Focus Your Story Development


I’m still reading and absorbing Peter Dunne’s information in  Emotional Structure: Creating the Story Beneath the Plot Emotional Structure: Creating the Story Beneath the Plot. Basically, he has a 7 or 8 step process of developing an outline that begins with a simple Three Sentence statement about the story. Each sentence covers one act.

Here’s an example from his book:


Scott Peck is doing just fine in the Big Apple taking city College courses during the day and driving an ambulance at night, until his mother calls from Muncie, Indiana, to tell him his kid sister ran away from home. Desperate to find her, he reluctantly teams up with a sarcastic and beautiful street-savvy stranger in a hung against the clock, against the odds, and sometimes against the law. Their urgent pursuit across a patchwork of cities and towns, pavement and pasture, high rises and silos becomes a search for their own runaway hearts in an American social landscape devoid of the love youth needs.

A couple observations. Things don’t really seem to go from bad to worse, nor is the ending much more than a statement of the theme for Act 3’s single sentence. But you can see the possibilities of emotions and events and that is what Dunne is interested in at first.

What could you learn about your story as you do this simple exercise? I tried it with a new story idea. What it forced me to do was to evaluate 4-5 possible themes and decide on what I wanted to emphasize. Often, theme is one of the last things writers think about; Dunne suggests that it is the most important thing to plan. Interesting, eh?

My Attempt

Here’s my attempt at a sentence per act. You’ll notice I had a hard time being that concise.

Act 1. Eliot is dealing with the grief of losing his adoptive father (Griffin Winston) to a sudden brain aneurism, when Marjorie Winston, his step-mother, deals him another blow. She’s not sure she wants to sign his adoption papers. It’s not working with Griff gone and maybe, they should go their separate ways.

Act 2. Desperate to salvage this chance at a family, Eliot teams up with Mysty Flynn, another foster child, to convince Marjorie that their small family is worth the work and pain by making sure Marjorie’s Bread Project (a community based effort to feed the homeless at Thanksgiving, started by Marjorie as a memorial to Griff) is successful.

Act 3. Their journey through the kitchens of the community in quest for the perfect loaf of sourdough bread becomes the search for a recipe for a perfect family.

Helpful Questions

This raises lots of questions about how to write the story.

For example, look at the phrase “the search for a recipe for a perfect family. ”

What other themes could work? Here at the beginning of a novel, when the possibilities are wide open, is a good time to make a commitment to one theme.

Is it about acceptance of others?

Is it about accepting the risks of a relationship?

Is it about seeing a person clearly, including their imperfections–and choosing to love them anyway?

Is it about loving the forbidden? (I could make it a racial divide between Mysty and Eliot.)

Is it about learning to communicate with family members?

Is it about the hard work it takes to build a family? Why not choose the easy way out?

Is it against the Instant Gratification society, and about the patience needed to understand others, about the time needed to live together and create a family?

Is it about seeing the variety of ways that people create families–and taking from the examples the inspiration to keep on trying?

If the main imagery in the story is Bread, what does that imply? Patience, hard work, breaking bread together in fellowship.  What else?

The possibilities multiply, and this forces you to write something that choose a direction.

I’m not sure I can pull off the “through the kitchens of the community.” Does it means that they’ll have to visit a lot of different homes? Then, maybe a Seedfolks (by Paul Fleischman) kind of story would work, where each chapter is from a different family’s POV? (In other words, it suggests possible structure.) Maybe alternating POV chapters from Mysty and Eliot would work?

Just writing the simple three-sentence outline already starts to channel the story in certain directions for theme, character, plot, structure, imagery. But it’s just a hint at these things so far and Dunne develops it further as he expands and refines the outline.

This doesn’t sound like the typical outline, does it? Instead, he’s channeling the creative energy at the beginning of a project into productive ways of working.

Revision Strategy?

I’m going to try this with a revision of a middle grade novel. I’ll see if anything here can be adapted for revision strategies and I’ll report back!

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