Showing posts with label plotting. Show all posts
Showing posts with label plotting. Show all posts

Saturday, September 28

Book Outlines: Helpful or Harmful?

Book Outlines: Helpful or Harmful?

To outline or not to outline. There are few questions more contentious in the writing world -- and writers (God bless us!) can be a rather contentious bunch.

Here is my tl;dr answer: Ultimately, I think whether you should use an outline depends on the writer, and everyone is different, so there is no one definite answer. That said, I think everyone should try outlining at least once. Otherwise, how could you know whether it works for you?

Stephen King: Reject the Tyranny of the Outline

As you likely know, Stephen King doesn't like outlining. He writes:

“I’d suggest that what works for me may work equally well for you. If you are enslaved to (or intimidated by) the tiresome tyranny of the outline and the notebook filled with “Character Notes,” it may liberate you. At the very least, it will turn your mind to something more interesting than Developing the Plot.” (On Writing, Stephen King)

I think I might talk about Stephen King too much but he is one of my favorite writers. And he’s straightforward, one of the traits I appreciate most in a person. I don’t always agree with King but what he has to say is well thought out and has worked for him over the course of decades, so it’s worth taking seriously.

Stephen King is exceptionally talented. His story, ‘It’ is one of my favorites -- after I read it I couldn’t use the washroom without fear for a couple of decades (especially at night). But, on the positive side, he gave me worlds to live in, he gave me characters I love and who have stayed with me. This may seem like an odd way of putting it, but it’s true: he gave me the gift of his thoughts.

I’m writing about Stephen King here because I think he is one of the best defenders, one of the best advocates, of pantsing.

Pantsing vs Plotting

Broadly speaking, there are two ways of constructing stories:

1. Plot a story 

Let’s talk about plot. In most stories the hero starts off in the Ordinary World, doing what he usually does every day. He wakes up, brushes his teeth, goes to school, wishes he was brave enough to ask Betty to the dance, gets bullied for his lunch money, etc.

This is where you show your readers your character’s soul, often by giving her a mini-adventure (think of any Bond film you’ve ever seen).

Then there’s a Call to Adventure (which is often rejected). The protagonist will be given a foreign dictator to subvert, or tasked with retrieving nuclear weapons from a sexy despot. Etc. Etc. Etc.

Often, the hero meets a mentor who gives him a gift that will aid him on his Journey into the Special World of the Adventure (Obi Wan Kenobi gave Luke the lightsaber that had belonged to his father). And so on.

There’s nothing wrong with a strongly plotted story. For one thing, it can help you determine early on whether the story works.

I’d like to make another point before I go on to the next section. You can have an outline without having a strongly plotted story. It all depends on whether an outline describes what is already in your story or whether it describes what you want to have in your story but isn’t there yet. I’ll talk more about this, below.

2. Pants a story

This is the idea that if you develop strong characters that the plot will spring from their actions. You put strong characters in a particular situation and then you say: What would these characters do in this situation? And then you write your answer down. That’s your story.

I wish I could remember where I read this, but years ago I read an article by Thomas Harris where he described writing his book, Red Dragon. His story emerged from what he saw his characters doing, from what he heard them saying. Psychologically, they were living, independent, entities. I think Harris is on the extreme end, he is an extreme pantser, but that’s the idea.

You don’t actually have to see and hear your characters for this technique to work! (Though it would help.)

My Experience

There are innumerable ways of writing a story, and I don’t think one way is intrinsically any better than another, it all depends on the writer using it, what is best for him or her.

When I pants a story -- when I start writing with a few characters and only a couple of ideas rattling around in my head -- I’ll often first write what I like to call a vomit draft. (Sounds nice, doesn’t it! ;)

The vomit draft is just that, I vomit up thoughts, thought fragments -- whatever -- onto the page. I ignore spelling, grammar, research, facts and good taste. No one will ever see one of my vomit drafts but me, it would be like walking out of the house naked.

I use a writing journal and so I scrawl this all out longhand, and that gives me the opportunity to incorporate images out of old magazines if they … how do I describe it? Sometimes an image will pop out at me. For example, I’ll see a woman’s hairstyle and I’ll realize, Yes! That’s what the protagonist’s hair looks like, so I'll cut the image out and paste it into my writing journal. (Yes, my journals look like something out of the film 'Se7en')

When I begin writing a story I try to write the story straight through and to be as brief as possible. If I realize I have to change something at the beginning of the story (e.g., the protagonist’s hair needs to be brown rather than blond), I'll make a note of that, but I’ll keep going.

Okay, my point is that at the end of this messy process I’ll have a pretty good idea of the story, of its shape. From that I can easily put together an outline. So … am I a plotter or a pantser?

