As I’ve been working on the new PNR idea, I’ve been thinking about my plotting processes and how they’ve evolved over the years. There are so many different ways to think about story structure, from the Witch’s original “Block” idea, to the Marshall Plan, the Hero’s Journey, Save the Cat…
All of them speak to me at various stages or for different things. Save the Cat has really taught me to come full circle, to think about how I’m going to start and how I’m going to end, and what that means from the very beginning.
Breaking out all of those worksheets for the Marshall Plan is not for me. It’s just too tedious. I still learned a lot though, mostly to keep that push through each and every scene for what changed. Why include it here?
The Hero’s Journey still speaks the most to me, but sometimes I need something a little simpler. One thing I’ve read more about this year is the try/fail sequence. Sometimes that helps me come up with what I want to happen in the middle. (How can I make this worse?) There’s also the 7-point plot.
And if your head is whirling now… You’re not the only one.
What I’ve decided is that just like I prefer a different tarot deck for each major story world, I sometimes need a different way to think about plot for each story too. Sometimes I use a little Save the Cat combined with try/fail until I get to the end. Sometimes I’m hero’s journey all the way. Sometimes I have a character show up in my head and just take over the whole damned show and all I can do is hang on for the ride. Other times, it’s the world that comes to me first, and I have to figure out how to populate that world with cool and interesting characters who have something to say.
In the end, use ALL or NOTHING or PART of any of the methods to help you. The more you know, the better.
Just for kicks and giggles, I’m building a simple one-page spreadsheet that highlights all of these plot methods so I can see the major points at a glance. If you’re curious, take a peek (pdf).
Tonight, I added a new page to the site and adjusted the menu a bit to reorganize. If you’re looking for the various templates, worksheets, etc. that I’ve used over the years, they can now all be found on the Writers page!
Note: this includes the new Mind Mapping templates that I created the other day as I was plotting the ZCR.
As promised, here’s a little more detail about the plotting wall I did for Phantom. I made it D&E this morning, despite not getting to sleep until after 11 PM again. Sigh. Please don’t ask how many cups of coffee I drank today! Only 700+ words but openings are hard, and I completed the first scene. It’s rough but down. Moving on.
Okay, so this is a close up of the first three sections I plan to work on:
The yellow stickies just have the information I need to figure out. Blue is the hero, Erik. Pink is the heroine, Christel. The opening scene sticky doesn’t really give the details of what I wrote this morning — that’s actually on the back. *wg* But it was important that I set the scene correctly. Atmosphere is so important, and I’m definitely going to need to revise what I have so far.
To compare and contrast, you might find it interesting to see what the outline looks like. I’ve never written an outline before, not exactly. This more resembles “the Block” I used to do but got away from because it was too involved and technical for me personally. This is the opening section only.
1.1 Opening Image: In the Tunnels (Erik)
Set the mood: dark, creepy. Main character (Erik) is hiding, spying on Rafe. Rafe always takes the same route each day to his car in the parking garage. Today, Erik is eavesdropping on what seems to be an important and extremely frustrating and possibly dangerous conversation that Rafe is having with an unknown person. “I’m working on it. I’ll get the money somehow. The sale will be final…” [Meaning the sale of the family estate, but Erik doesn’t know that – he believes it to be an arms deal]
Erik has been texting Gerri “tips” from the “Phantom.” He receives an incoming text: I’m calling in reinforcements. My daughter will get to the bottom of this once and for all.
Emotions: Slow burning fury to glee that Christel is coming. He’ll use her to defeat his enemy once and for all.
Conflict: Erik wants to prove Rafe’s guilt and punish him severely for killing his family. Rafe seems to have everyone fooled about what a great guy he is.
Since I had the day off from the Evil Day Job yesterday, I set a goal of finishing the plot for Phantom. I’ve been struggling with it, so I decided to try a new approach. My friend Jenna Reynolds had recommended Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat months if not years ago, and I finally got around to reading it. A lot of it really resonated with me. I thought, hey, what do I have to lose? I’ve got to figure out what’s wrong with this story.
The story in question: Phantom. It has a great premise. I know it fits my brand. I’m excited about it. Yet something… just wasn’t right. I couldn’t get started. I “knew” (I’m putting that in quotes because I obviously didn’t) the plot – it was all in my head. (Not always a good sign) Yet instead of unfolding in my mind like a movie, it kept skipping around, jolting here and there. Painfully.
