Skip to content

NaNo Prep: Figuring Out What Your Story’s “About” Before You Start Writing

Monday, October 21, 2013

One of the essential ingredients in pre-planning your writing in order to be able to churn out a high word count in a short time span is to know what your story is about before you start writing. And there are several exercises you can do to figure this out. (And this makes another good section to put in your Story Bible.)

The One-Paragraph Marketing Blurb
This is some of the most fun “synopsis” writing you will ever do . . . because this is practice for hooking people on your story idea in one paragraph or less. Basically, you’re practicing writing back-cover copy in this exercise.

  • Explain your story in four or five sentences.
  • What is the main plot of the story?
  • What is the major conflict in the story?
  • Who are the characters (no more than three, preferably one or two) who are the stakeholders in the plot?
  • What is the hook/question you can end with to make people want to know more? (Doesn’t have to actually be phrased as a question.)
  • Study back-cover copy of your favorite books.
  • Read the marketing copy on Amazon or author or publisher websites.

The James Scott Bell Formula for the one-paragraph blurb:
Start with three sentences

    1. [Name] is a [description] who wants/is struggling with [goal].
    2. But when [something happens], [Name] has to [change direction].
    3. Now, [Name] must [go do something] or else [something bad will happen].

Expand it with one or two more sentences to make it even more compelling (and to give a hint at where/when it’s set).

Your blurb should be between 75–200 words, with around 100–150 being an optimum length for one-sheets and proposals and websites and back-cover copy.

      Sample Blurb using the JSB Formula:
      Luke Skywalker is a farmboy who wants to escape his life of drudgery by enrolling in the Imperial Academy. Before he can, one of his uncle’s new androids begins to malfunction and then runs away, so Luke must go after him or face his uncle’s wrath. But when Luke finds the rogue droid and hears a distress call from a beautiful princess, he finds himself embroiled in a war that could spell doom for the entire galaxy.

The One-Page Synopsis
Expand your one-paragraph summary to a one-page (single-spaced) summary. This is your chance to tell your story in about 500–800 words. Focus on your main character(s), the main theme (one or two), the inciting incident, the conflict it causes, the climax, and the resolution. This is about the length of the pitch you want to prepare for a 15 minute appointment with an editor or agent, or what most contests these days are looking for you to submit along with your pages.

What-if, Why, When, Who, and So On
Before you start writing your story, write down all of the questions, ideas, and leading questions you can think of. When you write out your story summary, what questions come to mind? When you think about your plot and main conflict, what are the what-if scenarios they bring up for you? When you write out your characters’ backstories, what ideas do their experiences, personalities, strengths/weaknesses, etc., give you for ways you can test them (or torture them, as that’s a lot of fun, too)?

Scene Cards
Wall Plotting | KayeDacus.comI’ve shown this photo many, many times here, but I like trotting it out. I use the large 4×4 (I think) lined Post-it Notes to do scene cards. Using my synopsis (and usually what I’ve already written) I created viewpoint-character color-coded scene cards for the scenes I know I need/want in the story based on all of the previous work I’ve done (and since I’ve been writing books over the last four years that were sold based on the long synopsis, most of those scenes came from culling the synopsis for them). I then also do the what-if/why/when/who exercise from above and write out additional “possible” scene cards. You can be as low-tech as Post-it Notes on a wall or as high tech as doing it in any of several pieces of software that we’ve already discussed.

You Don’t Have to Know the Whole Story!
With all this said, let me be clear in stating that you don’t have to know everything about your story before you start writing. Most of us are not detailed outliners who know every single scene, every single conflict, that will take place in the story. That’s most of the fun of writing for the majority of us—having something come up and surprise us as we’re writing. But this caveat does lead into the discussion for today:


What do you need to know about your story before you start writing in order not to get stuck 10,000 words in?

  1. Monday, October 21, 2013 3:32 pm


    These are some of the BEST…most helpful hints I’ve come across in preparing for NaNoWriMo!! Thanks so much for sharing!!


  2. stuart5wakefield permalink
    Wednesday, October 23, 2013 6:45 am

    Having been through your NaNo prep posts I think I need to know my main players, main conflicts, main plot points (beats), and overall outline. My editor always encourages me to write toward the Climax of the story. I guess I write like an animator draws in that I write the main scenes first and then go back and fill in the transition scenes (and subplots if there are any). I’m really enjoying working through your exercises. I’ve never planned this much before and I know it’s going to pay dividends!


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: