Designing the Story

Table of Contents

Chapter 4


  1. Truckers and road builders.
  2. Deciding where to go.
  3. Parameters.



The first step in learning how to design a story is realizing the experiencing a story is not the same as design a story.  Anyone who has tried to design a video game already understands this.  Playing a game is nothing like getting the game to work.

Our skill as an audience member –at best– gives us an ear for what might seem right or wrong once the story is finished – but almost nothing about how to design a story from scratch. This is because designing a story and consuming a story are two entirely different endeavors.

A member of the audience is like a truck driver.  The driver is mostly unaware of how the land was altered to make way for this road.  And even what he can see – like a bridge across water – he knows almost nothing about the engineering that keeps his truck out of the water below.  He sees almost nothing about these features because the driver cares almost entirely about how the road carries him ahead to where he wants to go.  He is not there to build a road.  He is there to deliver a truckload of cargo.

On the other hand, writing a story is like a civil engineer who focuses on how roads are made.  Long before the first travelers embark, her concern focuses on how the road must serve the needs of those who will use it.  As the engineer develops and reviews her design, she wonders if the bridges are high enough, or if she’s placed enough drainage near desert washes, or if the paving material here and there is really suitable for the local weather.

Both our trucker and our civil engineer are highway experts in their own ways, but the expertise needed to drive atop a finished roadway is not the same as the expertise needed for its design and construction.

To write a book is not the same thing as to read a book.  To make a movie is not the same thing as to watch a movie.  To design a story for a computer game is not the same thing as to play a computer game.  As a member of the audience we can distinguish the difference between good and bad storytelling, and we may have all sorts of opinions about the plot and character development – just like the trucker who can distinguish every bump in the road.  But that does not make us storytellers any more than a bumpy road creates civil engineers.

One could read every story in literature, view every movie ever made, and play every computer game ever built, and little would be known about the underlying design craft of these products.  We would have our opinions and tastes, and our experience would show us examples of what we might like to pursue and avoid in our own writing styles – but so far we’ve only seen a finished product and nothing about how it was produced.

So, before we go any further, I’ll explain how to design a story from the bedrock up.



Your goal is the most important factor in a design.  In transportation engineering, the goal might be to create a flashy sports car with lots of performance.  Or maybe a truck with a practical amount of cargo space.  What is the point of a sports car?  To draw attention and provide an entertaining road experience.  What is the point of a truck?  To haul stuff.  What is the point of your story? Whatever premise you wish to prove.

When I begin to write a story, I forget about settings, plot lines, cute dialog, massive explosions, robots, and engaging characters – all of that material comes later.  At first, I focus only on where I want to go with my design – what sort of story will best raise the premise as a clear idea, then ways that I can prove my premise through events.  This decision becomes the central guideline for all subsequent decisions while I work out the details.

Just as every decision about a sports car design is done with the objective of creating a flashy and drivable automobile, and just like how every component of a truck is designed foremost as practical cargo-hauling vehicle, the pieces of a story are selected and assembled with the premise in mind.  Anything that is misaligned to my goal is replaced or completely discarded. Anything of value left disconnected is either tied in or tossed out.  If I stick to my goal I will make my point with the audience almost as a byproduct of having included only those elements that support my premise.

How do you ultimately prove your premise?

You decide what the premises is – where you want to go – and then work like mad to make that point in every step along the way.  You remind yourself of the goal when imagining characters, select a setting, and deciding what happen next.  You never stop thinking about the premise and you use this like putty knife to apply the story elements while at the same carving away loose ends, ill-fitting scenes, irrelevant dialogue, and everything else that does not fit.

In the end, if you stay on-track, there will be little doubt why each part of the story is there and where the whole story is headed.

But how to focus this in detail?

Define a set of Parameters.



Parameters are the accepted limits placed on a design.  Starting with your premise, writing a story is a matter of continual refinement where you produce material within the constraints of your design parameters.

The written form of your design parameters are called ‘specifications.’  For a truck, specifications might be its cargo capacity, transmission ease-of-use, and ‘manly’ styling. For a sports car, specifications might be cornering ability or sound system performance. Parameters are not the actual design decisions, but rather the goals you are constantly trying to achieve while you are making specific decisions.  How fast should the car be able to go, for example, rather than saying exactly how much horsepower it needs.  For a character in a story, the specification might be something like a ‘handsome gentlemen’ – which is later used to gradually reveal the character’s physical an emotional details such as education, height, build, hair color, exact age, ethnicity, etc.