So I used some paper and jotted (while driving to my dad’s this weekend) out what I thought the beats might be using Blake’s charts. It still wasn’t working. The plot was as flat as the paper. I decided I was going to have to get serious and do something I haven’t done since The Bloodgate Guardian.
Put the plot on the wall.
I bought some sticky notes while I was at Wal-Mart. First, I laid out the beats using simple yellow (picture). This is different than how I envisioned structure in the past. I’m not used to a horizontal row for each act. The last yellow sticky on each row is a major turning point (I drew an arrow in the upper RH corner than you can’t really make out). That’s all I got done, unfortunately, because I had to leave for my hair appointment. When I got back, I started laying out the major plot scenes I’d come up with between my original spreadsheets and my jotted beat notes.
I quickly realized that my OPENING IMAGE wasn’t right. I’d started in the wrong place. The scene I had thought to open with was good (and I’m still using it) — but it didn’t set the tone and mood. It didn’t mirror the ending. I quickly realized I needed an entirely new scene.
Suddenly, finally, I found that the story was rolling in my mind. *whew*
This is the plot wall after another 2.5 hours of work (picture). The pink is my heroine, the blue is my hero, the yellow is the main beats. Voila. The story laid out perfectly.
Later last night after dinner, I typed up an outline (not a synopsis, not yet) and added the emotion changes and conflict information that Blake talks about. I’ve never thought of my sections quite that way and it was a very useful exercise. It feels sooooo good. I’ve got my theme crystal clear in my mind. My characters all have static traits. A central image reflects the theme and is used over and over subtly to support the theme. I don’t want to jinx myself and say more, but I’m very excited to start this story.
Excited enough to get up at 5 AM to work on it.
Let the Dark & Early summer phase commence! I just pray my wrists hold up. After 3K of outline last night, they’re pretty sore.
[I actually wrote this post last night and scheduled it. If my morning session goes well, I’ll write a new post with a close up of some of the sticky notes so you can actually see what some of them say!]
Unfortunately, this new year is proving to still be as difficult as the holidays. My two oldest monsters both have birthdays this month, yesterday and the 10th. So we’re still in presents, baking, family dinner mode. I’m still tired and having a difficult time getting up Dark & Early. Needless to say, my production so far this month has been laughable. I’m hoping that after the last birthday on Monday that I can dig in and get some serious work done — or I may have to drop a project from my list. 🙁 That always makes me sad.
Anyway, I promised to share the character and theme worksheets I’ve been using to help get myself back on track, so today, I’ll cover CHARACTER.
You may be startled by my deliberately vague sections. I’ve seen people with huge BIBLES of details. Hair color, eye color, birthday presents as children, family, jobs, sexual experience, etc. If something specific stands out to you and helps you make your character live and breathe on the page – then by all means, go for it. I just didn’t want to DEFINE a bunch of stuff that may or may not help. For some books, I couldn’t care less about what identifying marks my character might have (until I need to fill out the art sheet) – because those marks don’t play a part in the story. Why give your character scars or tats if they don’t actually MEAN anything?
I have two stories that never even NAME the character. The name isn’t important — but the person’s AUTHORITY is.
I guess my point is use what makes sense to you – but I didn’t waste a bunch of space for specifics. For me personally, there are only a handful of things that I absolutely must know to make a vibrant, living and breathing character. The rest is open to interpretation for each story. I’ll list a few here but won’t get into tons of detail — if you have questions, let’s discuss in comments.
Story Goal and Motivation: first of all, I need to know what’s driving the character at the beginning of the story, and why. Note that a character’s initial story goal may evolve through or after the inciting incident — especially when circumstances force your poor orphan to leave behind his farm and go in search of a magic ring.
Static Trait: this is something that the character always does – to the point that it becomes part of the plot. You might have a character who writes letters. Letters and letters for years! She always does it, and eventually, those letters play a part in the dark moment and resolution of the story (Dear Sir, I’m Yours). Or you might have a character who always plays with his ivory rahke a certain way, touching the heroine’s throat and cheek with it — even if later he’s supposed to be dead (The Shanhassonseries). It’s something that should be innocuous and innocent on its own, but later, you can see it coming from miles away. It’s tricky and not always something I manage to pull off, but it’s one of those little things that make me ridiculously happy when I do get it right.
