With Criticism) by Nancy Ellen Dodd

Tonight’s guest blog post, on the wonderful topic of criticism, is brought to you by interviewee Nancy Ellen Dodd.

How Do You Handle the Big “C”? (Or What Do You Do With Criticism)

Personally, I handle criticism very badly. I cry. I tell myself I’ll never write again. I beat myself up for being such a poor communicator—or at least I used to.

Then I learned five simple words: “S/he is not my audience.” It’s as simple as that. My writing can’t possibly appeal to every person in the world, so this is someone my writing doesn’t appeal to.

Unfortunately, if you are in a group getting critiqued, you may find several “someones” who aren’t your audience. What typically happens in a workshop or writer’s group is that people feel it is their duty to find a flaw. If everyone figures out a different flaw, or if the group sees a flaw, but doesn’t know how define it, then you will get more criticism, possibly than warranted, and some of it may be hurtful, some of it confusing, and some of it wrong. I mean, have you ever jumped on the bandwagon when you weren’t sure yourself and agreed with someone who seemed to know what they were talking about?

The best way to handle criticism and negative comments is to know your own work so well that you know when someone is giving you good or unhelpful feedback. And even good feedback isn’t helpful if it derails you from your story.

Good feedback that takes your story in a different direction than you are interested in writing can cause you to lose interest in the story or even create writer’s block. If that happens, I suggest looking at your story and saying, what if it didn’t happen that way, what if it happened this way. Sometimes taking a fresh approach will reignite the idea you wanted to write.

So how do you know what you want to write and what will derail you. By knowing your story and being clear on what you are trying to say. Look at your theme repeatedly throughout your story development and see how you can tighten it, make it more specific. Look at your theme from different angles: as a premise, as a dramatic question, as a logline, as a brief synopsis, as a full-page synopsis. The more you write and develop your ideas, the more you understand what you want to say. Each time you rewrite and strengthen your theme, you get closer to the core of what you want to say about the world, about life, about humanity, about why cats sometimes love dogs, about whatever you are focused on.

How Do You Evaluate Comments

Let’s go back into the writing group. Sherry loves your story, Mack hates it. You’ve set your story in Fresno. Sherry suggests you move the setting to London—more people will be intrigued by a glamorous setting. Mack is sure it needs to be in a small rural town no one has ever heard of—you can create more mystery in an unknown setting and change the details to anything you want. They both have other ideas, Sherry’s from how to make it even better, Mack for improving it. However, they both agree that your main character would not spit on the sidewalk no matter who was standing there.

What do you do with all of this? First, it’s your story and maybe you don’t know why it takes place in Fresno, but the thought of moving it out of that setting feels wrong in your gut, however both Sherry and Mack have good points. And they probably do, they might even write a great story if they set it somewhere else, but that’s their story, not yours. There’s something in Fresno that matters to you, you have to keep writing about it until you figure out what that is and then use it.

Sherry and Mack both agree that you’ve misread your character. One of two things has occurred, you did misread your character and the character you thought you wrote about isn’t the same one they are reading about, or you threw something in to surprise the audience, but it doesn’t work organically with the character you’ve created. However, Jane loved the spitting on the sidewalk, it was so unexpected. How much stock do you usually put into what Jane says? If not much, this may not be the time to start; if a lot, then maybe the problem is that you haven’t completely setup the character to your readers that you have in your head.

Margo, along with several other people are telling you there is a problem with the way your characters are acting in the fourth chapter. Maybe if you change their attitude you can fix it, but everyone sees something different as the problem in chapter four. The motivation isn’t there. You’re missing a pertinent scene. Why do you have so many or too few characters? Something’s missing. You’ve included too much. No one can be specific or explain it in a way you understand. This means they may not know what the problem is, it just doesn’t work for them. You are going to have to keep working at it until you figure it out. However, too many people do a complete rewrite instead of tackling what could be a much smaller problem. Sometimes the issue is consistency or it may be a logic problem or maybe you haven’t set up the scene in such a way that the events are believable, which could be done with a couple of well-placed phrases.

Basically, when you get feedback you need to evaluate what that feedback means.

  • Is it someone else rewriting your story with their own ideas?
    • If so, unless it feels like a direction you want to take, no matter how good an idea, ignore it.
  • Is it a general consensus that you keep hearing?
    • If so, then you need to take a long hard look at whether you are being clear and communicating what you thought or if you are missing a key element in your writing.
  • Is this negative comment an attack and/or the person usually cynical?
    • If so, then maybe s/he isn’t your audience.

Thank you Nancy, that was great!

For more than 25 years Nancy has invested thousands of hours of studying writing including two graduate degrees: a master’s in Professional Writing (MPW, which is a multi-discipline approach to writing) from the University of Southern California and an MFA in playwriting at USC’s School of Theatre. She has received numerous awards for her writing and some of her stories have been read on public radio. Nancy has also studied writing with several successful, award-winning writers. Her book, The Writer’s Compass: From Story Map to Finished Draft in 7 Stages, covers the full creative writing process. She’s published more than 130 articles and been editor of two print and two online publications. Presently Nancy is academic editor of the Graziadio Business Review, a business journal for the Graziadio School at Pepperdine, and currently teaches screenwriting at Pepperdine University to undergraduate and graduate students. Her website is http://nancyellendodd.com.

If you would like to write a writing-related guest post for my blog then feel free to email me with an outline of what you would like to write about. If it’s writing-related then it’s highly likely I’d email back and say “yes please”.

The blog interviews return as normal tomorrow morning with Stella Deleuze – the two hundred and forty-seventh of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, bloggers, autobiographers and more. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further. And I enjoy hearing from readers of my blog; do either leave a comment on the relevant interview (the interviewees love to hear from you too!) and / or email me. You can also read / download my $1.49 eBooks and free eShorts at Smashwords.