Here are the five most important design parameter questions to answer while designing your story…

  • What do you want to prove?
  • Who would you like to see in the story?
  • Where would you like the story to happen?
  • When would you like this story to take place?
  • What is the single most obvious way to prove the premise?

What do you want to prove?

I’ve talked a lot about how the audience must come to understand your premise as the storytelling experience unfolds.

But how do we come up with a premise?

As mentioned in Chapter 1, the premise can be any statement of fact – even something untrue in the real world.  It should also be a statement that galvanizes the thoughts of the writer, something that is truly annoying or genuinely interesting.  Some of my personal favorites are along the lines of power and how it corrupts normal people.  As a storyteller, your premises must matter to you on some level, even if you do not entirely agree with it.

Often a favorite premise is far from unique, and this is perfectly fine since just about every idea for a premise has been covered at one time or another.  In fact, some authorities will argue that every premise has already been written. So, trying to cough up something truly unique may be a wasted effort.  Many fine stories have been written based on a fairly ordinary-sounding premise like “good will overcome evil,” or “decency will prevail even in the midst of horror.” Just say what you want to say, and don’t worry if somebody else has tried to make this point before.  The story will still be unique and your story to tell.

If the idea of creating a premise feels foreign to you, you can start to get a feel for this by writing out the premise from stories you have been experiencing lately.  Try to say out loud what the story is trying to say (not a synopsis of what is happening).  A good story will broadcast its premise over and over in many different ways.  For example, in the movie Men in Black: Everything we can read in the tabloids about spaced aliens is true.  Often a character will actually state the premise straight out, like when K stops to read a tabloid headline and in all seriousness deadpans how the tabloids are “the most authoritative reporting on the planet.”

Another way to hear a premise is listening to people who speak passionately on a topic. Passionate people will often spin their premise into a catch phrase – like Martin Luther King’s famous “I have a dream…” speech, where the point is how he believes that his dream will soon become a reality.

Pick something.  Try it on for size.  Perhaps start sketching out some ideas for characters and settings to help your thoughts.  Yet, don’t start to write anything concrete until you have written your premise in ink and taped to the side of your computer screen.  Remember – your premise will be the anchor and reference point for every character, setting, idea, and action in your story.  Work as long as it takes to produce a premise that feels right to you. Once you know what you want to prove, you will have a guide and filter for the whole story – and based on this you’ll properly select what belongs, and discard what does not fit.

Who would you like to see in the story?

Each main character needs to start with a motto for life – a central guiding principle (in essence – their personal premise).

Here are nine types of people to get you off your diving board and into to the water…

  1. The perfectionist – Being right is most important.
  2. The over-giver – Making other people happy is most important.
  3. The performer – Image is everything.
  4. The reclusive artist – Trust no one.
  5. The inventor – Trust no one else’s ideas.
  6. The servant – Do what you are told, that will keep you safe.
  7. The fun-lover – I do what I want, and I am good at what I enjoy.
  8. The bully – I am the boss.
  9. The accommodator – I bend to fit in.

Characters have a history.  Sketch a background story describing the most important events in their past. These can leak into the ‘real story when useful, though they are most useful for painting the character clearly in the writer’s mind.  In your imagination, you should see each character to the extent that you know how they dress, who they might vote for, where they might shop, and what rubs them the wrong way.  Construct your characters in ways that intrigue you – ways that make them unique and interesting and larger than life verging on the superhuman.  Give them the capacity to become great characters once they are revealed to their fullest extent.

It takes a little practice to create realistic and somewhat larger-than-life characters complete with backstories.  Yet not so hard once you understand how the world is full of useful building blocks.  Many of us have worked for a tyrannical or bumbling boss.  Most of us have clear memories of our parents and grandparents – or an insane uncle – and we’ve had the chance to see how our friends interacted with their families, and our co-workers with each other.  We all know crazy, quirky, manic, annoying, weird, stupid, and brilliant people in real life – these are the building blocks for your characters.

Go to the mall.  Go to a gospel church.  Go to where people hang out.  Listen and watch.  DON”T go to the movies or read any stories to find your characters – these are not real people, and you’ll only succeed –at best– in making a very imperfect copy of what somebody else has already created.  Instead build unique characters from the intriguing pieces of the real people you meet in the real world.  They are out there. Believe me.

