Sunday, October 23, 2011

Writing MY Way: The Plotter

Friday we discussed one end of the spectrum when it comes to planning a novel (or any other type of writing for that matter) - The Pantser who "writes by the seat of his or her pants" without doing much in the way of planning. At the other end of the spectrum (and it is a spectrum not just three distinct ways of doing things) is the Plotter.

If you take just about any novel writing class offered (with the exception of mine) this will be the one and only method presented. The arguments are compelling. Having a clear detailed outline before you begin to write will keep you on track and reduce the need for as many revisions later on. Also, since you have the plot laid out in advance, you won't find yourself saying, "So where do I go from here?" Likewise you can spot the holes in your plot early and correct them before you begin to write. Also, it gives the student an exercise you can grade. :-)

Seriously, many people feel much more comfortable with a detailed plot laid out in advance. They do not feel it reduces their creativity, because the creative effort goes into creating the plot outline. They do, indeed, find it easier to write when they have a clear plot in front of them. They may even write faster and probably do have less to do when they begin editing.

And, savvy plotters know that plots are written on paper and not chiseled in stone. They can be changed if in the midst of writing they get some new ideas.

Methods of Plotting 

If you feel that you would prefer to work from a complete plot rather than make it up as you go along, here are a few good ways to create a plot outline. Remember, these are not the only methods. You can use any of them or none of them. Combine them or ignore them and create your own. However, these may give you some ideas for creating your own plot outline.

Page Per Time Unit. Dick Perry in his book One Way to Write Your Novel puts forth a fairly simple method of detailed plotting. His method works like this. You get a three ring binder. You put in one page and write on it what happens right as the curtain rises on the story. Then put in another page one write a one sentence description of what happens at the end of the story. For instance, in my book Dark Side of the Moon, that would look like this:

Opening: Carolyn is waiting in the spaceport to go to the moon to take a job as a history professor at Armstong University.

End: Mike declares his love for Carolyn after they have revealed the identity of the killer.

Now, using this method, you figure out the time from the first scene to the last. In the above example that would be 12 months or 52 weeks. I could choose either interval, but I'm going to choose the 52 weeks.

You then put a page in your binder for each unit of time. On those pages you jot down your notes as to what happens during that week/month/day/hour. What characters are involved? What challenges do they face? How do they resolve those challenges? How does the main plot and each of the subplots advance during that time frame? Once you finish writing those notes, you have a detailed plot outline.

Scene-by-Scene This method thinks about the novel like a play. Consider a three-act play. In act 1 we met the characters and the main character encounters a problem. In act 2 the character struggles to understand and confront the problem. In act three the character confronts and solves the problem (or fails to do so in a tragedy). Each act has a number of scenes which lead up to the next act.

Of course, you can't directly equate a novel with a play. Novels are more complex involve more subplots and secondary plots and more detours than plays do. However, novels do take place one scene at a time. The scene-by-scene approach recognizes this and builds a planning model around the scenes. Most of these models create either a page in a notebook or a file on your computer for each scene in your novel. In general this is done sequentially in the order in which you expect them to appear. There are two ways to do this. First, you can take an overview followed by filling in the details. In other words, create a file for each scene with just a minimum amount of information. For instance:

Mike and Carolyn have dinner with Jason and a few others and offers his museum to the University.
The other method is to plan out each scene thoroughly before going on to the next.

Either way, the idea is that before you set down to write, you have each scene planned out.

File Card Method Both of the previous methods had one thing in common. They encourage the author to plan a novel sequentially from beginning to end. However, many of us have minds that work differently. We jump around in our thoughts. So, I'm working on the first scene of the novel and suddenly I get an idea for a scene 75 pages later. I say, okay, that's another 20 scenes, I'll write down when I get there. And what happens is we forget all about it.

The File Card Method is similar in many ways to the scene-by-scene method. However, it differs from that method by encouraging you to let your mind wander if it wants. You grab a bunch of file cards. On one you write a short description of your opening scene (it could even be tentative). On another write a description of the last scene. Keep this short. A sentence or even phrase would would adequate. For instance: "Arrive at the crime scene" and "Reveal the Killer" would be fine. You will come back later and fill in the details.

You make a card for every scene in the novel. If you have a lot of ideas about that scene, jot them down. You can even plan out the whole scene on the card (You might get 4x6 or 5X8 cards). But if an idea comes for another scene, grab a card and jot down the idea. Likewise, if you really don't feel much like planning the proposal scene right now or maybe you need more research before your main character has that discussion with the medical examiner, you can skip over them.

