Plot Plotting

Today I got out a rag and cleaned off my white board. The wide open surface and blissfully erasable markers make it the perfect tool for me to see my story as one big picture. Once I have it there, I can see where the action falls and whether events should come sooner or later. Where it might be dragging or maybe overwhelming the reader with information.

It’s an interesting exercise, but it can also be a confusing one. Everyone agrees that stories should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. But the theories on just how these should play out are endless and often contradictory. People write whole books on the subject, make their living teaching seminars about it, and create graphs detailing just how and when tension should rise or fall.

These differing pictures of plot are confusing enough without even mentioning three act structure or the hero’s journey or A and B plots.

The truth is that each book is different and plot often can’t be distilled down to an x and y axis. But it’s still important that we ask ourselves: How do we keep the tension going in a story? How do we hook the reader over and over so that they keep reading? How do we divvy out information? How do we reveal secrets? Which scenes do we show and which do we skip over?

Pacing and tension are some of the most challenging things to do in a book and though editors might be able to help you shore up your story structure, you’ll never get that help if an editor isn’t interested enough to read your book in the first place. So I keep some personal rules in mind.

  • If I’m bored writing a scene, then people will be bored reading it. Sometimes we write scenes purely to maneuver our character into the situation we want them to be in. But this is always a mistake. That sort of scene does nothing to advance the plot. In addition, it often forces our character to behave in ways that don’t feel natural.
  • The problem can be the solution. Problem: The scene is boring. Answer: Make the character bored. They will get restless and automatically get themselves into trouble. Which, ultimately, is right where you want them.
  • Let your characters lead and shape your story. I tend to write plot heavy books, but even so, this is a crucial rule. If you create three-dimensional, interesting, and believable characters, then, like volatile chemicals, they will mix together in ways you never could have imagined. Trust them to move the story in unexpected directions. They will find their own way through your plot.
  • And lastly, be mean to your character. The best way to make your story interesting is to make your character take risks and suffer. This can be hard because we grow to love our characters, even the villains. Not to mention that they are often aspects of ourselves. But despite this, we must push them to their breaking points. Only then can they be truly triumphant.

Graphs and theories can be infinitely helpful tools when it comes to creating novels. But the key is to listen to your story and trust that it will find its own way through. Beginning. Middle. And End.

12 thoughts on “Plot Plotting

  • Nice! I love seeing the visual equivalent of revision. And I’m envious! It’s very powerful to be able to _see_ changes as they happen and why they happen. Sigh. All I can show is heavy-duty drafts piling up:)
    Oh! and definitely get yourself a white-board! You won’t regret it:)

  • It sounds so simple. Thanks Sara for distilling this confusing process down to easily actionable points. I am running out to get my white board today!

  • Little do you know that I’m in the pocket of the erasable marker companies! We thank you for your patronage;)

  • The problem can be the solution. You’ve mentioned this before, and I’m so glad I read this before an upcoming workshop. Now I can ask the writers, “What seems to be the problem?”

    Thanks, Sara, and have a Happy Fourth!

  • Funny. I wrote my own writing guide down today, listing the guiding points I remind myself of over and over as I make my way through my manuscript. In case I ever wanted to hand them out (or in case I ever forgot!).

    I should post them online!

    Your “the problem can be the solution” is one of my favorites. :D

  • Awesome! If you do end up writing them down, you should put a link here in the comments so people can look at both:)

  • I love the notion of characters being “volatile chemicals” who will “find their own way through the plot.” That’s awesome. And so are you!
    Namaste and a Hug,

  • Thanks to Lee Wind for tweeting this post. Excellent insight. And you are so right when you write: “Graphs and theories can be infinitely helpful tools when it comes to creating novels. But the key is to listen to your story and trust that it will find its own way through.” Thanks for that much needed reminder as I set aside my “structure” and dive head first into my 3rd novel.

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