For me, an outline is just a snapshot of where the novel is at, not necessarily where the novel needs to go. One of the HUGE advantages of using an outline is that it’s easier to come back to the novel if I have to break off working on it for a bit.

Just Do It

If you haven’t already found a method that works for you, for instance if you’re just starting out and wondering whether you should outline, then outline. At least try it out. Even Stephen King has tried it -- which is one reason he can confidently say it’s not for him.

An outline doesn’t have to be complicated. Just tell the story as briefly as possible and then break it up into sections. Identify the Call to Adventure, the confrontation at the Midpoint, the Final Showdown. Even if you only have those three things it can be a help. Or not.

If you find outlining doesn’t work for you, if you find you don’t need it, then fine!

As always, have a good writing day and I’ll talk to you again soon. :-)

Saturday, January 19

How Plotting Can Build A Better Story

The Building Blocks Of Story: Plot Elements

Why care about plot elements? Because if all the elements of plot are in place--if they are clear and concrete--then you'll have a stronger story. Why? It will be easier to spot holes in the story. Also, it will show whether a scene is necessary to advance the story. If it's not then cut it!

The Benefits Of Knowing Where You Want To Go

Janice Hardy's blog, The Other Side of the Story, is one of the best blogs on writing it has been my pleasure to read this past year.

And, of course, one of the reasons I love it is because she's a fellow plotter. Sure, the actual writing is done pantser style--whatever happens, happens, and I adjust my outline to reflect the story, not the other way around--but I like to know where I'm going, I like a roadmap, before I head out.

(Occasionally I wish I could be one of those types who can step outside, be inspired by the loveliness of the day--the sunlight, the warm fragrant breeze, the distant laughter of children--and decide to take a drive with no particular destination in mind. I had a friend who did this and it was splendid! But he always ended up somewhere interesting and there was always a gas station nearby. I don't have that kind of luck.)

So, there you are, at your desk. You have a scene to write, what do you do? How do you plan your scene? (What follows was inspired by Janice Hardy's excellent article: Four Ways to Pre-Write Your Scenes.)

Here's more or less what I do, or at least what I try to do!

1. Write a summary of the scene

If I'm writing a first draft I usually just write out what I know. For instance, if I'm sure my protagonist gets into a car accident and that she's saved from the twisted wreckage by a starving vampire then I'll write that down. At this stage I'm (for the most part) telling not showing. There will be minimal description of the setting and just raw dialog without any tags ('he said,' 'she said').

If I'm editing my first draft I'll take more time. Dialog tags will go in and, at the beginning of the scene, I'll type out the answers to a few questions (see below). If I don't know all the answers, that's perfectly fine, I'll just write in what I know now and fill the rest in later.

2. The Elements That Drive Your Plot

- What is your protagonist's goal in this scene?
- Why that goal? What's her motivation?
- What obstacle(s) prevent her from achieving her goal?

Answering these questions is important because it can help reveal whether this scene is necessary. For instance, if your protagonist's goal isn't tied in with the story goal--what your protagonist has to achieve by the end of the book in order to succeed in her quest--then the scene doesn't advance the story and should be either re-worked or cut.

By the time you're ready to send your baby, your manuscript, out to beta readers you should be able to answer all these questions:


Whose point of view is the scene being told from?

Narrative point of view

First, second or third? If third, is it subjective, objective or omniscient? (Narrative point of view)

POV character's external goal

In each and every scene all your characters must want something, they must have goals. Even if your teenaged character just wants to be left alone in his bedroom to play video games and eat nacho chips, that's a goal. That said, many times your other character's goals will be determined by your POV character's goal.

Make sure the POV character's goal is both clear (no ambiguity) and concrete (something you can see and touch). You can have a more abstract goal, but there should be a way to cash it out in concrete terms.

POV character's internal goal

Internal goals can be tricky. Give me a nice clear concrete goal like, "Rescue the Ark from the Nazi's" and I'm happy. The goal is clear (get the ark) and it's clear whether the hero has succeeded (does Indiana Jones have the ark?).

But your characters have inner goals as well as outer. The example I always think of here is Mitch McDeere from The Firm, how his inner goal was to get as far away from the trailer park of his youth as he could. He was afraid, at least in part, that his wife, Abby, would leave him if he wasn't rich, if he couldn't provide her the kind of life she'd been used to. He was wrong about Abby, but this was his fear, his inner motivation for being a rich lawyer.

Your POV character will have an inner and outer motivation for each scene but I wouldn't worry if you don't have a clear idea what their inner motivation is on the second draft. That's the sort of thing that often emerges with the story, and the story often doesn't take its final form until you've gone through a few drafts.

External Complication

What is going to keep your character from achieving her goal? If your character were to achieve all her scene goals the story would be dull.

