Follow the Arrows – 5 Simple Steps To a More Compelling Story

By Matthew Schulz

Is your story impactful enough? Mine wasn’t, simply because I hadn’t laid out all the ramifications of the story’s big events.

However, with a pen, paper, a little imagination, a tight focus on cause and effect and a whole lot of arrows, you can create a more intricate, compelling story.

A couple of months ago, I hit a wall with my manuscript. I had written tens of thousands of words, up to the “Holy cow!” moment that changes everything for my characters. Problem was that even though I knew it changed everything – and I knew ultimately where it would lead – I didn’t know fully how it changed everything because I hadn’t laid out exactly how each of my principal characters were impacted by what happened.

Typically, I would’ve just started writing more prose and let the writing lead me. However, I was on an airplane and had only the backs of some hotel bills to write on. So while my son watched his DVD and my wife napped, I decided to draw a character map. Here’s what I did.

Step 1: Write down your “This changes everything!” moment. Put it at the top of the page. Seeing it will help keep your map focused.

Step 2: Concentrate on your main characters first. Start from the second after the big moment and map out their next moves, including even the most obvious ideas. For example, if your big moment is a shooting and your main character is the shooter, your map could include:

Hears police siren –> Starts to run, trips over trash can, sprains ankle –> Pops up, hobbles a block before pain is too much –>Sits down in dark alley –>Realizes he dropped gun, left at scene by body.

Lay out all of the potential ramifications for each character, as there likely will be many. Keeping with the previous example, perhaps the shooter was supposed to tour his daughter’s new elementary school later that day.

Realizes he won’t be able to take tour –> Calls wife to ask her to go –> Wife gets angry, asks why –> Shooter is vague, says busy day at work –> Wife hangs up –> Shooter throws phone, breaks it

Remember, you’re not writing prose here; you’re just laying out plot points. Keep it short, keep moving and follow these threads to their conclusion.

Step 3: Consider your secondary characters. Many of these characters will be included in your mapping of your main characters. Still, more complex, compelling secondary characters make for richer storylines.

Continuing with the previous example, you’d need to consider the impact of the shooter’s phone call on his wife.

Asks boss for permission to take long lunch for tour –> Boss is angry because would miss staff meeting, but grudgingly agrees –>  She leaves the office, calls best friend to vent about husband –> Distracted, drives on to sidewalk, hitting young girl –>Panics, tries to call husband, but he doesn’t pick up

Step 4: Keep going. Keep writing. Keep drawing arrows. Keep thinking and being creative. Don’t edit yourself. As with any writing, some of your ideas will be great, some will OK and some will be downright awful. Just keep going. Allowing yourself to freely write down these ideas and craft these individual storylines will force your story to be deeper, richer and more believable – and it will take you some exciting places where you wouldn’t have been able to go otherwise.

Step 5: Get writing. Once you’re satisfied that you’ve done all you can do, start turning these ideas into stories and these characters into living, breathing human beings with your prose. In the days following my plane flight, I wrote about 5,000 words, all inspired by those words and arrows. Those words got me past an impasse I’d struggled with for some time and nearer to the completion of my manuscript.  They can do the same thing for you.

Matthew Schulz has written for the Dallas Morning News, Houston Chronicle, Associated Press and American Banker. He is currently writing his second novel and aspiring toward his lifelong dream of becoming a published author of fiction. His day job has him working as a Managing Editor at CreditCards.com, where he helps lead an award-winning news team and has even helped coordinate a video town hall with the White House. You can follow him on Twitter @matthewschulz and learn more about him at MattSchulz.com.

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