Wednesday, January 16, 2013

An Experiment in Plotting

You all know I'm a plotter, right? I am obsessed with plotting, actually. Queries and plotting and being eaten by alligators--all things I love. I know. You're already super jealous of me.

I've heard mystery writers say that they like to pants their books to discover the villain with their characters, but I think that method involves too much revision (going back and adjusting clues/motivations/actions/reactions to fit). I have to plot. Good thing I like it, huh?

So this MS has been my baby for like 2 weeks. (You're all like "Shut up. I've been working on my WIP for 2 YEARS.") And I decided I was gonna do it, partially because my sister will shoot me dead if I don't. So I wrote a query. Then I wrote the first couple chapters (~5K).

Then I plotted. Usually I plot like this, in story chunks, and while that's worked in the past, this story wasn't liking that method. And like usual when I need writing help, I went to YA Highway's Publishing Road Map which is basically my favorite thing ever. I looked at ALL THE LINKS. I clicked MOST OF THE LINKS. And I ended up molding all of the plotting advice together.

Here's what I did:

(Step zero: on my flight back to school, I'd taken a bunch of notes, basically just writing out possible killers and their motivations and potential complicating subplots. No structure. Just possible events so that I was familiar with things that COULD HAPPEN that would fit the tone of my story.)

First, I wrote a synopsis. I just sat down and wrote from the beginning to the end. If I got stuck, I'd consult my potential scene notes and add/tweak one. The only divisions I made were timeline divisions ("DAY ONE," etc) so I could see an approximate timeline at a glance and make sure everything was evenly spread out. Once finished, it looked like this:

Kinda word vomit-y.

Usually at this point, I'd start writing. But I wasn't feeling it for some reason. I cranked out another 5K and then sat back to hem and haw. Why wasn't this working? So back to the Publishing Road Map I went. I consulted the links more and decided I wanted to do something visual.

Second, I did a storyboard. (In my case, a story wall.)

It looks like this:

I <3 it so much.

Now, storyboards have always looked SUPER daunting to me. I had no clue where to start. Luckily I had my handy-dandy outline, and I realized the natural divisions were each day. So all those red post-its? They're in five lines, each representing one of the five days of the story's timeline. Each post-it is a scene within the day.

But even once I realized that I planned to divide by day, I was still daunted. How should I know how many scenes per day? So I put up those bigger yellow post-its to show the BIG moments from each day. Day One says "Alison is dead." (Not a spoiler...this is a murder mystery; of course someone is dead.) The rest of them are slightly more plot-twisty.

Now on to the red post-its. You'll see that there are six per day until the last day, where there are nine. This wasn't on purpose. I went through the synopsis and separated scenes. Sometimes I had to add something. Sometimes I tweaked a character. But mostly I was just taking the synopsis and giving each element a beginning middle and end--containing it, so to speak.

Examples of the red post-its:

Teegan is sent home and stops for coffee and sees Chase and learns Chase knows J+L

Home, discover A's texts . . . A was gone that night

Call w/ detective: "Don't reopen."

Super simple stuff, but enough that I know what characters are in the scene and what I hope to accomplish with each scene.

The other thing I did with the red post-its was to go through and add two things (in chicken scratch) along the bottom. One: I added the general time of day (AM (6-12), PM (12-6), night (6-12)), and two: I added who my MC considered to be the main suspect in the scene. In the beginning, she didn't really have a suspect yet, so a suspect shows up for the first time around scene 10 or 11.

The orange post-its down at the bottom give me space to scribble about my main characters. I have the detective/protagonist/MC, the killer, and the main red herring. I slapped a bunch of post-its up there so I can write whatever I want about them. Goal/Motivation/Conflict (both internal and external), what character types they are, their defining characteristics (my MC is independent to a fault), short physical descriptions . . . whatever I find interesting about them.

(Oh, the tiny purple post-its down there just have their names so I don't get confused at a glance.)

While I was doing the red ones, there were a couple plot points I had trouble with. This was because I had trouble remembering the timing of the motivations of my killer and red herring. The blue post-its at the top have one paragraph from each of those characters, describing what each is doing in general through the plot, mainly hitting on the major turning points. The pink post-its in between the reds show where these major turning points happen relative to my MC's perspective of the main plot.

