Techniques of the Selling Writer – Planning: An Overview of Beginning, Middle, and End

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” – Abraham Lincoln


I apologize, once again, for another large gap in time from my last article. I’d like to say it’s not a regular thing, but it looks to have become that way. Hopefully you’ve decided to stick around and are still learning. The next set of entries will take a closer look at beginnings, middles and ends, but before we go there, let’s zoom out a bit.

“A certain amount of organization is essential.”

Most of us write because we love getting our ideas onto the page, hoping to express them with the perfect words. We want to become Captain Nemos, taking readers for the ride of their life because we so admire the Captain Nemos that took us on their rides.

Image courtesy of www.wgbh.org

This desire can work on our patience, pressuring us to skip the whole idea of planning our journey and to just strip off our clothes because the water looks so damned inviting.

“Planning, schmanning! That’s just, like, killing my vibe, man.”

There’s always fun to be had in floating with the current, enjoying whatever exotic locales are presented to us. This can become a problem though, because we typically end up with Family Circus-like routes: Interesting to the writer because of all the cool things we discover along the way, but often annoying to the reader because of the lack of focus. What may capture our imagination will lead the reader to think we’re just meandering.

“Get to the point!” she says, or “What happened to that character I loved so much in chapter two?”

Before you accuse me of being a complete killjoy, let me say that I love a good meandering and I think it’s essential to coming up with thrilling stories. For Swain, the difference is that you should experience 90% of that meandering during the planning phase. Use most of your creative energy for crafting the story, as a whole, before you write it. That way, when you write, you can spend that same creative energy on finding the right words and phrasing to bring those genius ideas of yours to life.

Now, some people prefer to call this planning stage the “first draft” and they cut, add, refold, and stretch during further revisions. Though Swain makes no mention of this method in his book, I think that’s a perfectly fine way to go about it. To be honest, I think it’s mostly semantics in the end. Whether your “plan” is a basic outline, a narrative summary, or a full blown attempt at writing the book, as long as the end goal is to generate a “proper” story, have at it. You need to discover what works for you.

So let’s agree some form of planning is a good idea. How should we do it?

There are all sorts of devices for putting together a framework for your story (including the ones I mentioned above). James Scott Bell came up with the LOCK method, which I highly recommend and used for fleshing out the concept of my current work-in-progress. Dwight Swain’s method uses five elements that exist in every solid commercial story. There are more out there and they all focus on pretty much the same overall destination, but are just different vehicles for getting there. Here’s what Swain lays out:

  • Character – A story needs someone the reader can identify with and through whose senses you experience their world.
  • Situation – Focal characters don’t exist in a vacuum and they need a situation that forces them to act.
  • Objective – You focal character needs an objective born out of their situation. They don’t necessarily need to achieve it, but must march toward it.
  • Opponent – Someone or something needs to throw up roadblocks. Remember, danger breeds tension and tension is why most fiction readers read.
  • Disaster – These same readers expect a climax and satisfying ending.

Many things not listed here also deserve attention during the planning phase – character arc and theme being two off the top of my head. But these five elements give you solid ground on which to build.

Swain recommends taking these elements and focusing on them with two very specific sentences. Extraneous and abstract words only blur the issue.

“Slickness and subtlety can come later.”

Sentence one should be a statement establishing character, situation and objective. Sentence two should be a question identifying the opponent and disaster. It should be able to be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no.’

What better way to illustrate than with a horrible example?

Jim Bob is abandoned by his wife of thirty years and now he seeks to find out where she went. Will the aliens who kidnapped her be able to stop him before they can ship her off to an intergalactic zoo?

We can break this down according to the five elements:

CharacterJim Bob
Situationis abandoned by his wife of thirty years
Objectiveand now he seeks to find out where she went.
OpponentWill the aliens who kidnapped her be able to stop him
Disasterbefore they can ship her off to an intergalactic zoo?

Remember, the planning phase is your opportunity to go wild. Don’t restrict yourself. Some of your best thoughts may be squeezed from the bottom of the toothpaste tube and when it comes time to actually writing your story, you’ll be glad you made note of every single “stupid” idea that came to you.


As always, thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule to read and comment. I hope you found this entry useful.

-Phillip

0 thoughts on “Techniques of the Selling Writer – Planning: An Overview of Beginning, Middle, and End

  1. […] Planning: An Overview of Beginning, Middle, and End […]

  2. Your posts are worth waiting for, Phillip–they are always full of good advice. I especially love the idea of focusing on the first two sentences–in this example, they also sound like the “elevator pitch.” I’d add one point: whatever you call the technique of cutting those “extraneous and abstract words,” save them somewhere, because they are often fodder for another fabulous story.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Candace! 🙂 I like your addition as well. I’ve learned to never delete any of the stuff I’ve sketched or put to paper. It’s fun to go back through my notebooks/files and run with some of the ideas in there.

  3. Wow. I wasn’t familiar with the Lock method. Interesting!!! I guess craft book writers have different ways of describing the process. Some call the first draft a discovery draft where you discover the story you’ll refine in the revision phase.

    I’m not much of an outliner. In my WiP, I started with a character. All I knew about her was where she worked–in her family’s inn. Other than that, I had to discover what the deal was. It’s sort of like C. S. Lewis who had an image of a faun as he started writing The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Anyhoo, I wrote a scene with my character to see if I could discover what made her tick and what the inciting incident of her story would be. I discovered that after a chapter or so.

    1. Interesting about C.S. Lewis, I didn’t know about that. Glad to hear you found a method that works for you. I think it probably varies with each story as well. There are times in your life where outlining just isn’t doing anything for you and you need to try a different tack, or vice-versa. Thanks for reading and the comment!

  4. No apologies necessary, Phillip. “What happened to that character I loved so much in chapter two?” I love that! I’ve often asked myself that question while reading. I’ve dabbled a little in Swain’s book, but what I’ve read, like your post has been very helpful. I’ll probably move his book to the top of my craft stack.

    1. Thanks for checking in, Jill! It’s definitely one of my all-time favorite writing books, maybe #1. It’s a bit daunting on the first read through (at least I thought so), but a lot of it begins to fall into place as you study it more.

  5. In elementary school, we teach students a similar, simplified version for fiction writing. We call it: “Somebody Wanted But So.”
    1. Somebody (character)
    2. Wanted (character’s goal/objective)
    3. But (villain/problem/road block)
    4. So (steps character takes to solve the problem).

    We practice the technique by reading short anthology stories and identifying the elements. Then we encourage students to use this outline in planning their own stories. Great post!

    1. Wow, that’s a fantastic way to teach people (not just kids) about putting a story together. Thanks for sharing Gwen and glad you stopped by.

  6. […] was the topic of my latest blog entry in the Dwight Swain […]

  7. […] I’ve talked about James Scott Bell’s LOCK system before and how it’s a fantastic way to plan your story from the 30,000-foot level (or 9,144-metre level for my foreign friends who turn their noses up at the Imperials). […]

  8. […] Now that we understand a need for strategy, let’s take a deeper look at what planning really entails. […]

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