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 Story development - planning phase for Wife For Sale

Story and page copyright © 1997, Dorian Scott Cole
Previous copyrights apply

Advanced topics on this page: Writing a concept | Dynamic planning | Managing story development


Why plan a story? It's common to give up in frustration after writing the lions share of a story then finding out it doesn't work - so I plan. Planning will eliminate many things that can go wrong during the construction of a story. It actually saves about 40% of your writing time, and will keep the errors from being fatal to the story. But for some writers, seeing the story unfold as a yarn that is new to them is worth the gamble of not planning. Planning isn't for everyone, and I enjoy writing intuitively sometimes as well. The result will require some rewriting one way or the other.

Planning requires a good understanding of your goals. What am I trying to accomplish by writing Wife For Sale? Fundamentally to illustrate that people can make marriage work in spite of serious personal differences. Even more fundamentally, that our differences are often the key to bringing us together in a stronger marriage. That is a premise - and one I know to be true, but not universally. My story will have to realistically bear out that premise to be believable. If the premise of a story isn't believable you can throw the story away.

What genre am I writing? If I don't make some decisions up front, I could end up with a morose little drama that no-one will watch. I'm writing a romantic comedy. 

How am I going to make it humorous? These people are going to bicker and argue, and that usually isn't very funny, although The War of the Roses was very funny in spite of being a tragedy. How am I going to keep this story funny? By emphasizing the ridiculous lengths they go to trying to avoid bickering and arguing - humor drawn from the situation. I avoid one-liners, unless they fit, and stupidity. The characters will need to do amusing things. And I will use a "spoiler" character. More about the spoiler in another session. I will also use motifs to set the mood. 

What about a concept? Some say that is the place to start. I usually do characterization and work with the story some before I settle on a complete concept. In this case, I'm doing a major overhaul on a story that's over six years old. I got some excellent feedback on it from an Academy Award winning writer with a long and successful career. I know his advice was solid, and I have added my own advice. So now I am going to start writing the concept. You will see that this is a process.

For more on Writing a concept, continue to the next topic. 

What about a synopsis? A storyline? An outline?A brief script? A synopsis summarizes a finished story, but you can create a working synopsis as an expanded concept. A storyline could mean a lot of things, but is basically a working synopsis that I will use to create an outline. An outline contains descriptions of the dramatic action, or sequences, or scenes - depending on the level you feel you need to plan your project. Writers who use outlines typically use whatever form suits them best. An outline is not a formal outline of the story. Brief scripts are sometimes written as a draft for getting others interested, which I'm not doing. They are regarded by most writers and most publishers or studios as useless. Some studios demand them. However, for developing key elements in the story I will often expand the outline by writing some of the critical dialogue or scenes within it. I happen to frequently use all of them in my own ways. The key is to discover what works best for you. 

Brief script example


For more on Writing a concept, continue to the next topic. 

Writing a concept

Why do you need a concept? To keep your story in focus. In simpler terms, to keep me from wasting my time writing five characters I don't need, and from going off on a tangent about the CDC studying malaria victims in a comedy about marriage. A focused story has ten times as much power as one watered down by side treks.

What is a concept? A concept is basically a general idea of what the story is about. Concepts are about three lines long. Concepts are basically useless. What you need is an effective concept. Effective concepts will not only keep your story focused, they are excellent for telling others exactly what your story is about. That well developed statement can help you sell your story.

A fully developed concept creates an interesting question and a result. "What happens when a laid-back man and a driven woman marry and can't get along? They divorce and become more miserable." A fully developed concept consists of things important to the story: character, motivation, plot, subplot, conflict, climax, and resolution. It goes like this:

Typically a character wants something, which brings him into conflict with a second character. After a series of conflicts, which are handicapped by a subplot, and after a plot twist, the final battle erupts and character one finally resolves the conflict. Additionally, each main character should have a unique attribute that makes them interesting and is part of the story. In mine, the man is laid-back. The woman is driven. The combination should deliver an interesting story. 

So, here is what is going to happen in the story - the concept: 

A laid-back TV director rebels continuously against his driven wife and fantasizes of selling her. His old womanizing buddy spots the fake ad and calls. Both shocked, she goes out with him for spite. A bungling private detective tries to keep them together during several misunderstandings and reconciliations. Finally, as they they separate with different partners, they hesitate, realizing they want to be together, but they part. The detective bungles them together and they work out their differences. 

Now, it's your turn. I challenge you to create a concept for the story you are writing, or for a new story.