Third, I realized I wanted a way to see exactly who was in each scene. Luckily I had a link for that. I tweaked Gary Corby's model a little, but here's what my character per scene spreadsheet looks like:

With the last day removed so that you don't get any possible spoilers ;)

Instead of listing each scene on the left, I just used the numbers corresponding to my storyboard. Character names across the top, in order of introduction. I tried to make sure all the main players were at least in the scene in passing by the end of the first day. Instead of giving each minor character his or her own column, I just wrote them into a shared column at the end. I also distinguished between when a character was in a scene physically (X) and when they were on the phone (P). I counted P characters as .5 of a character. The ~ is just a distinguishing mark so I will remember a plot point.

(I tend to have VERY limited casts, in case you can't tell.)

Fourth, I set aside Saturday and Sunday to write. Nothing but write.

And somehow I wrote 40K in those two days.

I contribute this ENTIRELY to that plotting. I knew exactly where I was going. I was excited about every scene. I knew my characters, and I knew when they would show up. (Plus most of my friends (AKA the swimmers) were at a meet and thus not on campus tempting me to hang out.)


  1. Thanks for sharing your method!

    I am also a plotter and for my first WIP, I wrote a synopsis.

    For my current WIP, I am using Scrivener's corkboard (similar to your storyboard post it notes) to outline and rearrange scenes.

    I will have a try with the spreadsheet to keep track of characters!

    1. Scrivener never works for me for some reason. I also really like having a part of the writing process that doesn't include staring at the keyboard!

  2. I LOVE this. I've seen people use storyboards and have always been a little intimidated by them. I might actually use this for my current WIP that's slowly driving me insane.

    1. Same here! They seem so terrifying, so that's why I wanted to explain my experience with mine...breaking it up helped a lot :)

  3. I'll have to come back here and read through again when I'm ready to plot my next book. I'm trying to avoid it like the plague because I have other things to do first, dang it. But this does get me excited. Congrats on the 40K.

  4. I'm blown away from all your plotting! But it seems to do very well for you, keep it up! I might have learned a thing or two from you. Thanks.

  5. Very cool. I do something similar with notes, only mine aren't on the wall; they're rubber-banded together in a stack. But sometimes I spread them all out for reference (though I usually just flip through them). I also wrote a query before drafting this time around. All these things helped a ton! I love your idea for charting how often characters are in scenes. I'm going to try that next time.

    1. I used to do notecards! But I like post-its. They're like an easily-removable wall decoration ;)

  6. I love your system, and I'm drooling over your chart of who's in each scene. Post-Its have never worked for me, but boy do I employ charts. For one of my books I had 8 Excel pages of what each character is feeling at each plot point (one of my characters doesn't talk so I have to remember to imply his feelings through actions, and his lack of communication makes it difficult for me to determine what he's really feeling).

    1. WHOA. That sounds awesome. I'd love to hear more if you ever blog/have blogged about it :)

  7. I'm going to make a character-per-scene spreadsheet because it looks like fun /spreadsheet nerd. no but really! I'm excited to read this. sure, I read the outline, but seeing the actual story to me is really exciting, too. that's why outlining works for me :) we should compare OUR OUTLINE PROCESS SOMEDAY

    1. I'll send it to you soon, promise!

  8. The best advice you gave me was to go back and read my work and fill in the blanks.

    I did just that, created a synopsis, scenes, and ultimately a few sentences describing what needed to happen.

    I had never written so fast! I always feared with plotting my voice would disappear, I found the exact opposite! It flowed effortlessly.

    I may learn to be a plotter after all.

  9. I love doing a storyboard for my projects. It helps me to see what's missing, thin areas and the like. By fleshing out my scenes ahead of time I tend to eliminate scenes that don't move the story forward which makes it easier to edit late.

  10. Have you ever tried Scrivener? It's everything you need in one nice software package.

  11. Yeah, I hate Scrivener. It's not as dynamic, and it's stuck on this tiny little computer screen. Plus I think it's good not to spend the entire project staring at the screen.

  12. Heh, neat to see how the other half lives . . .

    /unrepentant pantser

    I think the KIND of book you tend to write also lends itself very well to plotting, because there's stuff to figure out and interwoven threads, so just letting stuff happen without an overall picture of where it's all going does lend itself to easy disorganization. You've got a really cool system here and I see how all your prep work made it easy to dive in and write 40K. If I ever somehow morph into a plotter, I'll have to come back to this post for reference. :)