Two tips to plan better stories

I teach my copywriting students to plan stories by mapping 5-7 key events onto a timeline. You can do this on a plain piece of paper, napkin, post-it note, or whatever you have to hand.

This rudimentary planning method would be too simplistic for say a novel or a play, but it’s reliable enough for most business storytelling use cases.

For instance, on page 125 of Simple Story Selling I tell a story about a time I was almost mugged on a dark Sheffield street…

Mugging story timeline

The beauty of the timeline is it forces you to pick a single path through a multitude of possible timeline events. It also forces you to write with the ending in mind. You’re always working towards a specific endpoint and message.

I have two pieces of advice for creating better timelines:

1. Raise the stakes at the start

Generally you’ll have a ‘C’ at the start of your timeline, which stands for ‘context’. You need to set the scene for the reader so they can imagine being in your shoes.

The best stories use this section to raise the stakes of the story. If I were to rewrite the story above, I might add that I was hurrying home because I had an essay deadline the next day and 2000 words still to write. Strictly speaking that wasn’t true, but do you see how it would raise the stakes?

2. Each point on your timeline should correspond to some deliberate act either by you as the protagonist or by an antagonist or negative force. Deliberate acts involve choices and consequences; the message of the story is delivered within these consequences.

For instance, let’s say you’re telling a story about a time you camped out on a remote mountainside and got stuck in a snow blizzard. You’re freezing cold with no supplies. Suddenly the weather changes and the sun comes out, allowing you to survive and escape back to base.

(Excuse me while I stifle a yawn…)

The weather changing is in theory an ‘up’ event on the timeline because it facilitates your progress towards the goal of the story. In practice however you didn’t do anything proactive to change the situation. The weather changing of its own accord isn’t really a timeline event, it’s just something that happened within the environment of the story. You didn’t make a difficult choice, so there can’t be consequences of that choice. This diminishes the impact of the story.

Imagine instead that you had decided to strike out for base through the storm, and then the sun came out to save you. That’s a much stronger ‘up’ because it’s deliberate action. Every story needs a hero* and you’ve stepped into that roleThe reader roots for you and the story delivers an underlying message.

Make sense? These are common mistakes but are simple to fix at the planning stage.


*Hero or heroine. Androgynous hero.

P.S. This is the kind of work we do in the Story Copywriter training community. Founder-level pricing expires on 1st Feb.

Related Articles

The Work We’re Doing Here

I follow Caitlin Johnstone’s writing. Every year she publishes an update of who she is and what she stands for. For those who sell based on trust and expertise this struck me as a good idea. After all, you can’t understand anyone better than you understand yourself. The beliefs, values, ambitions and goals that make…

How Often Should You Review Your Email Sequences

I’m updating my email sequences at the moment. Every 12 months or so I take a retrospective glance over the automated email sequences that go when a new contact opts-in.It’s the type of task I’d ideally take to a hotel on an overnight retreat to complete. But in reality, it’s slow progress working through each…

Avoiding waffle

Write Stories That Sell, #2 Hi , Do you remember taking exams? I do. The memory is perhaps a little too raw. All the insecure students would mill about beforehand, testing each other. We were then herded into a cold gymnasium, where row after row of desks were spaced three feet apart. A bald, serious-looking examiner would explain the rules.…

Book review: Story (Robert McKee)

I’ll sometimes buy a book to reserve the option of reading it in the future. I read slowly and thoroughly, so I have to be selective about what I read. I’ll often read the introduction and conclusion of a book when it arrives, then shelve it for a proper read later on. I’ve had Robert McKee’s book Story sitting on…

The Empathy Zone

Stories For Business Use, #4 Have you ever been to a party and struggled to make conversation with the other guests? When I was a student I wasn’t too discriminate about who I made friends with. I would end up at house parties where everyone would be talking about Final Fantasy 12, or some other…