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Story Templates: My Secret Weapon to Conquer NaNoWriMo

This will be my 13th NaNoWriMo. Can you believe it? I almost don’t! But I know the reason why I’ve stuck to the challenge for so many years: NaNoWriMo is such a motivating event for me. My project for the event is often ‘the project of the year?. It kickstarts something I might have been procrastinating or makes a dent in a project I might have been slogging with. NaNoWriMo always gives me a boost.

This year, I’ll be revising The Frozen Maze, which I drafted last year. To be very honest, I meant to revise the story during the summer and then start serialising it on this blog come September… but life got in the way, as it often does. This must be one of the most hectic years I’ve had recently, so many things went out of my control. But I hope that now the most hectic part is over (crossing all my fingers here) and I’ll be able to bring a few of my projects home.

I started The Frozen Maze project as a short story a couple of years ago, then I revised it in novel-length last year during NaNoWriMo. You can still read that original story on WattPad or download a slightly longer version from Smashwords. (Since the story is free, I don’t believe you need an account to download it.)
But since the beginning, I thought about serialising it. I’ve been fascinated with the idea of serialising a story ever since I started seeking publications some 20 years ago. I also had quite a few occasions, but in the end, I never took them. I know that serialising a story is a very different project then simply write it as a novel, but now I really feel to take up that challenge.

Do I feel up to the task? At this moment, I don’t. 2018 has been a tiring year, and October was the most hectic, exhausting, uncertain, and downright depressing of months. Honestly, I did very little to prepare myself for NaNo.
But! Luckily I did part of the preparation last summer, and I discovered a new awesome template just a couple of months ago which I wanted to test immediately.
I’m not a fan of outlining the story before writing the first draft. I always outline, mind you, but after I’ve written the first draft, when the story is written and I have all the elements in place… well, at least they are all down on the page. They rarely stay where they are.
This is why I like templates. Templates are flexible and essential, they allow to organise our ideas. At the same time, they still leave us a lot of space for adjustment and improvisation. Superimposing my ideas over the template allows me to see whether my story make sense, whether it does act as a story, whether it’s structured and logical enough to carry me to the end.

Right now, I’m mostly using two story structure templates.

The 7-Point Story Structure

I discovered the 7-Point Story Structure template a couple of years ago, not long before attempting to write Bones of the Titans for that year. I was fascinated with the simplicity and effectiveness of the structure and to be honest, I’ve used it ever since.

Hook – This is where the story begins, it’s what your character starts our as, or the situation they’re in, or the action happening when the story starts
Plot Point 1 – The place where the character or the action is moved forward. The trigger.
Pitch 1 – Where something serious happens that really puts pressure on the character to fall irrevocably into the arc of the story.
Midpoint – The point of no return, where the character makes that conscious decision to change or move forward on their own. The midpoint (in spite of its name) doesn’t need to be in the middle of the story.
Pitch 2 – The point where the story really deeps and something extreme happens, so that the character is left to fend by themselves.
Plot Point 2 – This is where the story reveals the tools or secret to triumph.
Resolution – The story has concluded and we find ourselves in the opposite state from the initial hook

Yes, sure, like most story structure templates, it is base on the classic Aristotelic Three-Act Story Structure, which I suppose is normal. That’s probably the form our brain recognizes as ‘story’ as opposed to any other narration.
What I find handy of the 7-Point Story Structure is that it allows to lay down the action of the story – the plot – in a very quick, but sufficiently detailed way.

This story structure does stress the movements of the story. It focuses on what changes between one point and the next, which is what allows the plot to move forward.
When I used only template, I tried to incorporate all the changes happening in a section, whether they were outside or inside the character. But after I discovered the Embryo Circle, I started using the 7-Point Story Structure with a focus on external changes: action, characters’ relations, forwarding movements, basically the hard-core plot.

The Embryo Circle

This story structure template is based on the classic idea of the Hero’s Journey and so naturally focuses on the characters and their internal movements.

You -A character is in a zone of comfort
Need – But they want something
Go – They enter an unfamiliar situation
Search – Adapt to it
Find – Get what they want
Take – Pay a heavy price for it
Return – then return to their familiar situation
Change – Having changed

It is quite apparent that, even if we have eight points here, the structure follows roughly the same movements of the 7-Point Story Structure. Many authors use this in place of the other to structure the entire story, including external changes. After all, in many ways, story and characters are the same things.

