February 15, 2012

back to basics: plotting

Alrighty then. Today we’re going to talk about plotting. Now, I’ve done several posts about plotting in the past. For this comprehensive post, I’ll talk a little bit about how I plot a story, I’ll present a few techniques, and I’ll be sure to link back to previous posts if you’re inclined to read more on the subject.

Plotting is an interesting thing. Some view it as a terrible monster that needs to be avoided at all costs, and others see it as their literary savior. There is a serious debate on the subject between the two camps of writers: pantsers and plotters. To be honest, I was once a pantser. I wrote willy-nilly, with no regard to structure or coherency. I have since become a plotter, detailing scenes and acts and arcs and all that other plotty stuff. But that doesn’t mean plotting is for everyone. Some people will find that pantsing is their forte. But if you do want to plot, or try it at the very least, then this post ought to give you a good starting point.

At its core, plotting is pretty straightforward. A writer wants to write a story, so, before they write it, they draft an outline of what will happen. I used to think that plotting meant detailing every scene, down to the tiny tiny details, but that’s not always the case. Yes, some people will find that an uber-detailed outline works best for them, but a very vague, very short outline could work for someone else. The main purpose of plotting is to know where you are going with the story: how the story will end, how the characters will change, and how they get there. The amount of detail depends on the writer’s plotting style.

When I first started plotting, my outlines were a little vague, usually just a phrase, a sentence at most. I didn’t meticulously chart character arcs or subplots or the nitty gritty details of the main plot. I just crafted an outline that covered the gist of the story. I used one plotting method in particular—though, I’m not sure if I used it correctly or not: Holly Lisle’sPlot Clinic. It’s a thorough how-to on plotting, and I highly recommend it. Well worth the ten dollars. For the second novel in the Chroniker City series, I tried using Holly’s method, but it didn’t work as well for me the second time. Instead, I used the Board, a screenwriting tool detailed in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, which is also a good book to read. But before I decided on the board, I tried several different methods. Some of my outlines were vague. Others were so detailed that the outline itself was nearly 5000 words. It just goes to show that even a single writer can need different plotting methods for different books. If one method doesn’t work for you, then try another. You wouldn’t believe how much the plot of The Chroniker Legacy has changed since conception. And for every plot that I constructed, I used a different method. I finally settled on the Board, and I even refused to transcribe the board to an outline, instead letting it sit on my desk in all its cluttered, color-coded glory.

Regardless of which method you decide to use, a plot is essentially a sequence of scenes (which we talked about in the previous post). The easiest way to plot—in my experience—is to create a list of scenes. There is no right or wrong way to creating these scenes. You could use pictures, a phrase, a single word, a paragraph, or a page. When I was having trouble with the plot for The Chroniker Legacy, instead of writing an outline, I started drawing pictures of the scenes that were vivid in my mind—candy bar scenes, as Holly Lisle calls them in her plotting how-to. I only got about ten scenes out of those pictures, but it gave me a starting point. If you want to plot an entire story that way, go for it. Worst case: it doesn’t work. Best case: you plot a magnificent story. Don’t be afraid to try different things.

So, how do you craft an outline? How do you bring together dozens of scenes and make them into a coherent plot? As I’ve pretty much stated above, there are a thousand different ways to do it. I have my way. You have yours. Or, maybe you’re just thinking about trying to plot a story. Maybe you’re a pantser and you want to try something new. Maybe you have your own method, and it isn’t quite working. For whatever the reason, here is my general plotting process. Maybe it will inspire you.

Like I’ve said before, when I start plotting, I brainstorm the scenes, the action of the story. I don’t try to come up with them chronologically. I bounce around the story, looking for the images, conversations, and snippets of information that stand out, the events that are absolutely necessary to tell the story. I may come up with three or four of these scenes, or I may come up with two dozen. I just let the most interesting parts of the story float to the top of my mind, and then I record them. Once I have those, I think of subplots, character arcs, theme, and other scenes that might fit between the big scenes. By the time I’m finished, I want to have about 40-50 scenes. Once I have my scenes—drawn on index cards—I shuffle them around until I find an order I like best. Once I decide on that, I start writing. If I have trouble writing, I go back to my plot and see if I need to shuffle things around again, or if I need to change a part of the plot. This actually happens a lot, so don’t be surprised or discouraged if you find out that your plot isn’t working. I changed my plot no less than six times for The Chroniker Legacy.

Here is an example of a scene (from The Chroniker Legacy; don’t worry, no spoilers):

Bicycles – Petra and Rupert go riding bicycles around the city. Rupert has to teach her how.

Very simple. Straightforward. And somewhat vague. I have thirty-seven scenes plotted out and three blank scenes just hanging out until I figure out what to do with them. Your scene descriptions might be a paragraph, or a single word, like the title of my scene. I like giving scenes titles. It makes them easier to keep track of.

It’s funny looking back on my days as a pantser. I can’t imagine going back. If I had tried to write The Clockwork Giant without a plot, I can guarantee that it wouldn’t have released last December, and it probably never would have seen the light of day. Because I plotted, because I figured out the story beforehand and worked out all the kinks when it was still a manageable size, I finished the book quickly and put it out there, for better or worse. Yes, I still think there are things that I could improve upon, and I blame my impatience to get published for that.

Do you plot? What method do you use? Any advice for new plotters?

And here is a list of earlier posts about plotting, if you have the time or desire to read them. You’ll see how I went from pantser to plotter and how my methods changed over time.

Happy Writing!

1 comment:

  1. I'm definitely a pantser. Even when writing essays in school, sometimes I would write the outline after I finished the essay if the teacher was mean and required that we hand in the outline. I'm not saying that's the best way to do it, though, especially for an essay; I'm sure the ones I outlined first were generally better essays. I do often find myself writing notes and such on my WIPs, but I usually do this when I've already begun the writing, and then I go back and forth.