It is a truth universally acknowledged, that an author in possession of a WIP must be in want of bitching about said WIP.
—me, right now
If there’s one thing all writers have in common, it’s that we love to complain about how hard writing is. For the longest time, my biggest complaint was how frequently I was stuck rewriting entire drafts after figuring out some plot point that shifted the entire book. This was due in part to my inability to plot. I found outlines constricting and thought they sucked the ‘discovery’ part out of my process. Five books in, and I’ve embraced the three-act structure. Here’s how it works for me:
- Read this article. I find most posts explaining plotting structures to be dry and vague and utterly unhelpful. This was the first time it *clicked* for me, and largely due to the fact that each scene is explained by aligning the three-act structure with Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games. The book follows the structure flawlessly. The part that stuck with me the most was how the “pinch points” were not the major twists I would have assumed, and were often times quieter twists, which helped me in plotting my own books. Not all twists have to be a major action scene or implosion.
- Index cards. This is the part where you go full Charlie Day. You will need 27 cards, one for each scene. At the top of each card, I write “Act One: Block One: Chapter One” and so on and so forth until I reach “Act Three: Block Nine: Chapter Twenty-Seven”. I also write a quick note under each title saying “plot twist #1”, “midpoint”, “darkest moment”, etc. as they pertain to each scene, to help me with controlling the flow of rising and falling action. More on that later. For now, arrange your index cards on a table or the floor. I arrange mine with each row being an act, and putting a gap of space between each of the three blocks within each act.
- Post-It notes. Next, I write down the plot points that I know. Extract all the scenes that have been swimming around in your head and write them on a post-it note. Stick it where you think it falls in the story. Is this the inciting incident? The midpoint? The plot twist? The final battle? Write down everything you know and stick it on your plot cards. Once you have it all down, see where your gaps are. Are you saving too much for the finale? Is the second act a big blank (this is usually my dilemma). Maybe you need to move around some scenes. Perhaps a battle could happen earlier. Or maybe it’s fine and you just need to brainstorm scenes. This is where rising/falling action comes into place. How can you fill that void to ramp up or wind down? Can you see a plot thread that hasn’t been mentioned in a while? Add that in. As a visual learner, being able to see the holes in my plot helps. Sometimes I don’t figure out the answer until I’m literally writing it–and that’s okay! That’s the ‘discovery’ part of writing. It can still exist while plotting. The
rulesoutlines are more like guidelines, anyway.
- Plot Inception. Two optional steps, depending on your narrative and writing style.
- Color Coding. I write multi-POV stories, so I color code my post-it notes with each character’s POV. It allows me to see when a POV has been silent for too long or perhaps I’m shoving too much on them within a certain block of the plot. The colors help me visualize their agency within the plot.
- Dates. This can be literal dates like April 17th, or simply “Day One”. I like to keep track of how time passes within my stories. Are my characters flying across the realms with heretofore unseen quickness all of a sudden? This helps with travel times if a journey/quest is part of your story, or if your characters are simply accomplishing so much that they would need 72-hour day. (ie. epic fantasies spanning multiple books where only a month has passed? Yeah, sure Jan.) Within the actual words of my story, I try to keep mentions of time vague for continuity purposes, but it’s good information to have for you the writer.
- Scrivener. I absolutely swear by writing in Scrivener. If you don’t use it, you can still make it work in Word/whatever you use via the comment function/page breaks/etc, but this will be geared towards Scrivener.
Under the ‘Manuscript’ in the Scrivener binder on the left side, I make nine blocks, titling them “Act One: Block One” all the way to “Act Three: Block Nine”. Within each block, three folders for each chapter. (You could make these scenes and not folders, but I tend to have multiple scenes per chapter, so this is my method, but YMMV.)
Then, I add the scenes from each post-it note under the correlating chapter. (If you’re writing multi-POV, you can color code the scenes via the ‘Label’ function on the right-hand side. You can ‘Edit’ the labels to the names of your characters. “View > Use Label Color In > Binder” will color code each scene to correlate with character POV. I like my colors to relate to the post-it colors. Makes it easier when inevitably changes happen.)
Once you have all your scenes, transcribe the blurb of what happens in each scene to the note card at the top right of the Scrivener screen. (If you’re working in word, you can add this info as a comment to the scene title.) I title each note card with the date, then put bullet points of what needs to happen, any snippets of dialogue I might have floating in my head, and notes to self of things I need to remember that might be happening off-page.
You end up with something that looks like this:
- Write. I know. How dare I? But yes, now you have to actually write. You will discover things about your story and you can add more post-it notes or just jot down ideas into the Scrivener note cards, YMMV. But most importantly, just write. First drafts are for telling yourself the story. You won’t get it right the first time so go ahead and forgive yourself for that. And don’t forget to enjoy it. The world needs your stories.
How do you plot your stories? Or are you a panster? Any favorite functions in Scrivener that I’m woefully missing out on?