Archive for March 11, 2022


Plotting and Structure

I’m still working on plotting, so I thought I’d talk a little more about the process there. Plotting is one of my weaknesses and always has been, so I have to work extra hard on it. My early attempts at writing all failed because I’d come up with characters and interesting situations for them to be in that were full of potential conflicts—and then had no idea where to go from there. I was good at coming up with people who could do things and situations in which things could happen, but couldn’t come up with actual, specific things to happen to create a story. Because my situations were so fleshed out, I thought that meant the story would be obvious and would come easily, and then I’d start writing, get about three chapters, and have no idea what should happen next.

Some people are lucky enough to be able to plot instinctively. They just start writing a scene, have it end with some kind of consequence that propels the action to the next scene, and so forth, and it all falls together. I am not that kind of writer. I need some kind of structure or framework to give me an idea for things that can happen, and from there I can fill in specific scenes.

There are a lot of story structure charts out there, and most of them boil down to different ways of saying the same thing (for Western/European culture-based storytelling—there are non-Western story structures that are very different). There’s the three-act structure, the story circle, the plot snowflake, Save the Cat, the Hero’s Journey, the Heroine’s Journey, and a bunch of others. Just about every writing book has its own story structure chart or worksheet that labels the different steps in a plot. Some are better suited or even designed for a certain kind of story. Some speak better to some writers than to others.

Which one do I use? All of them!

I do find that some structures work better with some stories, but it’s hard to tell which one will click into place until I try it. I have a binder full of these worksheets that I save from workshops or from notes I take while reading a book on writing, and when I’m plotting a book, I’ll work through them. I find that there’s usually one method that really suits each book, and I use that for my core plotting, but going through each one makes me look at my story from multiple angles and gives me different ideas for scenes. For instance, I’d gone through about four different plot outlines for this book, but then this morning I got out my Save the Cat book, and that story outline has already helped me flesh out some blanks that were in my outline because there are Save the Cat story beats that fall between the turning points in the other outlines I was using. It’s given me some good ideas for scenes.

One other thing I do is outline the plot for both the protagonist and the antagonist. After I’ve got a good outline for the hero, I turn it around and pretend the villain is the main character, outlining the book from that character’s perspective. That’s a good way to figure out what the villains are up to, even when they’re offstage and working in the background. Then I know what the villains’ plans might be and what the hero will have to react to. Some of the structures are better suited to this than others. The ones that focus on character transformation don’t work too well, unless you’re going to redeem your villain. Or, I suppose you could have the opportunities for realization and transformation that the character doesn’t take.

I might also do some brief outlines for the secondary characters whose actions might affect the plot or who have a subplot of their own. The book I’m working on now is going to have multiple viewpoints, so I need to plot the stories of the various viewpoint characters and then weave that into the main plot.

You don’t have to get too obsessive with structure. It’s a framework to hang scenes upon, so don’t twist your story around to slavishly adhere to some plot structure worksheet if your story doesn’t fit. You may not hit all the beats of every structure. However, if you find that your story doesn’t fit anything and you’re missing most of the major beats or turning points, you might need to develop your story or your characters a little more.

I like screenplay structures, but keep in mind that screenplay structure is different from novel structure, so you’re not going to hit the page numbers they do or even the proportions. The difference in the storytelling media means it takes a different amount of pages to tell the same story visually as opposed to in text. For instance, a movie can convey visually in a second or two what it might take paragraphs or pages to describe in a novel. There are also more “rules” for writing in Hollywood than there are for novels. Movie studios expect a particular structure, with events happening at certain points within a movie, and publishers just care about whether a novel is interesting all the way through. So, don’t get too hung up on all the advice in screenwriting books.

I also find that my outline may or may not hold up as I write. I may discover things along the way and change my mind, but that may also have something to do with the fact that I let myself get vague about events later in the book. With this book that I’m putting a lot more development effort into, it may be different.