Here’s one way to do this in detail…

When you see some character trait or mannerism or catchy way of speaking, make a mental note, then jot down that down as soon as you can.  After collecting several hundred snapshot notes, write these out on Post-it notes, plaster these on a wall, then grab handfuls at random and to read these out loud one after the other without pausing for a second.  Next, immediately ad lib a sketch about this person based on these snapshots plus whatever else pops into mind – who they are, what they do for a living, who they live with, etc.  It sounds nuts at first – but push ahead anyway.  Grab more notes to fill the missing pieces or to take your sketch in a whole new direction.  Don’t be afraid to say anything.  Let your imagination loose.  Nothing is being cast in concrete yet.  Sometimes this creates great characters.  Often it’s a massive joke that goes nowhere at first.  No matter how it goes at first, keep trying, and keep adding to your note collection.  Eventually, you’ll come up with some amazing characters.

Where would you like the story to happen?

Once the premise is set and you have your main characters sketched out, the next most important decision is the physical setting.  Although we have pieced some characters together, we cannot effectively pin down who these people are until we have a sense for where the story will take place.  A military setting might infer a tendency towards macho behavior, whereas a university setting might steer the characters toward a veneer of intellectual reserve.

The premise is one guide for deciding on the setting, and the collection of characters you have in mind is the other.  If the story is leaning toward become a ‘morality play’ and your characters seem interested in the dilemmas that arise when hard choices are required, then perhaps a religious setting might be effective.  If it is “the good individual versus the evil empire,” perhaps an authoritarian world is best.  Keeping the crucible in mind as discussed in Part 1, try out lots of smaller settings – real places you know about in some detail – especially places you know well from your personal experience, if at all possible.  Don’t just say “Africa.” Instead, try pinning the setting down to a tight locality such as “the Orthodox Jewish section of Omaha, Nebraska,” or “a small fishing village on Kodiak Island, Alaska.”

Once you begin to have an idea for your setting – go there, or at least go to someplace as much the same as possible.  Sniff the air.  Listen to the sounds.  This is the world of your story, and as the creator of your story you will become a sort of demigod of the place – knowing more about it than anyone in the story itself.  Simply put, your characters can only occupy the space that you create for them.  They cannot take up any more space than what you provide for them

How do you design your setting?

In the same way that you collect notes on human behavior, start keeping notes on interesting places.  The best settings are often combinations of two or more real places.  This produces a sense of authenticity without worrying over the problem of correctly depicting a place the way it is in the real world.  If you are writing fiction, you are totally free to borrow from the real world, but it will be a major distraction to your writing and to the audience experience if the setting attempts to get everything right from the a real place.  We never ‘get everything right,’ so why bother to try?

The same as when you design your characters, never copy setting ideas from existing stories. You will create a second-rate setting based only on your limited interpretation of somebody else’s imagination.  Instead, make your snapshot notes about real places – just lie you did when you invented your characters.  Write your setting snapshots on Post-it notes. Plaster them on a wall.  Then, grab a bunch at random try to describe this place until a picture starts to form.  If this isn’t working, start over, mix more in.  Take some out.  Keep trying.

Once you like what you are imagining for setting ideas – write like crazy about this place until you know where everything is – from the town clock tower that strikes the hours 12 minutes late to the bakery where someone always seems to forget about pies smoldering in the oven.  Fill the place with details.  Whether all of this shows in your story does not matter.  What matter is that you have a place feels real to you – a place where your characters can play out the story.

When would you like this story to take place?

Another parameter refinement is the decision about when the story happens—in the past, the future, or contemporaneous. ‘When’ also includes the time before the story – the backstory– and the total time period covered.  It may be just one afternoon, or across many generations.  In post-apocalyptic stories, the ‘when’ takes place in a future right after some sort of recent collapse.  In this case, ‘when’ very likely includes the present time of the story plus the events that led up to the current messed up circumstances.

Deciding when the story will happen is often a matter of simple artistic preference.  Or sometimes your story confines you choice.  Perhaps the present day doesn’t face the kinds of problems that your story addresses.   For example, if key characters are robots with true human social skills – the setting will need to be futuristic.

A story about human passions, conflicts over money, childrearing, a romance story, or some other interpersonal topic can happen in the present age, and there is no need to resurrect the past or construct a fictional future.  On the other hand, if you are focusing on a horrendous consequence for mankind based on the poor decision-making of those in power, it might be better to select some truly dark moment from history, or design a dark terrible future.