Greatest Strength — which can always be turned against the character as her Greatest Weakness. Oh, how I love to use a character’s best skills against her!
The bottom row pertains to the Emotional Toolbox and Hero’s Journey. I highly recommend the Character Map if you’re struggling getting a character just right. What is the deep underlying fear the character is struggling with? What skills/traits can the antagonist use against her (similar to the greatest strength – these are things she can’t help doing over and over, even if they get her into trouble)? What leap of faith does the character have to make to survive the story or fall to the Dark Side?
One thing I’m not entirely satisfied with is the romance arc. I may end up creating one more sheet to help me get the “arsonist and firefighter” angle of conflict ironed out. For now, this is working for me. Good luck and let me know if they prove useful to you!
Character (Excel, pdf) (Print landscape on legal-sized paper)
This is not a treatise on why you should plot (because I don’t always plot either). This isn’t a “my way is best” argument because I know that’s BS too. Every book requires different skills or tools. Right now, I’m at the stage of my writing where I need a quick check sheet, or reminder list, of what I personally need when plotting. You may find this helpful, or you may run away screaming because I’m bringing out spreadsheets. Just know that I do NOT always do this — but it does help me organize my thoughts when I’m feeling scattered or stuck.
(Upcoming will be THEME and CHARACTER sheets too.)
I’ve tried every writing software under the sun, from Scrivener to TextBlock to Liquid Story Binder to….Lord, I can’t even name them all. I do like many and use many for different things, but sometimes, I need the physical touch of paper and ink. You may laugh, but there’s something very magical in purple ink. When I bring out my favorite pen (I’ve resorted to hiding the entire box from the monsters and threatening them with deadly harm if they steal them) and some white paper, my brain is freed. It touches on something creative – yet also analytical – in my brain that helps me tap down into the heart of what I’m trying to write.
I’ve got Marshall Plan worksheets, character portfolios, etc. that I’ve copied from online and print resources over the years, but there was no one single sheet that let me see the story at a glance. How LONG is this story going to be? Am I going to get to page 100 and realize I’m done? Or page 250 and realize oh, @&#*%, I’m nowhere near the end? I don’t want to have to carry around very complicated pages and details — I just want something brief and to the point, structured but also very simple and free. I want to customize it for a short story, or use it for a full-length fantasy novel at the same time.
What I came up with is a basic Act sheet (Excel, pdf).
A few general comments:
These sheets print landscape on legal size paper. I wanted room for my poor eyes to see!
The long skinny column on the left is for your character name(s).
Use each horizontal row to track a character’s progress through the story.
These sheets currently only allow 2 POVs. I have similar worksheets to track many characters at a time, but I wanted simple, and most romances are going to concentrate on the protagonist and her/his love interest.
The large blocks are free form, with space at the top for you to title the scene (if you enjoy that), to jot location, etc. Whatever floats your boat.
Here’s how I’m using this sheet. No matter the size of your WIP, Act 1 should be about 25% of the overall length, Act 2 about 50%, and Act 3 about 25%. This is not set in stone – merely a guideline for a satisfying story. I’m working on a novella right now, so I don’t need a lot of sections or scenes. 5 per act felt pretty good, and so if I print out 4 of these worksheets, that’ll give me about 20 sections (one page for each act).
If I want to write a longer novel (50-60K, a good length for epub), then maybe I need 8 pages, giving me about 10 scenes per Act, or 40 total. If I’m going to write a really detailed, longer single-title novel around 80-90K, then I’m probably going to need 3 or 4 pages per Act.
If I want to write a shorter story (around 10K), then I can probably get by with 2 pages, or 10 sections. If the story needs to be under 5K, then I’ve got to figure out how to tell the entire story on one page in 5 sections or less. See how that works?
Now if you want a little more structure to your sheets, I created 4 pages overlaid with the hero’s journey. The major points of the hero’s journey are obviously very flexible. e.g. you don’t have to have the dark moment happen in exactly section 014. This is entirely customizable to your story — so feel free to move the journey points around as needed. Again, I’m working on a novella length project, so I fit the hero’s journey onto 4 sheets, targeting 20 sections. Feel free to widen or narrow the pages down to fit your target.