To see even more about the concept and Dynamic planning, continue to the next topic.

Dynamic planning

Process management - time to evaluate. If the concept was much longer it would be a synopsis. Ugh. Rephrasing may tighten it up. The story is high-concept (by my definition - romantic comedy), but the concept won't create a perfect storyline yet. I'll improve the concept after I have done more work on characterization. One weak spot is that the characters don't quite get back together under their own initiative - but the bungling detective is only a catalyst and this is a comedy, so I'm going to leave it. Another problem is that there is no cohesive subplot. A high concept story shouldn't get much more complicated - that destroys it. But so far, only the husband has any motivation (ending the squabbling) - there isn't something they both want that is creating a conflict (except their marriage). Something has to keep bringing them into conflict, and daily life probably won't be adequate for a story. And so far there are few surprises in the story - it's a bit predictable. 

What is the main plot? High concept - it is saving their relationship. It has to be very apparent that they want the relationship saved. This will require exercising a delicate balance between their bickering and their love. Love has to be the stronger motive. 

What about the premise? I believe that love being stronger than conflict parallels real life before animosity in a relationship reaches the point that conflict overshadows love. So my premise should hold.

What is the subplot? Something they both want that is less important than their relationship (or it will take over and become the plot) but is important enough to keep bringing them into conflict. 

What characterization must achieve: I expect characterization to create motives that conflict and create the conditions for the plot and subplot, and create the spoiler character. Also, characterization must create character motives and attributes that are the foundation for captivating characters.

What the plotting must achieve in this story: Plotting must create a storyline in which motives are demonstrated early; the characters are brought to their first crisis, motive conflict occurs repeatedly with increasing intensity; the subplot remains less important than the main plot, but helps develop the plot; the spoiler role has to both help create and defuse conflict; surprises have to be created - possibly including a plot twist; plus a final crisis has to be developed and a satisfying resolution.

To learn more about Managing story development, continue to the next topic.

Managing story development

So why don't I resolve the concept problems now? Writing a story is a process and can be managed. Process management recognizes that a process is dynamic - changing. The writing process is not a linear process. As with most development processes, you set yourself up for failure if you establish a rigid overly defined goal and a set a rigid linear path. If you insist on a linear path, then obstacles that arise require Herculean efforts. At the first point something doesn't work as planned, the project is considered a failure and is abandoned. The odds that something will go wrong almost guarantee failure sooner or later.

Managing chaos isn't much better. Projects without a concept and some thought toward regularly checking the status of things are chaotic. Chaos has no goal. You can establish a goal and ride the wind, but it is very difficult to constantly keep the wind under control. (Managers in some fields must do this.) The result of chaos is serendipitous results or more chaos. The odds of chaos being a straight line toward an acceptable goal are in the realm of practical improbability. Stories are in highly competitive markets. I would not want to begin ordering a story out of chaos and depend on serendipitous results. But there are some highly talented people who can.

Process management always produces acceptable results. Process management1 understands that as the project unfolds, new possibilities are revealed and some things don't work as planned. For example, I have a broad concept in mind of what I want to write. It's intuitive - it comes from within. I almost always start there - not with characterization. Characterization is an intiutive approach also. Writing characters will typically drag some gut level feelings out of tbe writer that produce story directions. But five of the six characters produced may not work at all in the story. If you have some idea in mind first of what the story is about, you can create characters that are more "in tune" and focused for the story. The most important point is this: the plot develops from the interaction of character motivations. To develop an honest plot, characterization is the first step. See Where to begin.

To begin, using a process management approach, you define your goal a little more broadly. For example, I want a romantic comedy about two people who can't get along. I don't need to specify the other points that I have in the concept, because I may need to change them. The next thing to do is to establish a project planning and writing plan - mine is in my head and is pouring out here - with check-points to review the project and evaluate the story. If something isn't working, or if you see you can take advantage of something unexpected, you redo the plan (concept, characterization, plotting, scenes) and continue. You continue doing this until you reach your goal. 


1 Process management: See for a general example of the process management approach.

The Process Of Management (Prentice-Hall; 1987)

Note: process management, as I describe it for managing a writing project, is not a systems approach. Information is not designed by a system nor forced into an artificial paradigm of how a story should be structured, nor are elements specified that must be in a story, nor categorized in any way. There is no substitute for creativity or for the writer understanding what elements should go into his particular story. Process management is a type of management that is independent of the process being managed.

Other distribution restrictions: None

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