But I like the way this story structure focuses not on the changes that move the plot forward, but on the changes affecting the character’s perception of the world and his/her shifting goals. I love the way the circle is divided into ‘light’ and ‘dark’ halves. That’s what I feel the character’s journey should be.
Soon, I started using this template to develop characters’ arcs rather than plot.

How I use the two templates together

All templates are very simple in their essences, that’s why they are fantastic to use. Every author works differently, but templates are so essential that they adapt easily to any writing process.

I like to use these templates when I’m planning the story before I start writing the first draft. I don’t feel comfortable writing as I go, especially long stories like novels. Too much time passes between the beginning and the end of the draft, and too many elements come into play. I often feel I’m missing something. This is why I started using templates and outlines. They are handier to use, more manageable. They make even complex story simpler and easy to work with.

But here’s the awesome thing about templates: why use them only for one plot? I actually never use them only for the main plot. On the contrary, I will use the 7-Point Story Structure to flash out the main plot and all the subplots I can envision before I actually write the story.

"Story Structure Templates are the secret weapon of a writer #writingtips #writing Click To Tweet

I normally have a Master Story Structure which covers the actual story beginning to end. So, the beginning of this working sheet will be the beginning of the story, the middle point will be the climax, and the end of the story will be the actual conclusion of the story.
Then I’ll have an Overall Story Structure that will cover the entire arc of the story, which for me often starts much earlier than the actual story.
For example, my new short story Sea Phantom. The actual story only covers two days. The Master Story Structure starts at the opening of the story and finishes on the story conclusion two days later. But because the story includes a lot of flashbacks, the actual arc of the story starts a lot earlier, when my main character is a kid. So my Overall Story Structure starts some 15 years earlier. Consequently, the seven turning points will be different from the Master Story Structure, though a couple of them will eventually match. The conclusion, for example, is the same. This allowed me to see whether the overall arc was coherent and logical and helped me sort out the main events – the ones I wanted to write flashbacks about. It also allowed me to see whether the short story, which was the final part of the overall arc, really closed it properly and satisfactorily.

Then I focused on the characters with the Embryo Circle. Since Sea Phantom is a short story, there are very few characters. The important ones are only four and out of these four, I identified the two who move the story: my protagonist and my antagonist.
I wrote an overall Embryo Circle for the protagonist that started in the same place as the Overall Story Structure, 15 years earlier. It explored the inner movements in the character that prompted the exterior movements in the plot. Then I wrote a similar Embryo Circle for my antagonist (they knew each other as girls). This gave me a clear image of the motivations of both characters, especially those motivations that brought them in the situation the short story would explore. Many of the main points in the two girls Embryo Circles matched, and those were perfect candidates for flashbacks.
Then I wrote an Embryo Circle for my protagonist only related to the two days the short story covers, starting with the event that triggers her change (inciting incident) and ending with the outcome. This allowed me to see whether I actually had a character’s arc (therefore a story). It also showed how well this accommodated into the overarching character’s arc the arc started 15 years earlier since the events of the short story would conclude both arcs.

I hope this is not too confusing. It is indeed harder to explain that to do.
And yes, it is a lot of work, but it’s worth it, because once I’m done with this, I have a pretty clear idea of what I want from the story and what are the plot-points I should seek to cover in order the make the story understandable to a reader.
It still leaves plenty of space for free writing. My first draft of the story was completely different (in movements and evolution) from the final version, though it covered the same plot-points.
And sure, I’d have written the same story even if I had written it, but it would have taken me a lot more revisions because I would have had to try different solutions empirically. _The templates allowed me to solve a few problems before they even arose in the writing itself.

Makes sense?


The Cogs and Gears Storyteller (Author Sarah Zama's Publication on Medium) Storytelling as an experience for writers and readers

NaNoWriMo 2018 - Story Templates My Secret Weapon to Conquer NaNoWriMo - I like to say that we writers don't need story structure templates... until we need them. Here's how I use my favourite two


  • Hilary
    Posted November 3, 2018 at 02:26

    Hi Sarah – certainly could be a useful set of templates and ideas … but good for you – and congratulations on achieving 12 NaNos already … go for it and the lucky 13th to add to the list … go girl!! Cheers Hilary

    • Post Author
      Posted November 5, 2018 at 18:10

      LOL! Thanks Hilary!
      I’m doing my best. November has already proven to be not aneasy month, but I’m not going to give up so easily 😉

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