The shape of a story

When I finished Barker, I tried to not write. It didn’t work–see Ss. Now, in the midst of a career pivot, I’m still writing. I’m outlining a novella and as I have a little time spare I thought I’d provide some insight into my process. This is where I’m at right now . . .

First Steps

A writing project hasn’t begun in my eyes until I create a place for it within my “Active Projects” folder. After doing that I create a Scrivener document. That document has two primary sections: Elements and Draft. The Draft section stays empty for a while. The Elements sections gets filled with a document for each of the following:

  • Meta: Key questions and other things I need to consider.
  • Authorial Intent: Musings on what I’m trying to accomplish with this project.
  • Characters: The cast of the story.
  • World: Where it takes place.
  • Events: What happens.
  • Narration: How is it shown and told.

For this project I’m corresponding with a subject matter expert. This means there’s an additional doc with all our dialogue.

Here’s how each of the above docs is filled out.


In this document I record critical information related to the project. Current snapshot:

  • Title: xxxx
  • Length: 20,000 words approx
  • Genre (time): Medium-form; novella
  • Genre (reality): Realism; imagined but possible
  • Genre (style): Drama; solemnity, facing reality as it is.
  • Genre (structure): Mini-plot; inner war of internal antagonism, d(a)emon-facing
  • Genre (content): Status / Worldview / Morality hybrid; see below
  • Controlling idea: Awakening
  • Idea scale: Suffering – Disillusioned – Being – Contented – Awakened
  • Inner conflict: T needs to face reality but he doesn’t want to.
  • Personal conflict: T tells GC his story and is scared of apologising to A
  • Greater conflict: T doesn’t want to be perceived as a bad partner and father.
  • P or C Driven: Character-driven
  • ‘A’ Story: T facing up to his self.
  • ‘B’ Story: T facing up to others.
  • Conventions: ???
  • Obligatory Scenes: ???
  • POV: 1st Person
  • Tense: Present; simple present
  • Soundtrack: Voices, Max Richter
  • Epigram/ph: ???

For a lot of this section, I’ve leaned heavily on the work of Shawn Coyne, Steven Pressfield and Robert McKee.

Authorial Intent

I always have an implicit idea of what I’m trying to accomplish. Often it’s actually a strong sense or deep feeling. However, I tend not to articulate it until I’ve explored the other sections/elements in depth, and even then I prefer to say less than necessary. I’ve found that holding the raison d’être of a project within gives me more energy and power when I attempt to realise it.


In contrast to Barker, where I went a little OTT with the character profiles, I’m doing very little discovery here. There are four notable characters and all I’m recording are their roles and their status (in the Keith Johnstone sense). The latter is either high, low or variable. In this case, I have two high status characters and two variable status characters.


In Ss, I essentially shirked outlining (aside from notebook scribbles). Here, I am returning to stricter form. As you can see below, the story takes place over five days. For each segment, I’ve allocated an average that the events should equate to.

Beyond a daily overview, each day is broken down into eight separate components, each of which will be its own beat and have its own charge. The cumulative total of the beats (49) divided by the approximate length (20,000 words) gives me a word target for the writing of each beat: 408 words. The aim is to create a detailed outline of the events before beginning to draft.


In this section, I lay out how I want the final prose to feel. With that objective in mind, I then choose the most appropriate POV (1st, 2nd or 3rd) and the most appropriate tense. In this case, I’ve elected a 1st person POV and the simple present tense.

With this project, I’ve also taken an additional step. In line with the ideas of moodboards, I’m creating sample styles. The prose will remain the same through it, but it will be supplemented with a different tone depending on the story’s events. For example, a beat with a “+ +” notation will have a different feel than a beat with a “- -” notation.

I think of this in terms of apparel. One person can wear many outfits; prose can remain the same in overall construction but have a different tone.


This seems like a lot of work, and it is. But doing it at the front end of a project means I don’t have to do it at the tail-end. The total amount of work remains the same, and there’s no right or wrong approach. Like most things, the answer to “How do I do X?” begins with “It depends…”