Some people are naturally gifted plot-savants. Fully-plotted, fully-foreshadowed, fully-realised creations spring from their mind like Athena in the form of a comic book, a novel, a screenplay, etc. Those people do not need this article, and should instead turn their attention to achieving world peace or something more worthy of their talents. For the rest of us, it is necessary to plan our plots. This was recently brought to my attention by my excellent editor, Yannick Morin. (Actually, he also brought to my attention the necessity of having a plot in the first place.)
The Three Phases of Plot
- The Seed: At this phase, your story is just a seed. You have a scene, a concept, a character — something, in mind. It’s beautiful, exciting, and … not yet a story, nor even a plot. Once you have your idea, draw from it a thesis: this can be anything from “Superman is more powerful than his enemies” to, “Without god, all is permitted“. Determined your thesis? Great. It’s still not a plot, but you are ready to plant your seed.
- Cultivation: In this phase you put earth around your seed. It becomes grounded in a fertile field of complementary events, characters, and metaphor-breaking. In more mundane terms, in this phase you do the work. You have to plan your plot. There are approximately seventeen-thousand different ways to do this, and a few of them are discussed below.
- Fruition: After hours of labour (and many days of waiting anxiously), your seed has put up its first tender green shoots. Excellent! The plot is complete, and you can move on to actual writing. The actual writing may otherwise be known as “exponentially more labour”, but since this post is restricted in scope to the plotting of your story, we can discontinue this metaphor at the beautiful, tender green shoots.
Know Your Type
Before you can begin planning your plot, there is one major decision you have to make: what type of story do you want to tell? There are two basic types of narrative: character-driven and event-driven.
In a character-driven narrative, the plot itself is largely the development of a character’s, or characters’, feelings and attitudes. The Brothers Karamazov, or better yet, Notes from Underground, are examples of character-driven plot, as indeed is most of what you’ll find the in the classics section of your library or bookshop.
My literary background is the classics, so for me “event-driven plot” is a strange and vaguely unpleasant concept that brings to mind large-scale explosions and overdone manic cackling. However, this need not be so. Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford stories are excellent examples of event-driven narrative with believable, three-dimensional characters. It is also not to say that large-scale explosions and characters who cackle maniacally cannot be done cleverly, enjoyably, and well. It is, however, a very different style of plotting with its own advantages, disadvantages, and pitfalls.
Relative (and subjective) merits aside, the type of story you want to tell will determine the type of narrative you should use to tell it. A story about an adolescent flowering into adulthood and rebellion would likely be best-served by a character-driven narrative; a story about thwarting an assassination attempt on a geopolitically-influential ambassador is likely to make better use of an event-driven narrative. You can mix and match here (perhaps the geopolitically-influential ambassador’s marriage is ending and the assassination attempt is only a metaphor), but do so advisedly.
Planning Your Plot : What Happens?
The most important thing about your plot is, well, what actually happens in it. You have almost total freedom here. Almost total freedom. If your story ends with aliens swooping in and saving the day, make sure you established that they existed and why they might be inclined to save the day well before this happens.
Key words here are: tone, genre, and thesis. Make sure all three of these cohere and complement each other. A love-conquers-all ending is unlikely to serve a gritty noir tone, for example, and nor are wish-granting fairies likely to make sense in your realistic thriller. Most importantly, make sure that the events of your story match your thesis. Events in fiction are half metaphor, so if you are writing an anti-war epic, all conflict being resolved by argument, domination or actual violence, does not serve your thesis (presumably some variation of, “give peace a chance”).
Readers approach your story with expectations informed by tone, genre and thesis. Feel free to play with these expectations, but don’t disregard them.
Planning Your Plot : Level of Detail
Some people will create only a very general outline, perhaps even only a beginning, an ending, and one or two interim events; perhaps even only a beginning. Other people will plan practically every single event in their story, issue-by-issue (or chapter-by-chapter), and even page-by-page. Probably the majority of writers will fall somewhere in between the two.
If your story is to be published or released in only one discrete unit, then you probably can (note the use of can) get away with coasting along, working out the plot as you go, and coming back later to clean things up or to add foreshadowing. If your story will span even two units (two issues of a comic book, two books in a series, two episodes of a TV show), however, you really need to know what is going to happen down the line so you can lay the groundwork appropriately. Regardless of whether or not the final product is to be serialised, planning your plot with a reasonable degree of detail will save you work later, and give you focus.
On the other hand, you should not include so much detail in your plot outline that you feel bored by your story and as if you have practically written it already. Or, if you do include really huge amounts of detail, remember that it is a roadmap and not a binding legal contract. When you do actually start writing, you should enjoy it and remember that you are always in control of your story. That’s what makes it fun.
Note for Event-Driven Narratives: If you are writing an event-driven narrative, the events are front-and-centre. In a very real sense, they are your protagonist. The reader should interact with them as a protagonist. They should be surprising, interesting, and engaging just like a good protagonist.
Planning Your Plot : Methods
There are a few plotting methods, and you can use none, one, some, or all of them in combination.
The first method is cue-cards or flashcards. Either buy a stack of them from Officeworks or similar, or just cut up a piece of paper. Start writing plot points and character developments or reactions on them. Reshuffle and add/remove them as necessary. Ta-da!
The second method is corkboarding. You can use an actual corkboard or an online corkboard like Lino. Lino lets you share your corkboard with specific people, which is great if you’ re collaborating. You do have to sign up, though. Larry Ferlazzo has posted a more comprehensive list of online corkboarding applications and their pros and cons. In general terms, corkboards are great to generate ideas, and to organise and re-organise them to your heart’s content. If you’re a visual thinker, this method is ideal for you.
The third method is quite simple: just write a list of events out on a sheet of paper. This ranks very highly on the just-get-started scale, but it does suffer somewhat by being difficult to change. You want Item 7 now to be Item 2? And Item 3 should now be Item 10? Congratulations, your plan is a confusing criss-crossing of arrows and scribbles. Applying this basic method to spreadsheeting makes it much more manageable. Here are some basic spreadsheet templates that I created to help me plot:
- A character driven template [Excel]
- A character driven template [Gnumeric]
- An event-driven template [Excel]
- An event-driven template [Gnumeric]
Remember, basically, to keep it relevant and believable. Don’t add extraneous plot points, either events or character developments. Remember to foreshadow important or difficult-to-accept plot points, and remember to keep your plot cohesive.
And try not to think about all the work ahead of you once you have finished planning your plot.
In organised exhaustion,