I’m going to start my first author blog post by talking about software development.

I know, it’s not what you might expect from a fantasy and sci-fi author. When I’m not writing fiction, however, I’m writing code for software and it occurred to me that it might be interesting to explore how the two aspects of my life intersect in a series of posts called Agile Novel Development. Specifically, I want to look at how the former can benefit from my experiences in the later, and perhaps in the process share some of the useful techniques that I’ve picked up in my short time as a developer.

I work in an Agile software development team. If you’re not familiar with Agile as a project management approach, Agile in a Nutshell describes it as “a time-boxed, iterative approach to software delivery that builds software incrementally from the start of the project, instead of trying to deliver it all at once near the end.” It’s this iterative approach that really appeals to me and offers an obvious parallel to the editing process integral to writing a great story. 

When it comes to structuring writing, I’m not a panster, but equally, I’m not one to plot every scene, beat-by-beat. I like to have structure, but the prospect of implementing that structure is incredibly daunting. This is – for me – where software development and writing collide: with Agile user stories. 

User stories are key parts of Agile. They define in clear and simple terms a user need and give everyone on the development team a set of acceptance criteria that must be met before a user story can be considered done. They help to break a system down into small meaningful bits and encourage discussion, instead of focusing on rigorous documentation. I know what you’re thinking – how does this relate to creative writing? Stay with me!

Since it forms such a big part of my working life, I’ll let the GOV.UK Service Manual explain the standard format of a user story:

As a… [who is the user?]

I need/want/expect to… [what does the user want to do?]

So that… [why does the user want to do this?]

Looking at this, it struck me that there was no reason why I couldn’t use this kind of structure in my writing. 

Although in my day-to-day role user stormie are used to capture the needs of users of a computer system, it can also be an effective way of understanding a fictional character too. Take my current project, Witherfist, as an example. Here’s a quick user story that I came up with for the character of Arren Kalendra:

As a princess who has been exiled from her home

I need to gather a large group of allies

So that I can return to my home and reclaim the Imperial throne

It’s basic, but that’s kind of the point. The user story format boils the characters motivations and drivers down into straightforward terms. Applying the concept of acceptance tests to this, the user story represents a definition of what the narrative arc should cover. 

There’s no reason why I have to stop here with Arren. Getting into more detail, I might define the first chapter that Arren appears in as such:

As a princess who has been exiled from her home

I need to sell my belongings to any willing buyer

So that I can use the profits to grease the palms of potential allies

Again, simple. The user story gives me an easy summary of what has to happen in the chapter. It also ensures that the focus character of a chapter is not passive, as it defines the chapter in the terms of what Arren has to do.

Now I know what Arren is going to do and why, I have an easy reference to keep me on track when I’m semi-panting my way through writing the chapter content itself.

I could flip this around and, for the same chapter, explore the motivations behind Arren’s bodyguard, Marai:

As the bodyguard to the princess Arren Kalendra

I need to stop Arren form selling her belongings

So that I can protect the honour of the royal family – and by extension, my own honour

I’ve just started to create user stories for my characters, which I’ll be adding soon into a backlog – another Agile concept that I’ll explore in a future Agile Novel Development post. For now, though, I’ll leave you with a question.

What do you think: could user stories be useful for you in planning your next creative endeavor? Let me know in the comments.