The Art of Plot
Are you ready for the secret hand shake? Enclosed is exactly the opening process I use to develop my stories.
When it comes to writing, there are three camps, and I’ve come to believe most writers live in the sprawling, very diverse middle camp called Plotser. Right now, you’re likely thinking: what?!?
I’ll back up. There are Plotters, who detail their books from front to back and back to front before ever writing a bit of prose. There are Pantsers, who just open their document and start writing. And there’s the monster in between: Plotsers.
I’m one of those, one of those monsters. Let’s call us hybrids, okay? Some of us are more detailed than others. Some lean more Pantser than Plotter. However, the main difference is, a Plotser does not know all the details of their book before starting. They also do not write by the seat of their pants. They’ve done some plotting, but left the book open to surprises and organic changes.
I’ll confess I used to heavily plot. The thing is, the book never followed what I’d planned. I’ve tried pantsing. I always got stuck about a quarter to a third of the way into the book and was pretty much left with a mess. Then, in frustration, I’d start something new.
Plotsing works pretty well for me—look at me making up words today. Over time, I’ve developed a multi-level story system. Here’s what it looks like:
1. Write a 1 paragraph summary of the book.
2. Determine my characters
3. 1-page guideposts plot
4. Index card spread for the chapters/scene. Generally starting with 20. In this step, I start to determine action, using the Hero’s Journey (The actual Hero’s Journey process I use is not covered in this post)
5. Detailed Scene Cards
6. First Draft
To start out, I write the one paragraph summary of the book. Don’t worry. It doesn’t need to be perfect. It just helps you have a grasp for what the book will be about. It should have a beginning, a bit of middle and an ending (as in: how the book starts, how it ends and the trouble in the middle). Most important: ONLY A PARAGRAPH. A SHORT PARAGRAPH.
Then I determine my characters. This development includes what they want from the story, their major problems or hang-ups going into the story (and what will prevent an immediate, easy HEA) and why their desire is so important to them. I also write a bit of their back story and note important details, as well as their descriptions. I don’t go much more in depth because I like to discover my characters and let them evolve while I’m writing the first draft.
Next, I develop my 5 Guideposts. At this point, I may have already touched on them in the initial summary paragraph. It’s now that I flesh out those points a little bit. Since I write romance, these would be:
1. The meeting (Note: this isn’t necessarily the beginning of the book)
2. Two critical turning points (something unexpected happens, good or bad. I tend toward uncomfortable or bad)
3. Something terrible happens (Big Black Moment) and the main character thinks the end is nigh. Bonus points if both are in emotional peril.
4. The resolution/HEA (Happily Ever After)
The Black Moment is the first thing I have to know. There’s a lot of talk lately about reverse engineering your goals. I’ve always been a firm believer in reverse engineering my books. You need to know where you’re heading before you get there. The big black moment is the most important plot piece to me, because the HEA is a given and everything else leads to the terrible black moment. Before writing a word, I always know generally what the HEA looks like, so it’s not as critical. But, if I don’t know the black moment, I’ll walk around the beginning of the book for days (cough-cough: months), not making any progress.
It should be noted that not all black moments are alike. Some are life or death.
Some are an angsty “the relationship is over” (tears tears tears!). It just has to fit your book.
Once I get that down, the other points fall in place. My 1-page guidepost plot is a train wreck. It’s not all neat and pretty. Generally, it’s scrawled on a notebook page. There are margin notes, underlines, arrows and stars. That’s because it’s a development page. Yes, I’m working out my guideposts, but generally, other plot elements to support the guideposts are coming into my head and I need to write them down. I begin by writing “Meeting” at the top and “HEA” near the bottom and go from there. I’ve included two example of this in early and late stages.
The Plot Layout
People who lean more pantser might skip the next step. Honestly, I think it’s the most fun (or the funnest as kids today say—side note: I feel like modern grammar is stabbing me in the chest some days).
So here’s what you need:
· White index cards
· Colored index cards (3-4 different colors, if possible)
· A pen or Sharpie
Lay out 20 white index cards, lines down. Place two more cards off to the side. Write your heroine’s name on the blank side of one and your hero’s on the blank side of the other. As you’re plotting you can turn them over and write in character details you may think of on the lined side.
At this point you will figure out your guidepost locations. You won’t see them in my card examples because I didn’t insert them yet. Hey, I’ve got to keep some secrets. On the white cards, you can determine general action. Transfer this onto a pink or blue card as you determine whose POV it will be in. This will look like a few words on the blank upside. You can write more detail on the lined backside.
The yellow cards you see in the second layout are elements I’m adding. Again, this is a partial view because I didn’t put out all my details for the photo. This is where my hero’s journey is coming in (that will be a whole different post next month). Suffice to say, these element cards might include a talisman, a mentor, a trial to go through, an opportunity (doorway), a foreshadowing (a trial that mimics the black moment or the biggest trial), etc. The green cards are usually notes and questions to myself.