Just so you know, this is still a messy process. I’m already on my second draft and still have scribbles all over the margins, etc. But at least I can SEE how much story I have without worrying about the monsters pulling sticky notes off the wall or making flashcards out of my index cards! I’m also probably going to end up using sticky notes on TOP of the spreadsheet to help me track the romance elements. e.g. first kiss, or building sexual tension.
I don’t know if this has ever happened to you (or whether I’m the only obsessively anal neurotic writer out there), but I recently faced a problem where I could NOT make a decision. I had two choices for how a story could unfold. I knew each path pretty well, and both had their positives and negatives. But which was the BEST? I couldn’t decide. I waivered back and forth, stewing about the right choice, and meanwhile, I couldn’t make progress down either path, because OMG, what if I was going down the wrong one and had to start all over again?
I finally decided to write out an outline, sort of, for each option so I could step back and try to objectively make a decision. Since I had two options, I decided to use colored notecards so I could compare and contrast by color.
First, I wrote down a few key story points that were the same no matter which option I used (general points — of course there were many details that would work for one but not the other depending on which direction I went). The first was “Miss Charlotte refuses the Sheriff’s proposal.” I used blue for these so they’d stand out easier and I could quickly identify my notes vs. the next plot point.
Then I selected two other colors (neon yellow and cream, not exciting, but I was trying to use them up). For each plot point (blue), I wrote several key details about each option. In A, Charlotte is this type of character. In B, she’s someone else entirely. In A, her motivation is to project the sheriff from the forces hunting her down. In B, she’s ashamed of her past. etc. Some elements were very similar, and I made note of them. e.g. in A, she’s ashamed of her past, too, but for entirely different reasons.
I was really surprised how well — and how quickly — this worked. From the very first blue card, I could see that story A would be much stronger. The character’s motivation was deeper. I have very powerful forces chasing the protagonist from the very first scene, and there’s really no way she can defeat them if they find her. The conflict is obviously much higher, and the premise is more unique.
There was nothing wrong with B, and maybe if I hadn’t had this other thought, it would have been okay. But compared to A, it was just that, okay, and as Conn would say: I’m not the sort of person who’s satisified with okay.
On the plus side, I now have my story outlined and I threw out all those boring cream (B) options!
On an entirely different note, I foresee several word wars or timed writing stints in my near future. In several 15-20 minute intervals today, I was able to write over 3K, even while responding to comments for Writer Wednesday. Whoo! Just a few more days like that and this novella will be done!
P.S. And yes, I did have to start all over again, but the story is much better for it.
After all our brainstorming and character building fun, now it’s time to begin adding structure to your story. This is where you weld into place the foundation and girders that will hold up your storyscraper.
When I first began writing, I didn’t think about structure at all. I had a story to tell, and I told it. As I learned more about Story and the writing craft, I realized there were some things I’d done involuntarily. These things are inherently part of storytelling — keeping the reader involved in a story, speeding up the pacing or slowing it down, throwing more rocks at your character stuck up in that tree. But for awhile, I remember being terribly confused. I suddenly knew why I’d done certain things, but then the how began to waiver. If I’d done something naturally, how could I force it to happen now?
Trust the magic. It’s there. You’ve been mixing a potion from the very start of storybuilding. Adding a framework for the story to hang onto will not damage the magic. On the contrary, it will give it a place to shine.
Knowing the structure of the story helps you guess the length too. Say you have a really big “candybar scene” already in mind, but you have no idea how far into the story that scene will play out. Is it in the first third? The last third? Somewhere in the middle? Thinking about structure — and specifically the hero’s journey — will help you figure out in which “Act” the scene lies.
The level of detail you define at this point of Storybuilding is entirely up to you and the story you’re writing. Don’t be surprised if one story wants more work than others — my process changes a little with each story I write. I’ve known people who plotted out to great detail with pages and pages of outline and scene details. I’ve also known people who only have a vague idea of the ending and that’s what they’re writing toward.
