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Write a better story faster with this one mindset shift 

 July 31, 2022

By  Sue Brown-Moore

How do you write a story? How do you know where to start?

These are common questions that new writers often have. Getting started can feel overwhelming. It's part of the reason some people say they want to write a story, then never actually do.

But even experienced writers struggle with their stories... 

Once I get started, how do I know I'm writing the right story? How do I know when I've wandered into the weeds? Why does my draft always stray from my outline?

In today's article, I'm introducing the technique I call the Story Discovery Funnel. You can this method to filter out all the creative noise that's holding you back and distill the very heart your story so you can focus on just that.

We'll talk about:

  • why this method of story planning works for any kind of character-driven fiction writer,
  • how it can lock in the direction of a story before you write a single word, and
  • what essential technical pieces of your story it will help you discover. 

Then I'll share a special workshop opportunity that will show you exactly how to use this technique in your next story by asking 5 simple questions. 

The Story Discovery Funnel: Why it works

Why the Story Discovery Funnel works

Most fiction writing courses and workshops focus on nailing the technical details of a story. What does the character want? Why do they want that thing? What's stopping them from having or doing it? 

These are the GMCs of storytelling: Goals, Motivations, and Conflicts. And they are essential to every story you write. 

Traditional approach

Story Discovery Funnel: The traditional What How Why

But! The mistake many writers make during the early planning phase of their story is to start their story planning by focusing on the story's outcome rather than the hero's mindset shift. They feel pressured to map out the story's main plot points before doing anything else.

For pantsers in particular, this results-first approach can lead a debilitating creative block. When a story is calling you, you need to write what's in your heart right now

Even plotters can feel boxed in by the GMC approach to storytelling. Too much planning can suck the life out of a story.

Don't get me wrong. GMCs are ultra-important in storytelling. 

But that's not where I teach my writers to start.  

Because that direct approach only works when you understand your character on a soul-deep level before you start crafting any of your story's structure.

The Story Discovery Funnel technique shows you where to start developing your on-page story: it helps you identify the character's relevant problem.

The Story Discovery Funnel: How it works

How the Story Discovery Funnel can lock in your story's direction

Think about a book you read or a movie you watched that made you feel something. One of the main characters probably experienced a transformation

Whether that change arc was positive or negative doesn't really matter. Transformations are powerful because they take us on a journey that we can relate to or sympathize with

The most important part of a character's story is their Why

And a person's Why at any given moment is a vast, convoluted landscape that is cluttered with their memories, traumas, and all the achievements and repercussions they've experienced over their entire lifetime.

That probably sounds like a lot to consider. Because it is!

The characters we write—just like the human beings we are—are complex, layered, and nuanced. Our backstories are a crucial part of the people we become (and that we want to become).

Story Discovery Funnel: The Backstory layer

And the decisions we make bridge the gap between what we want and what we actually do.

Characterization is the connective tissue that makes our stories feel real and cohesive.

Story Discovery Funnel: The Characterization layer

But this is usually the fun part for writers, and it’s not typically where I see trouble, as a developmental editor.

Many authors I work try to start by setting up the plot, that narrow band of events that happen on the page in the story. Those ever-important goals, motivations, and conflicts.

Story Discovery Funnel: The GMCs layer

But when you start writing at the heart of the story, you miss out on all the possibilities that can trickle down from the heart of the character.

So what if we flipped our approach? What if we craft our stories from the heart of the character instead?

Story Discovery Funnel: Comparison of the methods

Just like real humans, our heroes’ story potential is much bigger than we can capture in 90,000 words. Even Tolkien’s epic, multi-book Lord of the Rings series doesn’t fully explore the life of any one character. A story is still just a snapshot in time.

So if we want to express our heroes' most potent emotions and tell a story that resonates with readers, something they will remember forever, we must funnel-down the breadth of our character’s life experiences into the depth of the story we want to tell.

The Story Discovery Funnel guides you deeper into the layers of a character's life until you expose the heart of their story.

The Story Discovery Funnel: What it exposes

What parts of your story matter most

I've shared a lot of images of the story-crafting pyramid, so let's simplify this upside-down funnel approach in a visual way. Think of the Story Discovery Funnel as a flipped version of the traditional approach (click here to see it again).

The Story Discovery Funnel approach

Story Discovery Funnel: What How Why

This view clears up any confusion of where to start building your story.

Start with the problem, not the solution.

Instead of jumping right to the solution to a character's problem—which is what you're doing when you try to plan the plot without understanding the heart of the character—we need to slowly narrow down the most important problem they need to solve. 

Once we identify that problem, we will better understand what they want to do in a specific time frame, how they express that want, and why they decided to pursue that thing right now.

But to identify the problem...

But we can't identify the problem without understanding their Why. The most important part of your character's story is their Why. Why do they make their choices?

You must discover the character's Why.

And that Why comes directly from building their Backstory

desk with map, notebook, and camera for exploring

Take this quick quiz to find out what your hero's backstory is missing.

Once you know the Why, you can explore What they want to do and How they express that want.

At the very least, we need to understand the character’s Why, How, and What.

The Why, How, and What are the three most important parts of your story, and you should discover them before you dive into writing your full first draft.

But don't confuse these with GMCs.

Story Discovery Funnel: Story discovery is not GMCs

The hero's What, How, and Why are NOT your story's GMCs, but they are the starting point for identifying those narrow story parameters (the GMCs) that will guide your character's transformation journey.

In my Story Snapshot Workshop, I use examples from the movie The Proposal to walk you through how to find your character's What, How, and Why and what 5 specific questions will help you discover them

clean workspace with workbook cover - Story Snapshot Method

Attend the online workshop when it's most convenient for you, or schedule a live session for your writing group.

When you begin approaching your storytelling from this bottom-up method, you will save so much time, energy, and money in wasted revisions.

Keep learning: More self-study resources

The Story Discovery Funnel: Leave a comment

Comments and questions

What do you think about my Story Discovery Funnel? Is this a technique you'd like to try in your own writing process?

Leave a comment to let me know what questions and thoughts you have below, and we'll chat!

About the author 

Sue Brown-Moore

Creator. Speaker. Feminist. Human. (She/her)

Known for being a tough editor with a soft touch, Sue Brown-Moore specializes in teaching revision techniques for character-driven fiction and champions progressive, inclusive literature. Sue helps writers rediscover their inner spark and push through vexing story problems using the character-first editing and storystorming techniques she teaches in her online university.

Sue has been featured in writing-focused events and publications, like Publisher’s Weekly and online writing summits, and the stories she collaborates on as both a freelance and acquiring editor have been celebrated with nominations and wins for industry awards like the Vivian, the Golden Heart, and the Lambda.

Learn more about learning from Sue and choose the confidence-building workshop, playbook, or bite-sized training that’s right for you, here on Sue's website.

You only get one chance to make a memorable first impression, so make it count!

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