Once I’ve completed the layout, I make general notes to myself about the action. This isn’t too deep into the plotting. Even with a layout like this, there’s a lot of room for exploration and discovery. At the end, it’s nothing near a detailed outline. It’s more like a road map—you know where you’re headed and how you’re getting there, but you have no idea what treasures/sights/unexpected events might crop up along the way.
The main point of doing the layout is to get my thoughts together and to see if the story is even worth writing. Sometimes, I’ll look at my layout and I can see the story is too thin, there’s really nothing to it. A conversation would clear up everything. It needs a lot of development to really evolve into something. Other times, I find I’m trying to throw in too much or the elements just don’t work together. And again, I need to think things through.
Scene Cards and First Draft
Scene Cards and the first draft actually work together. They’re concurrent steps.
I include the first draft in my “plotting” because it’s not until that draft is complete that I really understand the full of my story. It’s in the second draft that everything comes together and looks pretty. The first draft is often called the discovery draft or the trash draft. Either works. Personally, calling it the trash draft opens the way for my creative mind because I don’t obsess over it. I just write knowing it will all be fixed up later.
The main goal is to put your fingers on the keyboard and just type where the spirit guides you—of course, staying within the parameters you laid out in the earlier steps. Think of the earlier steps of the process like…um…bumper bowling. You can be all over the lane, but you’ll get to the end of your designated lane. Your bumpers will keep you somewhat on track and keep you from landing in a completely different story…um…lane.
The thing is, even with the prewriting steps, I need a little guidance before I go into the trenches. This is the difference between 100 words in an hour and 1000 or more words.
So I write up a scene card. If I know the scene will be long, I will write one before I begin writing for the day. If I’m writing a series of shorter scenes or I change POV (point of view) in the scene, I will write 2-3 cards. See the examples below.
The headings are pretty self-explanatory, but I’ll go through them quickly.
Where/When: Where are the characters? In an apartment? At their office? In a park? If it’s the beginning of the book, an even more specific location, i.e. London, England.
Etc. When is it? Depending on the position in the book, this could be a season, a month, a day of the week, a part of the day.
POV: This is the character whose head you’re in (the point of view)
Characters: Who’s in the scene?
Basic Action: Keyword basic. Very, very bare bones of what will happen in the scene.
Key Item(s): what do you need to remember? What will be used? Is there something important, like the talisman? (no kidding, in a past story, I put the heroine’s dog in this section many times so I
wouldn’t forget the canine was there)
Sensory Details: Generally, there’s not a problem with sight in stories. When I say sensory details, I mean the details often forgotten. Is it cold? Dark? Bright? Raining? Humid? Windy? Is there soft, plush carpet the feet sink into? Wet grass? Cold metal of the gun? Heat from the UFO’s engines? Brush of a cat against the leg? Smell of wet dog? Scent of dozens of roses? Or the smell of coming rain? Thunder? Crinkling paper? Crickets? Bitter coffee? Salty skin? Sour grapes (okay, I put in the last one to see if you were paying attention.)
What Does POV Character Want: Exactly what it say. What does he or she want? What do they want in this scene? While you don’t need to list it here, it’s important to remember what the character wants will be in some way related to the main story goal. This doesn’t need to be “here I will hit you over the head with this obvious goal.” Subtly is okay.
Purpose of scene: This seems to be self-explanatory, but trust me: this is where you figure out if you’re writing something extraneous. i.e. Why do we have a scene where the heroine is going to the ice cream shop? Is the author hungry or is there a purpose to the scene that propels the story forward? This is where you explain to your inner critic why you’re writing this and that they should shut up now—actually, they have a couple more card items before you need to make them shut it. While writing the scene card, the inner critic is actually useful for analyzing your scene elements.
Unexpected: what unexpected thing happens in the scene? What thing is there that the reader won’t anticipate. Again, this doesn’t need to be over-the-top or earth shattering. It can be simply the unexpected flavor you’ve added.
Link between scenes: This is one of my favorites. This is where I smirk about the “Easter eggs” hidden in the story. This is also my second check for relevance in the book. Does this link to the opening? Does this foreshadow the ending? Does this exhibit the heroine’s relationship with her parents that now colors her relationship with the hero? Is this something that needs to happen before the next scene can occur? Is this the natural consequence/reaction to an event in a previous scene?
And once I’m done with the card, I generally know what I will write for the day. Then off I go!
And that’s it. That’s how I develop my stories. Of course, there are steps after this. Those are the part where you have to let out Left Brain (AKA the inner critic). But this is what goes into the creation process—for me anyway.
I hope you’ve found something useful in here. Happy writing!!