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Developing a basic storyline

In this article, Michael Lengsfield describes a simple way to summarise a story to create a basic storyline at the beginning of the writing process.
Pile of books on a table with quill and ink bottle, parchment, candle and reading spectacles
© University of East Anglia
When developing a story, we all need time to cast about for the material that interests and excites us.
At a certain point, however, it helps to work some ideas into a crude story form. The step forces us to make clear decisions on the basic “Somebody wants something and has trouble getting it” for our story. We may not know the complete story yet, but the very act of trying to create the setup will move the project past the idea stage.
We can approach this in many ways but to help get us started, we are going to develop a short verbal “pitch”, which is a simple way to summarise a story. It can be used as a selling tool, but it also makes a very good tool to start the writing process.
Now, describing a story in a pithy yet effective way is a formidable challenge for many of us. Actually, it’s downright terrifying for some people. The very term ‘pitching’ evokes images of door-to-door salesmen and brings up all sorts of performance anxiety. After all, we’re writers, not actors.
There are many strategies to cope with this particular challenge, most of them ineffective:
  • Reading a pitch is dull. It just never sounds natural.
  • Memorising and reciting the pitch can be worse. And forgetting your place is totally humiliating.
  • Bullet Points on index cards gets closer to the mark, but it’s too easy to start reading them.
The best way is to simply know your story and be confident enough to relate it in a clear, conversational manner. This is storytelling, and our goal is simply to engage our audience.
We’ve found a simple aide memoire that helps to focus the story and sooth the jitters, something we call a Five Finger Pitch. The method reduces your story to five basic elements and offers an easy way to remember them.
Let’s see how this works in the next step.
Michael Lengsfield
© University of East Anglia
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