Similarly, if the POV character always flat-out failed to achieve the goal that wouldn't be interesting either. She needs to be frustrated in her attempts, she needs to be forced to modify her plans and adopt Plan B, another goal that will--they hope!--get them closer to achieving their final, ultimate, story goal. (See: Making A Scene: Using Conflicts And Setbacks To Create Narrative Drive)


This is one of the most important aspects of any scene. What will happen if your POV character doesn't achieve her goal? What will happen if she does?

The stakes need to be, like the goal, both clear and concrete. (See: Revising Your Manuscript And Building Suspense: Making Your Character's Stakes Both Clear And High)


What happens? At the very end of the scene, after the POV character has dodged all the proverbial (or not so proverbial) bullets, what happens? Does she achieve the scene goal? Probably not. Not completely. Usually some new complication is introduced.

An Example


A young woman, let's call her Anne, suffering from haemophilia cuts herself and must drive to the nearest hospital and receive treatment. If she doesn't get treated she'll die. On the way to the hospital a drunk driver slams his car into hers turning them both into twisted hunks of metal. Anne receives many cuts and starts to bleed out.

A starving vampire finds Anne, drawn by the smell of blood. He extracts her from the wreck and enjoys a nice light snack. Something in his saliva, or perhaps a substance released from his fangs, causes her blood to coagulate.

At the end of the scene the vampire decides he likes the taste of her blood and considers whether he should drain her dry or leave her to find her own way home (and possibly turn into a vampire).

The Elements That Drive Your Plot

POV: The young woman, Anne.

Narrative point of view: Third person subjective, also called third person limited.

POV character's external goal: Get treatment at the nearest hospital --> Survive the car crash --> Survive the vampire's tender attentions.

POV character's internal goal: To be able to live without fear of cutting herself and dying because she can't get treatment. To be normal or at least to find someone who will love her even though she isn't.

Stakes: If our POV character doesn't get treatment she will die; if she does, she'll live. The POV character will also likely die if she doesn't get away from the vampire, if she does get away, though, she will be terrified that she'll change into a vampire.

Climax: Our POV character didn't get to the hospital for treatment, but she no longer needs it. The vampire's bite saved her from bleeding to death, but now she has a bigger problem: The vampire is looking at her and he still looks hungry.

Or something like that! That isn't the best example, I made it up on the fly. Hopefully it'll give you an idea of what I've been talking about.

Janice Hardy goes over much more in her article Four Ways to Pre-Write Your Scenes. It's well worth the read!

Other articles you might like:

- Building Character: The Importance Of Imperfection
- Ernest Hemingway And The Purpose Of Writing
- Revising Your Manuscript And Building Suspense: Making Your Character's Stakes Both Clear And High

Photo credit: "Geisha's taken my place in bed" by Dirigentens under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, November 19

Outlining: Kim Harrison's Character Grid

Outlining: Kim Harrison's Character Grid

A few days ago I wrote a post about how to use MS Excel to outline a novel. That post grew out of my own need for a visual structure, a way to see my novel in front of me all-at-once. (See: Using Excel To Outline Your NaNoWriMo Novel: Defeating the sprawl)

Today I want to talk about another way of using Excel to outline your novel: The Character Grid.

This method comes from Kim Harrison, author of the Hollows Series. Let's dive right in.

"My rule is no more than one scene shift per chapter, and try not to stay in any one place for more than two consecutive chapters," (Kim Harrison, Character Grid)

In the following, knowledge of the world of the Hollows is plus, but you can get the gist without it. The following should give you something of a feel for Kim Harrison's process. She writes:
Yesterday I rewrote my plot to take out the demon plotline and expand two others of crime and love. It made a much more tidy story and I was able to dig deeper into the relationships instead of skimming over them.

My one page synopsis turned into a 13 page synopsis, casually broken into maybe-chapters. Today I’m going to begin to break this up into clear chapters so I can better balance the entire work as to pacing, place, and characters.

I don’t want to spend too much time in the church, or be moving from place to place in any given chapter. My rule is no more than one scene shift per chapter, and try not to stay in any one place for more than two consecutive chapters. Same thing with characters.

Variety keeps the reader interested and the story moving. So to better see the patterns that the story is taking and head off any potential problems, I have come up with a character grid. It’s about the only piece of “software” that I use, and it’s just an Excel spreadsheet that I’ve modified to my needs. Here’s the one I used for ODW [Outlaw Demon Wails] [see Figure 1, below]. (I inserted the paragraph breaks) (Kim Harrison, Character Grid)
Here is Kim Harrison's Character Grid:

Figure 1 (Click to enlarge)

(Here is a link to the original character grid.)

