The Plot Thickens

The Plot Thickens

I love the challenge of plotting a new story. There’s something deeply satisfying – and comforting – about figuring out the major moves of a book before I ever type Chapter One onto a manuscript page. I like knowing my chances of writing myself into an impossible corner are greatly diminished with a little planning.

I also find it comforting that I can always go back and adjust the plot if I need to, even halfway through the book. Just because I wrote something down doesn’t mean it’s etched in stone. (A common misconception is that we plotters are rigid and don’t allow the story to develop organically. That’s a big Nope. Organic development happens at a different time for Plotters than for Pantsers, and there’s just as much room for discovery as the writing progresses. We’re just stressed out by different things.)

Sometimes I go gangbusters crafting a detailed synopsis from the very start, hit all the right points, and finish with a flourish. But I can’t do this consistently at all. In my early writing days, I used to hit all kinds of snags and dead ends, went down rabbit trails, and dove into black holes.

These days, the way I avoid wasting a lot of plotting time is by figuring out the high notes that create the plot’s framework, and then fleshing it out over subsequent passes. I didn’t figure this out on the first book, believe me. It took me about three published books, one of them under a tight deadline, to develop a strategy that worked for me.

If you’re a plotting kind of writer — or even a pantser looking for just a wee bit more structure — I hope it might be useful for you, too.

Pass #1: Write (briefly) the signposts that will guide my way – the opening, the catalyst that propels the heroine toward her story goal, the three turning points, the dark moment, the climax, and the denouement. In my BS days (Before Scrivener), I had 8 pages in a single Microsoft Word document, one for each element. These days, I use Scrivener, an authoring tool, to create these as 8 sequential note cards. I can’t adequately describe the value I’ve gotten from having all these elements in the same document, so whatever tool you decide to use, make sure these 8 elements are in the same place.

I’m not talking about writing reams of stuff for each element — just a sentence or two to get started.

Pass #2: Really focus on the dark moment – what it is and what the consequences might be. For me, the dark moment is the real meat of the book. The protagonist has had a story goal for the entire book, and now is faced with the possibility of not achieving that goal. If we follow Dwight Swain’s advice in Techniques of the Selling Writer, the protagonist must make a moral choice: She can either do the wrong thing and achieve her story goal, or she can do the right thing and give up everything she has worked for.

I can’t emphasis enough the importance of this element.

In my second published action/adventure novel, Dead Reckoning, Chris had one story goal: To save her sister who was being held by drug runners on a private island. But she also had a secondary story goal, which was to hold onto the yacht she’d rebuilt and made into the home she’d never had but so desperately wanted. Her dark moment came when she realized two things simultaneously: That her sister was a perpetrator and a criminal rather than a victim, and that to do the right thing she’d have to sacrifice the boat that had been her life.

Aiming for this dark moment gave the story the momentum it needed throughout the turning points and provided for a more powerful ending than if the protagonist had not faced that choice.

Pass #3: Figure out the number of scenes between the signposts. Now that I have a feel for the story from Passes 1 and 2, I can make an educated guess about how many scenes will be needed to get to these 8 elements in the story. Sometimes the opening scene and the catalyst are the same, so those become 1 element; in the case of the shorter format novellas, I may have only two turning points instead of three.

If you decide to try out this process for yourself, your mileage may vary because you write, you know, like you. This is where knowing your own particular process is helpful. How long do your scenes naturally run? Five hundred words? Fifteen hundred? Three thousand? This information may help guide how many scenes this particular plot suggests.

Pass #4: Stub out each scene. Here’s where the rubber meets the road. In this case, I’m putting just enough detail into the scene synopsis to help me know where I’m going. These details can include the basic scene action, or it can include emotional details, notations about imagery or the theme, an important character development – whatever helps me connect to the scene.

Pass #5: Give’em something to say. One of the best things I ever thought to do with a synopsis — or heard from someone along the way — was to add a line or two of dialogue to each scene. This can help capture tone, remind me of an important point, or just let the character begin to emerge on the page.

You can see where if I’d tried to get all this into a detailed synopsis on the first go, I’d make myself crazy and get stuck in a hurry. But drilling down in an easy, casual way gives me plenty of brain space to back off of the plot, ponder it a little more deeply, and then dive into the story again. All of which keeps me from going stale.

The best part of this method? Being able to open up the document and see instantly what I need to write for the day, right down to a couple of lines of dialogue that can spark my excitement and enthusiasm.

Does this mean I never get stuck? Heck no!

I’m sorta kinda stuck right now on Evelyn, with a potential love interest of the heroine’s called Roger who is giving me fits as I try to figure him out. But it does mean I was able to skip to a later scene between Evie and Roger that turned out to be rather more interesting and fun than I anticipated. As a result, I’m starting to have a much better idea now of how to bring him onto the page in an earlier chapter in a way that’s true to his character and sets up a better conflict between him and our heroine from the get-go.