The whole point of this exercise is to get a story to the place where you can successfully begin writing. By “successfully” I mean that you’re setting yourself up to FINISH THE BOOK. In the end, that’s the only victory. Do whatever you need to do to finish the book. Plot a lot — plot only a little. Write up detailed character sketches — or just a few emotional letters. Whatever you need to. Finish. The. Book. You can plaster over holes, demo entire rooms or floors of the storyscraper if you need to, LATER. You can’t see enough of the Story structure and how it fits into the skyline you envisioned until you finish the first draft. Renovation Nightmares will begin later.
If you at least know the ending of the book, then you have a target to shoot for. If you know the major inciting incident that sets the story in motion, then you know how to write the first 100-120 pages of the book. If you can get a few additional key scenes or surprises laid out in your mind, then you’ve got something to write to in the middle. How much more detail you add at this point is entirely up to you.
Personally, how much work I do depends on the length of the story. Ironically, very short and very long pieces take about the same amount of work. In a short story, you need to choose the scenes very, very carefully. A good short story is still going to have a character changing in some memorable way, and the few precious words must reflect those changes quickly. A long (e.g. 100K or more) story has a lot of Deadly Middle Ground to conquer. If I don’t have a few key turning points already identified, I’m going to get stuck halfway over the mountain, and that’s not a good place to be.
There are a ton of great Hero’s Journey links available on the internet. Also check out our character clinic and Left Behind & Loving It categories; my friend Jenna wrote up a great post about how she uses the hero’s journey. I refer back to Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey constantly.
Minimally, I like to know the following journey points of a story before I begin writing (and why). I do a lot of this brainstorming on paper, and then when I know the rough idea of the “scene,” I write out a card for it. One card may spawn another idea, so I jot that down. Think about reactions – you can get another card or so for each main POV character after a turning point scene. How did Victor feel when THIS happened? What’s he going to do now?
Ordinary World: this helps me figure out how to start the book in the right place. Note that you still have to have ACTION happening here. Characters in the shower, waking up from a dream, etc. are boring
Inciting Incident: this is the Big Bang that sets your story universe into motion. It’s the event that sets your hero’s feet onto the yellow brick road of your journey.
Crossing the Threshold: this scene helps me know that Act I is finished and I’m moving into the middle. The first Act should be roughly 100-120 pages (in a 400 page book). If my character takes the first step on the main journey — and I only have 50 pages — then this is going to be a very short novel. Maybe that’s okay – or maybe I need more details.
Midpoint Shakeup: Okay, I lied, this isn’t part of the hero’s journey, not exactly. But I love to have a big major event in the midpoint of the story. It’s the candybar I’m writing toward that helps me get the next 100-150 pages.
Approaching the Innermost Cave, the Dark Moment: there comes a time when the hero believes all is lost, the journey is hopeless, the battle will never be won. This is signaling the end of Act II. Even though I’m on the downhill slide at this point, I always get bogged down around 275-320 pages of a book. It’s like the bleak emotions begin to take their toll on me — and I find myself in my own dark moment. This is where I begin to wonder if I’m going to be able to pull the story off. This would be a really really bad time for me to read a negative review or allow any harsh words to inflict any damage on my writer’s psyche. This is a whole other post — but protect the writing. Protect yourself. “Having a thick skin” does not mean that you need to shovel other people’s caca with a smile!
The Climax(es): Ah, the showdown begins. The last 100 pages–once they get rolling–should just fly. Now your hero goes to battle. You throw every surprise and horror at him/her that you can think of. If you’re really doing good, you’ll write them so far into a dark dead-end alley that even YOU won’t have any idea how to get them out. Yes, this still happens, even if you “plot” the story. Let the magic happen.
Resolution and Return: in the last 20 pages or so, tie up all loose ends, decide how your character is going to live out the rest of his life, grieve for the fallen, and soak in the victory. I don’t always do a ton of plotting for this stage — unless there’s a book that follows. Then I need to make sure that the elements I need to bridge into the next book are present and make sense.
Now you may feel as exhausted as your characters, but I promise, nothing, absolutely NOTHING, compares to the rush you’ll feel when you type:
P.S. If spreadsheets don’t scare the crap out of you, you may find these helpful. These are filled out for the Maya thriller. The character rows are the major players that I needed to track through the story, even if they didn’t have a POV. Note that I didn’t do this much plotting before the first draft — this level of detail came during Revision Xibalba.