If I could only use one book as a guide for writing a novel, it would be Storyteller Tools by M Harold Page.
First, I should tell you I am not getting a commission from anyone for writing this. This is my heartfelt opinion after using his recommendations. And I’ll try my best to describe why I like this book so much.
Start with conflict and you can’t go wrong
He starts the book by stating the obvious: your story isn’t going to be very good if it doesn’t have some conflict. This is where I learned all about the wonderful versatility of conflict diagrams.
A conflict diagram is a mind map of all the conflicts in your story. You don’t have to use them all, but it gets the creative juices flowing when you make one. Basically, it’s a visualization of the characters’ relationships over a “bone of contention” (his words). Like dogs fighting over the same bone, your characters need to fight over something in order for your story to be interesting.
Thus, the first tool he recommends is a conflict diagram. He then goes through the process (using his own examples) of creating one that makes it easy to visualize the relationships in your story.
Don’t have a story yet? No problem! Start by asking a character a few questions to find out what bothers them, then give them all kinds of conflicts to make their life more difficult. There’s no right or wrong way to do this, and Page gives you lots of options to choose from. It’s a great way to dive into a character as well as figure out an interesting plot.
The Question and Answer Method of Plotting
After you’ve got some conflicts, he explains another tool that helps you to figure out your story line. It involves a process of questions and answers (he calls them QABNs, pronounced “cabins”) that help you figure out the major events of your story, kind of like a sculptor getting the general shape of a figure in clay. In fact, he calls this “story sculpting”. The goal of this process is to get a general outline that can be developed into a draft.
QABN stands for Question Answer But Now. It works like this: you ask a question about your character’s action that makes sense, like “Will the princess be rescued from the dragon?”. Then you give it a short answer like “Yes” or “No” and immediately follow it with a “BUT”…
Will the princess be rescued from the dragon? Yes, BUT…
The Now part is sometimes the hardest part. Now something else happens or now something has to happen in order for the answer to be true. For example
Will the princess be rescued from the dragon? Yes, BUT she is hurt badly. Now she has to visit the castle wizard.
Will the princess be rescued from the dragon? Yes, BUT only because the hero brought a magic wand. Now she is forced to believe magic exists and has to do something about it.
Logically, either of these sentences leads into the next question. Will the wizard heal the princess’ wounds? or Will the princess legalize magic? are two that roll right off the top of my head.
Do you see how addictive this can get? 😉
I love this methodology because I can “tell” a story very simply and logically without putting a lot of work into it. Then I can go back and figure out what works, what needs more action, and what can be left out. It’s so much fun that I enjoy just coming up with book plots using this method, even if they never turn into anything more than this simple outline.
Dividing The Outline Into Chapters
After that, he explains how to figure out where chapter divisions should be, how to turn chapter outlines into scenes for the chapter, and even shows you how to use QABNs to develop scenes.
This method really helped me get organized.
But I think book should come with a warning: story sculpting can be addictive once you get into the rhythm. So if you find that you can’t stop creating stories once you’ve gone through the book, all I can say is
I told you so!
But wait! There’s more!
Page offers a few exercises to try at the end of his chapters, but you don’t need to complete them. Just use the same concepts on your own story and you’ll have your outline finished by the time you’re done with the book.
The storytelling tools don’t require any specific software or hardware; you can use a pencil and paper or old-fashioned typewriter if that’s what you prefer. But I found Scrivener and Scapple to be extremely helpful software for the writing parts and conflict diagrams. If I ever get a full fledged novel finished, Scrivener will format it for publishing, too. I also tried using Excel for the QABNs, and it worked great.
Do I recommend this book?
If you’re the kind of person who likes to write but finds it difficult to get started, or has a hard time figuring out how to connect your interesting beginning with your fantastic ending (because there’s nothing in between), you might find Storytelling Tools to be the perfect writing companion. Over the years, it’s become THE method I enjoy most for planning stories.
Do you have a “desert island” novel writing guide that you can’t live without?