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On Plotting

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).

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Plotting: An Evolving Process

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!]