Story skeletons

I stumbled upon Jim Butcher’s livejournal yesterday, where he provides some very good writing advice. (Read through it from bottom to top because the latest entry is always at the top.)

I checked back through my current draft using his Scenes/Sequels formula, and finally discovered why my story’s such a drag. The whole thing is out of focus.

So I’m starting at the beginning with a story skeleton. Here’s what that is, excerpted from his article:

The story skeleton is a description of the main plot of your book, broken down into its simplest elements. It’s two sentences long. Neither sentence is particularly long. Your plot needs to fit into that framework, or it’s going to be too complicated for the average newbie writer to handle well.

“Impossible,” I said to myself when Debbie told us that in class. “There’s no way you can break down a story as epic as mine into two sentences. You can’t possibly do that.” As it turned out, I could. If I hadn’t been able to do it, it would have been way too much story for me.

The story skeleton (also called a story question) consists of a simple format:


For instance, look at Storm Front. (Yes, I’ll use my own books as examples, because I’m just that way. πŸ˜‰ Also, I’m more familiar with them than I am with almost any other writer.) Storm Front’s story question:

When a series of grisly supernatural murders tears through Chicago, wizard Harry Dresden sets out to find the killer. But will he succeed when he finds himself pitted against a dark wizard, a Warden of the White Council, a vicious gang war, and the Chicago Police Department?

See! It’s oh-so-simple! Almost to the point of looking ridiculous–and I have no doubt that some of the people reading this article will think that it *is* ridiculous. They’re wrong. πŸ™‚ This is a fundamental description of the core conflict in your tale–and stories are all about conflict.

So I’m trying to write that for Spacetime and having the hardest time in the world, because I didn’t have a good story plan. The sad thing is, I could jot those down for my fanfics without blinking an eye.

Shadows of Chaos: When a mysterious black hedgehog appears and the moon is blown out of the sky, Sonic hunts down his old enemy, Robotnik, for some answers (and a good pummeling). But will he succeed against Shadow, the Ultimate Lifeform, and all the powers of chaos?

Mercury Inferno Rising: When Sonic is kidnapped during a diplomatic mission, his friends must work together to rescue him and defeat Shadow and his gang. But will he succeed when the Metal Overlord, who is pulling all the strings, descends upon the colonies with his devastating air raid?

Worthless: When Metal Sonic despairs of life, Shadow turns to Sonic, Knuckles and Tails for help and even gifts Metal Sonic a chao. But can Shadow succeed when a pair of thieves’ attempt to steal the Master Emerald teleports all of them into an inhospitable desert with Robo Knux hunting them?

See what I mean? Spacetime is much harder. Maybe that means it will be better?


4 thoughts on “Story skeletons

  1. It’s a fine line, isn’t it? The balance between near corny simplicity and insightful complexity…. The writer wants to have the story halfway planned out for the sake of their own sanity. Yet at the same time, writers often want for other people not to be able to easily describe the story. Perhaps they are aiming for a review of: “It was so great but to really understand, you’ll just have have to read it yourself.”


  2. I want other people to be able to describe the story! That’s how you get good reviews! But if I, myself, can’t describe my story, the story’s sunk before it’s even written.

    I eventually boiled it down to one sentence:

    James Chase not only has magic dripping from his hands at inopportune moments, but time and space are being distorted all over downtown Phoenix by a shadow mage and a classmate possessed by an ancient monster–and James only has a week before they destroy Phoenix and the rest of the world along with it.

    See? Simple. It only took me four drafts to write it!


  3. *applause* Congrats!

    To each their own, though. Guess I kinda am in the category of wanting people to read my stories for themselves. Because if they can describe the story too easily then I’d feel like I had been too predictable. That’s not my goal. Most often, I write to challenge myself – and, if I can, also challenge the reader and their perceptions.


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