Monday, October 4, 2010

There's a Plot!

Those three weeks flew by, didn't they? Things have calmed down just a teensy bit, so I can actually squeeze in a real post this month!

Last time, when I left a real post, I talked about Character Building. There's a process to it, obviously, but everyone uses a different process. This time I promised a bit about plotting. There are two major schools of thought on this: the planners and and the pantsers. Planners, as the name indications, do some kind of outline that gives them a roadmap to the story before they start writing. Pantsers just sit down and write, and hammer out the story as they go along. Each has its merit, and often there are terrible arguments over which is the better method.

Whatever works for you IS the better method. End of argument.

But, in the interest of science (or whatever), I will tell you how I work out the story. I am a plotter.

I used to be a complete pantser. And it was SO FRUSTRATING. I'd hit a wall, or go off on some story tangent that was pretty well useless. When I ended up cutting 20,000 words (yes, you read that correctly) from the last Library of Athena book I finished, I decided I had enough. There had to be a better way for me to get through without getting off track. The point of those 20,000 words was all the way at the end, and I didn't NEED about 18,000 of them. I had spent hours working them out, and nearly cried when I had to cut them. I did save them, and I may just put them up on my website, as a kind of what ended up on the cutting room floor item.

I found the nine-block plot, and it saved my sanity. I cannot take credit for this, I found it on Verla Kay's blue board, and it made sense. Here's how it works. You divide up a sheet of paper into nine blocks, like a tic-tac-toe board. I use my white board, because it's so easy to erase and change around, and I can just look at it whenever I want. I can also color code it to main plot, sub plot, and connect plot elements.

Starting at the first block, top left, I put one label in each block, in this order:
Inciting Incident           Characterization               1st Major Turning Point
Exposition                   Connect the Dots              Negative Turning Point
Antagonist Wins          Revelation                         Protagonist Wins

Then I fill in the blocks with the elements from my story. This way, you can SEE how the Exposition connects to both the Inciting Incident and the Antagonist Wins elements AND the Connect the Dots. Like a big puzzle, all of the elements fit together and play off of the block above, below, and next to them. This also fits with the often used Three Act format of writing - the end of the First Act is the First Major Turning Point, as it should be.

Obviously block five- Connect the Dots - is the most complicated and complex. It is the heart of the story, taking elements from Characterization, Exposition, and foreshadowing the Negative Turning point and Revelation, indirectly influenced by the four corner blocks.

Don't think these three rows carry equal weight, either. The first row, up to the end of Act I, and the last row, which is Act III, are usually shorter than Act II, the middle row, which is the bulk of the story. This is something I took from screenplay writing, but it goes along with the natural pacing of most stories.

This looks amazingly complicated, but really it's not. It totally keeps me on track, with none of those giant tangents. It looks kind of like this:

The sticky notes are things I want to remember later. I used this system to write SMOKE & MIRRORS, my YA Historical Fantasy that is out on submission now, and it was SO HELPFUL. I finished that book so quickly, and all the pieces just fell into place. I was so relaxed and happy with the way it went together, I don't think I will ever go back to pantsing again.

This is not to say there weren't any surprises, or that if you plot you've destroyed creativity. I still have things happen that I didn't expect, little twists and turns. But the BIG moments are all here, like a road map for me to follow. And I can concentrate on the characters and the setting and all the other things that go into a good story.

Think about the stories you've read and see if you can't find some of these elements and fit them into a chart like this!


  1. Great tips! I needed a primer like this!

  2. It is amazingly helpful, because you can SEE how it fits together.

  3. I use a very similar model my writing mentor Lou Nelson taught at UCI extension. It's based on Syd Field's model. Each story is in three acts. I map out my story on a huge whiteboard. This helps me.

  4. I've seen this on Verla's boards and even copied it down, but haven't tried it. Think I will. I usually just start writing and maybe have an idea of the ending but not exactly how to get there. This should help. Thanks.