Friday, April 20, 2012

Making My Own Map: Plot Talk for Writers, Pt 4

This week, as promised, I'm sharing how I personally plot stories. My experience as a writer, teacher, and editor is that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to writing. You have to play around with writing techniques until you find what works for you, and you can always learn new tricks.

In fact, that's exactly how I'd describe my evolution in plotting. I'm like a dog learning a new trick. And not a bright dog either. More like Odie. But even the goofiest puppy can learn something. And so, let me share what works for me, and what doesn't. I'll be interested to find out where you and I share similarities, and where we differ.

A mix of plotting and pantsing. We've talked about this in earlier posts (see the links below), so I'll cut to the chase.

Why this works for me: Having a sense of where I'm going helps me to figure out what to write. I like to plot just enough to know some of the main events of the story. I use 3 x 5 cards and make simple notes like this: "Shae goes to see her father at the asylum, which bizarrely is designed like a fancy law firm. She confronts him about the key. He reveals that there is a storage unit, then flips out and has to be sedated. Shae leaves with a plan to go to the unit soon." I don't get more specific than this.

Instead, I draft the scene and see what happens. For me, too much detail in outlining gets me off-track and I don't finish what I start. As I sit down and start typing, I go with the flow and let my subconscious go to work. I write a good deal by instinct and follow my gut.

For my current work-in-progress, I didn't have all the major plot points in mind before I started writing. I only knew a few. But when I hit a third of the way through the draft, I applied the seven-point story structure to it (I talk about this method below). Applying structure after I had a third of the book drafted really helped me. I was able to see the missing pieces and identify what needed to happen. Now I have my plot synopsis done, and I'm back to writing. This is the first time I have created a full plot map (not detailed, but complete nevertheless) without feeling that I forced it. In other words, I have a firm plan and yet I'm still excited about finishing the novel. For me, this is HUGE. And it's why I wanted to share with you about plotting and pantsing.

Highly detailed character sheets
There is a logic to using character sheets. They can help you make your characters three-dimensional. They can suggest contradictions that lead to conflict. They are a good tool for keeping track of details you might otherwise forget. Learn about them here.

Why they don't work for me: While keeping notes is always a good idea, I don't do well with planning the small details, like whether my protagonist likes dogs, unless that trait is meaningful to the story. It's important to know your characters' internal and external motivations, their values, and how they'll change in the course of events. But I don't need a character sheet for that. I remember it in my head.

Starting with a character in a setting that challenges them in some way
I get a mental picture of a person in the middle of a problem or a surprise, and my brain goes to work asking what the person is experiencing, and how she feels about it. This is the essence of story. I freewrite the scene to see where it goes. This often leads to a premise for a story.

Why it works for me: I have no idea, but I've always done this, so I'm keeping it up. Some things are instinctive. When you have an instinct that works for you, don't be ashamed to use it.

The snowflake method
The idea behind this plotting tool is to start with a bare bones story structure...the very basics, like the one-sentence premise...and then progressively build details in to add nuance and depth. Find it here.

Why it (mostly) doesn't work for me: It's logical to fine tune your premise because without a clear premise, your story will meander, and you may get lost and never finish. But there are several steps to the snowflake method, and at some point, I lose the sense of creating an organic story. Once the story feels contrived, I check out mentally. So I have to stop planning and start writing before I hit that point.

The hero's journey
If you haven't heard of the hero's journey... Well, I'm sure you have because it's so ubiquitous. But for the sake of thoroughness, this is the concept that stories about heroes share certain incidents that have to happen because they force the hero's development. Learn about it here.

Why it kind of works for me, but not completely: There are some basic elements of story captured by the hero's journey, like the idea that the hero is in his normal world when he is called to adventure, and usually he resists the call in some sense before he commits to it. This mirrors the real world, where most of us don't change unless we have sufficient motivation to deal with the discomfort. But planning a story based on the hero's journey can start to feel contrived. And as I said earlier, I check out of a story the moment it stops feeling natural. So I use elements of the journey at times to think about what might happen in the story, but I don't use it as a firm roadmap.

The seven-point story structure method.
It may be that this has been around forever, but I associate this method with YA author Dan Wells, who talks about it on his blog and has a great video series about it on YouTube, which I highly recommend you watch because it's so informative. The essence of this concept is that you can plan your story around seven major beats. (It's like a more detailed version of the three-act structure.)

Why it works great for me: This is the method I'm using to plot my current novel. And to be fair, I had to do some freewriting and playing around to get a sense of the story I wanted to tell before I could shape it into a plot with the seven-point story structure. However, after I had enough of a sense of the characters and possible plot events, I was able to see how it all fit into several major beats, and I was able to fill in the missing beats quickly because I could see what was missing and why. My gut tells me that as I get more familiar with this method, I'll find it easier to plot ahead of time and write faster.

Other plotting resources that you should really check out:

25 Ways to Plot, Plan, and Prep Your Story by Chuck Wendig
Chuck is the man. Seriously. He curses a lot, but he is so good at distilling concepts down to a manageable bite that you can chew on, you should make it a habit to read his blog. This post on plotting is very useful.

Notecarding: Plotting Under Pressure by Holly Lisle
Holly runs a good blog, with lots of resources for writers available by membership, other resources for free. Her notecarding method helps you examine your plots and subplots to be sure the story structure is balanced. Plus, the brainstorming aspect is appealing.

Fire Up Your Fiction by Donald Maass
Donald Maass has his own literary agency and he is one big player, but more than that, he has a really strong sense of how to ramp up your little story idea into a killer premise. He understands story structure. His advice pushes me to challenge myself and aim higher, which I think is probably what will help me land a book deal one day. You might also check out his books. I have found Writing the Breakout Novel immensely helpful.

Be sure to check out the earlier posts in this series:

To Pants or Not to Pants
Common Myths about Plots and Pants
Learning to Love Preplanning

I'd love to hear more about the plot techniques that do or don't work for you! Tell me all about it. And have a great week plotting, or pantsing, or both.

Copyright (c) 2012 by M.A. Chiappetta. All rights reserved.


  1. Very interesting. I need to know what about the story is interesting or unusual (for myself) before I write it. I use a mixture of planning out the main points and improvising the specifics, but I need that one overarching theme or issue to keep me engaged.

    Moody Writing

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Mood. Sounds like you have a good way of looking at your stories. If it's interesting to you, you're more likely to keep writing until you're done, right? That would work for me too. Very cool.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.