You might have an idea for a scene to come somewhere in the story, but you don't know where. You can jot down the idea and maybe when you get some context, placement will become obvious.

Try not to edit yourself too much at this stage. If you have an idea for a scene where your character watches kids on a playground and remembers her own troubled childhood, but aren't sure you would want it in the final cut, jot the basics on a card and come back to it later.

Once you have all the scenes you can think of jotted down either as short sentances or as complete outlines, think about organizing them.

First, go through the cards you have and eliminate any that don't really belong in the story. Then look at the remaining scenes and ask one question: "Which scene logically comes first?" Lay that card face down on the table. Then ask which scene follows that one? Continue to ask that question until you have your cards organized. Leaf back through the cards. Are there any scenes missing? If so, pull out a card jot down a couple of notes and put it the stack where it belongs.

Visualization Method. Some plotters view themselves as pantsers because they don't write down their plot outlines. However, they often have very detailed storylines visualized in their minds. Of course, there is not "technique" involved. It is merely a matter of thinking about your story long enough that you have down the whole plot in your mind before you start writing.

Storyboard Method. For very visual writer, you can create a detailed plot outline by taking the scene-by-scene method and creating a storyboard with sketches of each scene and notes about what is happening. This is especially good for action-adventure type writing.

There are five methods plotters can use. Tomorrow, we will look at the Explorer.

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  1. All that plotting sounds tedious to me. If I had to do it, the File Card method sounds best, it lets you jump around and add scenes when you think of them. I doubt I'd have the self-discipline to stick with plotting all the way through a story. But I guess plotting works for some people, if it works for you, go for it.

  2. I consider myself a pantser, but after reading this I now realize I may be a pantser/plotter. I use the Visualization method. I have the skeleton of the story already in my head. I'm getting to know my characters and so forth. The other types of plotter are intimidating to me. I just can't see myself writing a complete outline. Although the outline could change as the story progressed, I would fee like I was locked in and not able to change it.

    I agree with the previous poster, Jim, if I were to plot out the story before I started writing I would most likely use the index card method. Then I could move scenes around until they "fit" - like a puzzle.

    Concilium, July 2012

  3. I'm not a plotter, but the idea of writing scenes on index cards gives me the cold shakes. Who knew? If I did plot in detail, I think I'd still stick to the list method. I need to see the whole thing at once to make sense of the plot -- probably why a lot of my plotting takes place in my head.

  4. I'm not a detailed plotter myself. Although I can understand their thinking because when I write nonfiction I usually have a fairly detailed outline to work from. Someone commented on another list that very few of us are pure plotters/pantsers/explorers. Most of us draw a bit from the other.

    Some may use something similar to the index card method of storyboarding without being too detailed. Others may plot out everything in their head, but never write it down and thus think they are not plotting at all.

    The key is finding a method you can live with. Tomorrow we will look at my method, The Explorer or Discoverer method. I honestly think some who believe themselves to be pantsers are really explorers.

  5. I have pitch-length ideas of plots, but if I try NaNo again, I want to have more of an idea than that. I want at least something plotting out the story with an ending in mind. I tried a couple times before with only the idea and ran out of steam before finishing.
    I do like all the ideas you presented. They are all good ideas.
    I once tried setting out a plot like a family tree on paper. I used a long piece of shelf paper. Those of us who are older, know what that is--LOL. Started on the left with the opening. Used lines, circles, boxes, arrows--whatever it took. But it worked. It looked like a complex football play, but it accomplished what I needed.

  6. Cindy--

    What you describe is a technique called Mind Mapping. I didn't have time to go into it here and you really need a visual aid to help go in to it. There are a couple of free software programs that do the same thing on a computer screen, but butcher paper works just as well. I remember reading that Jacqueline Suzanne (Valley of the Dolls) used something like that before it had a name.

  7. I'm a plotter but I use Jim Bell's "headlights" method. I know the beginning and the end, then outline ahead as far as I can see. When I reach that point, I look ahead and make a new list of what's coming up.

    I still deviate from the list when I actually do the writing, but I can't imagine writing without some direction. Wondering around, writing scenes I may throw away or ones without knowing how they fit into the whole sounds so tedious to me. ;-)


  8. You see, becky, I consider that more of an organized pantser or an explorer method. Plotters are the type that the books tell you you should be with a detailed plot outline in front of you before you start writing.

    One person I read used what you mention which he called a slash-dash method. He would put a short description of the scene he was about to write after a slash and then under them headed by dashes the essential organization of that scene then he would write through that section and make another slash-dash outline. But I like the metaphor of the headlights. I can use that.


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