Story Development for Writers (SDFW), Part 1: The Basics

by John Robert Marlow


Most writers, when they get around to writing, sit down and do just that—start writing. The story grows with no real plan or, at best, a fuzzy idea of where things are going and (maybe) how they’ll get there.

I know this because, as an editor, I see the less-than-stellar results. And when I ask how things wound up this way, the answer is most often the same: “I just started writing.” For most of us, this is not the way to write things worth reading.

Imagine a skyscraper constructed with no blueprint: floors are added and subtracted on the fly; some floors are bigger than others; stairways connect random floors, but don’t go from top to bottom; someone decides to fix the stairway problem with an elevator, punching a ragged hole through every story; only half the rooms have power or plumbing, and there’s an Olympic-sized pool on the roof, so they put the helipad in the basement.

That’s what happens when you just start writing. I see it all the time—as do agents, editors and producers sifting through mountains of submissions. Sure, these problems can be fixed—I help writers do this all the time—but it would be a whole lot easier, faster, and less stressful to get it right the first time. And, not coincidentally, to make a better first impression on that agent, editor, or producer—because if your first impression isn’t your best, it may be your last.

Whether you’re starting or finishing that latest novel, screenplay, or short story, the same five steps can be used to get your story to where it needs to be. These steps can also be applied to true stories adapted for the screen and (to some extent) to nonfiction in general.


The five steps are: logline, structure, pitch sheet, beatline, and putting it all together as you write. I came to this method through trial and error in both New York and Hollywood, combining what I found to be the most useful elements of book editing, screenplay development, and pitching (having learned this last from mega-agency WME’s longtime (and only) story editor). I now use it with all of my development clients.

There will be several blog posts devoted to a detailed explanation of these steps. (Quickest way to find them once they’re live: click on the “SDFW” blog topic on the right side of your screen, or check the index below.) For now, a few brief definitions…

LOGLINE: A ten-second summary of your story. Hollywood uses loglines to pitch scripts and movie concepts—but they’re also an excellent way to pitch books, and to focus on your story’s most essential elements: who the story is about, what their goal is, and the nature of the obstacle in their way.

STRUCTURE: The skeleton on which your story is built, consisting of seven distinct story points: inciting incident (kick-off), first act turn, midpoint, low point, second act turn, climax, and denouement (wrap-up). Three-act structure has been dominant for over 2,000 years, and the vast majority of today’s commercial fiction follows this pattern. Don’t fight it (yet).

PITCH SHEET: A dynamic summary of your story, usually presented in several brief paragraphs. This is an expansion of the logline, a sort of whirlwind teaser incorporating some of the structural elements worked out in the previous step. It’s the kind of text that winds up on the book’s back cover and Amazon description—the literary equivalent of a movie trailer. When someone likes the logline and wants to know more, but isn’t yet ready to read the work itself—this is what you give them. If all goes well, they will then ask to see your book or screenplay. The pitch sheet can also be a useful guide along the way, helping to keep things on track during the writing process.

BEATLINE: A bullet-point listing of every significant event (physical, emotional, spiritual if any) that takes place over the course of your story. Less formal than a typical (and boring) outline, more extensive than the Hollywood beat sheet. Once the beatline is finished and revised, you’re ready to write a first (or next) draft that will be remarkably close to a finished product.

By completing these steps before you write or revise (the last step in the process), you’ll know what your story’s about, where it’s going, and how to get there. There will be no blind alleys or dead ends, no long pauses while you struggle to figure out what happens next, no impossible situations or useless story elements you labor over for weeks and then discard, and—perhaps most frightening of all—no excuse for not writing.

If that sounds like where you want to be, read the rest of this series here:


The articles in this series are:

Story Development for Writers, Part 1: The Basics

Building the Perfect Logline for Your Book, Screenplay, or Other Story (SDFW Part 2)

More to come…


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