Tag Archives: how do you plan a novel?

Storybuilder Inc. — Step 7: Frame by Frame

In the last step I talked about the short proposal. Hopefully your critical listener poked several holes in your proposal and helped you make it as strong as it can be. If so, then the next step shouldn’t be too difficult.

Here we are at step 7, the step before drafting begins. I call this one the frame by frame outline.


Divide and conquer

Last week I mentioned the snowflake method of drafting, since as we’ve proceeded from the premise to the proposal we’ve been dividing our story up into smaller chunks. Where do we stop?

Here’s another way to put that question. If you’re building a house, what’s the smallest unit that holds it together? You might decide you want a large, Victorian-style house with a gable rooftop. So you will break it down into floor one, floor two, and floor three. You might have each floor divided by walls into various rooms. But then those walls in turn are put together by frames. Frames are made of wood and nails, and that’s where you stop. The same goes with the frames of your story.

Once you have your short proposal—your blueprints—you’re ready to build the frames of your story. Each frame is a scene or segment of story where you can isolate emotions, senses, and an important event that relates to the development of your plot, theme, and characters.

Building your frames

First, you will want your frames to be in order. I like to take my small 6″x4″ papers and number each side for each frame as I work my way through the short proposal and 9-part outline. Take your time and try to go in order, but if you do jump to frames that are more vivid than others, just make sure to renumber the pages.

Why am I using the 9-part outline and the proposal? While the proposal is supposed to further develop the 9-part outline and tell your story in short, I have found (and you might too) that the 9-part outline, being in point form, is a better place to add details and notes as you develop your proposal. When you go through and figure out what the frames of your story are, you might find the 9-part outline has details the short proposal doesn’t, and vice-versa.

How many frames should you have?

There is no hard-fast rule, but if you find yourself with 100 frames, prepare yourself for a novel that will dwarf Game of Thrones. Either that, or it means you might be putting too little into your frames. For example, if you have one frame about a character named Sally drinking a cup of coffee, smelling its aroma, hearing birds chirp through the morning window, feeling the velvet cushion against her bare arms…then this might not be a frame.

I say might because if you’re writing a short story, then you are completely fine to have all your small sections broken down into miniature units. (A doll house has small frames, after all.) Similarly, you might have frames of inconsistent size, and this is fine too. However, in practice, you will find that a frame translates to anywhere between 500-8,000 words, so having lots of them is a sure way of making your story’s size and complexity large (again, this is fine if that’s your intention). The frames of a house are big rectangles, holding the entire structure together, but they are very empty before you start putting the house together. Likewise, you want to leave your frames space for story to happen—because it most definitely will!

Is your frame too big or too small?

A good way to test if a frame has the right scope is to ask: how does the plot develop? How do the characters develop? How does (or do) the theme(s) develop? If you apply this rule to the above example of Sally, then you might instead be writing about her in her deceased grandmother’s house, rediscovering childhood memories (say, in this example, you novel is about Sally having to let go of an old hurt, then this scene develops her character by getting her more in touch with the source of her nostalgia).

On the other hand, if one frame is Sally’s various adventures in her home town, then this contains too much. A good test for making sure you’re not overloading your frame is to ask if you can isolate a significant plot- / theme- / character-developing event.

Another useful gauge is to ask how many POV scenes you have per frame. This should be one, unless you write scenes with omniscient POV, in which case the above test still serves as a useful guideline. For example, sticking with Sally’s story, let’s say we also write from her sister Joan’s POV, and both of them have returned home. Let’s say Joan is going to reconnect with some of her reckless friends and get in trouble. Then Joan’s adventures deserve their own frames. However, if you’re writing with omniscient POV instead and want to shift between Joan and Sally’s experience to show the contrast between the two of them, then that might be it’s own frame: Sally exploring her grandmother’s house while Joan wakes up in some stranger’s bed wondering how she got there.

What a frame looks like

Like any method of note-taking, it’s good to be organized so you will not get confused or forget important information when you’re writing. These frames will serve as your guide when you work through and write each scene of your manuscript. That means it’s important to keep them uncluttered.

I like to space out headers for each of the 5 senses on the right, with a header on the bottom for emotions, and usually one or two lines to say how the particular frame develops character, theme, and plot. The remainder of the page is available for point-form notes. Going back to our above example of Sally, one of those notes might be her sipping coffee in her grandmother’s velvet chair. With this detail, I’d also put “plush velvet” under the touch category, “sharp, dark roast coffee” under smell, “birds singing, persistent” under sound—you get the idea.

There are many techniques for making your story sharp on every page, even every line of text. These frames can help gives you the ammunition you need when you’re staring at a blank screen thinking of what to type next, so you can customize them however you’d like. For example, Donald Maass, in his book, Writing 21st Century Fiction, discusses the power of inner and outer turning points in a scene. Essentially, this is the part in a scene where the POV character’s inner circumstances and outer circumstances change to achieve the purpose of the scene. You could add this to your frame if you’d like. To use our example of Sally in her grandmother’s house, if the purpose of that scene is to have her realize she can’t hide from the past, then the outer turning point could be a locket she discovers in the attic, after idly wandering around and discovering familiar rooms. The inner turning point might follow, where the memories summoned by the locket (featuring a picture of her grandfather, who she’s hated all her life) push her to the resolve to find out how her grandmother died.

One final thing to keep in mind with a frame is to make your emotions interesting and conflicting. In general, conflicting emotions are a base ingredient for creating tension. So…Sally’s sipping coffee in her grandmother’s chair. That brings back memories of the mornings she’d awaken as a little girl, smelling grandma’s percolated coffee. But maybe the birdsong brings back other memories. Maybe she shivers, hates the sound, feels fear stir, remembers the large hand that eclipsed her world in darkness… Now there’s some tension, suspense, and seeds for later development.

You will likely find that forcing yourself to fill in these categories for the senses and emotions and trying to find inner / outer turning points and conflicting emotions will spark further ideas that connect you more with the story soon to take shape. If you prefer organic writing, this is great! Think of how many more opportunities for spontaneity abound once you start writing each frame. If you’re a plotter, then this means you’ll have a good kick-start whenever you’re not sure what to write next, or if what you’re writing is going to work out. (I am an organic writer, and found developing this method has led my spontaneous story-telling to rabbit holes that go deeper than Wonderland.)

Ready to go

This time, I mean it. After you have developed your frames, you will be ready to start writing. If you’ve been diligent and followed the steps, you should have a solid story ready to take shape. Remember to keep your story-building profiles organized as you go. When it comes time to write, you’ll have your frames and profiles ready at hand.

Next week I will talk about some strategies for getting started and things to keep in mind as you head from the planning stage into the act of writing. What fun awaits!


Graeme Brown is an epic fantasy author. His first published story, The Pact, is available for KoboKindle, and other ebook formats through Burst Books.

You can follow Graeme on Twitter (@GraemeBrownWpg) or on his blog, Fantasy Writing Journey.


Filed under Graeme's World, Storybuilder Inc. Outlining and Storytelling Process