The advantages of a present-day time period include familiarity and less effort diverted into replicating the past or inventing a future. On the other hand, the present day offers few unique settings that haven’t yet been thoroughly explored.

Ultimately, when to set your story depends on where the writer’s expertise and interests lie.  A historian may have no problem recreating an ancient setting, whereas a journalist might be more comfortable sticking with the present-day – and someone with a technological bent might feel be entirely comfortable inventing a setting in the future.

For certain – the audience is full of experts on history, current events, and technology.  And so, whatever time you do pick, it’s wise to research as much as necessary to get this right.  Your setting doesn’t needs to be perfect.  But at the very least, you’ll need your setting to support the events of the story, and if properly worked out, it won’t produce a litany of obvious inconsistencies that drive the audience to distraction.

What is the single most obvious way to prove the premise?

This question is really the first tool I use to figure out what happens in the story.  Once I have my premise, my roughly drawn main characters, and a tentative location and time, I start to sketch out tentative routes for the story.  Of course, much more could be written on how to generate the story events than what I say here.  Yet, I have to start someplace, so here we go…

Remember the temperature curve (Chapter 3)?  During the second half of the story, once the protagonist begins to take on his nemesis, he will repeatedly fail along the way except for the climactic sequence of events at the end of the story.  This is where I start to write specific scenes – right in the middle of the main conflict.

Keeping in mind how you’re trying to prove the premise, and using your fabricated characters and settings, I write 10 to 20 brief scenes or sequences of scenes, each that are intended to be the big climactic end of the story.  I don’t worry if these are almost the same or vastly different – the objective now is to get the ball rolling so that I have material to work with. Most of this will wind up in the trash, so I don’t go hog-wild with detail.  I write maybe a paragraph or two for each attempt.

Next, I set aside all but the best five or six of these scene sequences and rate them in order of most intense to least powerful.  After this, I place the second strongest sequence at the midpoint of the story (this will be rewritten to be the midpoint crisis), then I lay out the rest in ascending order of temperature all the way to the end of the story, placing the strongest sequence last.  At the end of each climatic scene (except the last), I show how each attempt fails – how the protagonist gets tripped up or outmaneuvered by the antagonist.  Only at the end of the very last sequence does the protagonist finally win.

Of course, I have just made a huge mess, since none of these scenes connect.  Now I rewrite each sequence – changing what happens to make the events fit together.  I leave the intensity alone and keep rewriting these sequences until it starts to look like a story

Next, I have a look at possible beginnings for the story – something that might place the characters in an initial bind – like the way McCoy runs into the time machine leaving Kirk and rest of the landing party trapped in time (see Chapter 3).  Once I’ve placed my protagonist and main supporting characters into an initial bind, I write scenes showing them coming to grips with the predicament while they struggle to formulate a plan that deals with their understanding of the antagonist at that point.  In the early part of the story I expose the main characters to addition information that lets them slowly come to grips with the exact nature of their dilemma.  I keep adding more material along these lines until the protagonist is full impaled on the horns of this dilemma to the point where a choice must be made.  This is the midpoint crisis of the story (Chapter 3) when the protagonist realizes what he/she is up against.  Now there must be a choice:  Persevere or quit.  And as already discussed, this can’t be an easy choice.  There will be a price to pay either way.

The midpoint crisis thereby ties the first half of the story to the second half with its five or six sequences of growing conflicts that I’ve already roughed out.

Before you can say you have a rough draft, you’ll also need to write earlier scenes to outline the story, introduce and splash the main characters (especially the protagonist and antagonist) and reveal the premise in some way.  I don’t bother with an epilogue for now since at this stage I have no idea yet what loose ends might be hanging around desperately asking for an answer.  I tend not to write any sort of epilogue until I have a near complete final draft.  If possible, I never write it.

Of course, even after all the essential pieces are written in a rough form, I still have a giant mess in my hands.  Yet, now the basic framework intact and properly lined up for the details to come – including dialog, scene development.  Rewriting and polishing will come later. Everything needs work – but a proper framework I can work down into the details without worrying about whether or not some major structural element is missing.

It’s all there.  It just needs a lot of effort and dedication.  Yet, like a bulldozer clearing the land, I now know where to plow ahead into the detailed writing.

That’s where we’ll pick up next time…

Next Time: Selecting the Details

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