Kim continues:
Characters are down the side, the locations of the scene are on the top, and the action is at the bottom.  (this is an early version, so it might not dovetail perfectly into the published book) The color shift is an indication of a change in day (which can be seen by the dates) and the chapter numbers are under that.  The Xs are when a character is an a chapter, and sometimes I use an O to indicate that they are in the chapter by way of phone or scrying mirror.  I usually have the month and day the book takes place in across the top, and the sunrise and set and average temps at the bottom, but I recently had a software upgrade, and I lost my headers and footers in Excel.  (sucks big time)

My character grid is how I first realized that Jenks was in almost every chapter in the earlier books, and I’ve become better at getting him out so other characters can shine.  It’s also how I know if I have a character who is needed for a crucial scene, and yet is not introduced anywhere until that scene.  Very bad.  Same thing with the bad guys.  I try to have them show up early, and then at least one more time before the end.  Another rule of thumb is don’t introduce too many characters in the same scene, even if they are returning characters.  I like to have only two at the most, and will break a chapter just to avoid this.

A character grid of some sort is also a great way to make sure that your male to female ratio isn’t wildly out of balance.  Mine usually slant to the male end of the ratio, but since Rachel is female it works out.  Oh, and when you go to rewrite and need to add something that revolves around a character, it’s really easy to go the grid, see where they are, and place your clue instead of spending an hour thumbing through the file and guessing where to put it is. (Kim Harrison, Character Grid)
Kim Harrison's post is one of the best I've read on plotting and structuring your work-in-progress and it's part of a series.

Kim Harrison's Series On How She Plots A Novel

1. Where you at in NaNoWriMo?
"Today, in my official Not-NaNoWriMo, I have again procrastinated with other work, confining my rough draft of book ten to ideas in my head. Tomorrow, I will pick up my pencil and write something down. Promise. How about you? Where you at?"

2. Writing starts with “I want”
"I’ve been developing my writing style for over a decade, and this is what works for me. There’s no wrong way to do it as long as you’re making progress.)
I want. . .
That’s what it’s all about at this point for me. What do I want to see or accomplish in this 500 page monster. So today I’ll be sitting down with about ten sheets of paper and a pencil."

3. Procrastination: I’ds da queen
"My word count is still zero, but I’m almost ready to start writing. My post yesterday gave you some indication of how I went about organizing my thoughts for a new book. Well today, I’m going to tell you exactly what I did."

4. Day Two Of The Plotting
"Well . . . I took my six pages of notes from Thursday and wrote up a free-flowing, one-sentence brainstorming list of “ways to start” and a list of ”ways to end.” I still don’t have a good way to start the book, and I won’t until I have the end, but my goal is to have in the first five pages the hint of the problem that is settled in the last so to make a full circle."

5. Character Grid
"For those of you who haven’t been to the drama box in a few days, I’m taking the opportunity of NaNoWriMo and me just starting rough draft to detail out my plotting process. Disclaimer:everyone writes differently, there’s no wrong way to do it. This is what I’ve come up with over the last ten years or so, and what works for me. It’s a process that’s still evolving. Oh, and my word count is still zero."

6. And on the fifth day . . .
"So far, while using my character grid, I’ve found that I’ve got a slow spot, and I moved some things around to quicken it up. I also named a new character, learned a few things about him, and Rachel has told me she likes him better than the guy I thought she’d be interested in. He kind of likes her, too, or maybe he just likes the way she makes him feel. (Be smart, Rachel.) I’ve also learned what the story is about besides solving the crime and settling the love interest. (By the way, it’s not settled.) What I’m talking about here is the character growth, I suppose. And without character growth, not only would the story be stale, but I’d be bored to tears writing it."

7. And now . . . it begins
"... again. (grin) Last night, I finished breaking my 13 page synopsis into chapters, using it as a guide to write about a page of handwritten notes about each chapter, being careful to include who is in it, where to begin, and what poignant thought to end it with. It’s here that I usually find my hook into the next chapter that gets you to turn the page instead of turn off the light and go to bed."

8. Last day to send me your costume pictures
"Yesterday I finally finished my plotting and started actually writing the thing. Taking my one page of notes on chapter one, I spent the morning writing out the dialog, then in the afternoon, I turned it into prose. Today I’ll take my one page of notes on chapter two and do the same, and in about three to four months, I’ll have turned my 27 pages of notes into a 500 page manuscript."

How do you plot your novel? Does it look anything like Kim Harrison's method? Thanks for reading!

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NaNoWriMo Update: I'm at 35,528 words, so I caught up last night and did an extra 500 words. That makes me happy. Hopefully I'll be able to get up to 38k tonight. (fingers crossed)

Other articles you might like:
- Vanquishing Writer's Block
- How To Design A Great Looking Book Cover
- Using Technology To Sell Books: Quick Response Codes (QR codes)

Photo credit: "I Want To Believe … In Fairies" by JD Hancock under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.