What I like most about the approach I’ve outlined above is that I don’t have to make all 5 passes through the story — I can use just one or two to get my thoughts down and give myself a little structure.

Happy plotting!

Sandra K. Moore

Sandra K. Moore has been writing one thing or another since she could scribble on a Big Chief tablet. A former Silhouette Bombshell author, Sandra has given up (temporarily) the kickass heroine and is now writing from her softer side for the self-published Promise House series. This novella quartet explores the journeys of four young women finding their way — and remaining true to themselves — through the social expectations and turmoil of 1950’s Houston.

6 thoughts on “The Plot Thickens

  1. Great article. Must have been written just for me ;o)
    Have a couple of questions:
    1. I’m a visual learner, so when I think about my story, I try to think of it in terms of totality. My question is, do you find having your 8 plot points on separate cards in Scrivener makes it more difficult for you to get an overall view of your story, as opposed to having it all in one Word documents?
    2. When you work on scene development, do you drill down as deep as planning for scene and sequel? And how important do you think it is for symmetry in plotting (i.e. equal number of scenes per chapter)?

  2. It struck me that as a pantser I write multiple drafts to get the story to where I want it to be – as a plotter, you go through multiple passes of fine-tuning the details. Granted, hands down, your way is more efficient! Do I think I could do it that way? Probably not – I’m a slow learner. It takes me the full first draft to just figure out the dark moment and how to go from there to the HEA. That said, I think for my next book – I may give this plotting prior to writing thing a go …

    Thanks for another thought provoking, inspiring post!

    1. I think you’re completely right, Terri. In the software world, we have two main approaches to the software development process: waterfall (plotter) and Agile (pantser).

      In the waterfall methodology, all the design gets done up front before the actual writing of code occurs. What’s great is that everyone knows what needs to be built before the building commences. What’s not great is when you get to the end and realize you’ve built the wrong thing… And it’s difficult to change things on the fly because everyone’s married to The Plan.

      In the Agile methodology, design and development get done together piecemeal. There’s an overarching logic and vision for the feature or product, but you only build a bit at a time (read: scene). You can turn on a dime (in theory) to accommodate new ideas or react to the terrible user test that points to a serious flaw in the feature design. But here, people wig out because the process tends toward chaos…

      I suspect the whole Plotter v. Pantser thing isn’t a dichotomy, but rather a continuum (and hence there’s no “versus”). Everyone I know sits somewhere on the continuum and for different areas, sort of like Lorinda talking about her drafts last week: first draft is all about the action plot (her plotting impulse), while her characters are part of her discovery process (her pantser impulse).

  3. Hey Lorinda!

    1. For me, Scrivener makes it much easier to see everything on those separate cards on the Corkboard.

    2a. I don’t plan for scene and sequel at all. I suspect writers naturally express the rhythm of scene and sequel without having to overthink it… Or the thinking part of that comes in a later draft, when we realize a portion of the book feels either rushed, cramped, or aimless.

    2b. Symmetry is an interesting question. I guess that depends on what “chapter” means to you…

    In my longer work, there’s a natural rhythm to the scenes, so they run about 1500 words or so. But sometimes when a scene runs longer (say, 2200+ words), I’ll let it be its own chapter. All of this is dependent, though, on groupings of scenes into chapters: Is there a POV change? Are there two scenes that occur in the same location? Do I have two scenes that function as two sides of the same coin and want to group them together?

    Your question made me go back through one of my other projects this morning, so thanks for the trip back into the urban fantasy!

    1. Thanks for your thoughts. I’m really working on process this year, so I’m soaking up what I can about that and seeing what I can either use or adapt to my own process. And here’s the kicker. I know that process, even a fairly defined and understood process, can change by story. But I figure that at least some of process would be fairly standard for every project. Fingers crossed that turns out to be a true statement. ;o)

  4. Not that I have an artistic bone in my body (even my stick figures come out crooked) but when I read this, it was almost like I could “see” you painting the picture of your story. Each layer added more detail and texture. On the first and maybe even second pass, the final image might not even be clear, but by the final pass, you have a vivid, life-like rendering. Then you still have the opportunity to mat and frame it (a.k.a. putting all the pretty words on the page) to add even more beauty and detail.

    For my process, I generally do a pretty detailed outline, but I still haven’t learned the importance of drafting the black moment and writing to it. That’s why my first halves seem to go so smoothly, and why, more times than not, I flounder and fail to finish projects. I get to the un-drafted second half and loose my momentum, and then generally my love for the project.

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