Writing Advice: Plotting


Plotting can be a tricky thing. When you start a writing project, you might have an ending in mind and you might vaguely know what you want to happen. But, unless you’re someone who prefers to discover your story as you write, you might need a more concrete and fleshed-out plot or outline to start with.

The good news is that there are about a gazillion ways to plot your story. You can use the Snowflake Method, which I’ve used in the past. You can use a straight-up, simple outline format to document your rising and falling action. You could even simply write out Roman numerals on a piece of paper and create a story outline the same way you might have created an outline of notes in school.

Perhaps none of these methods apply to you. If you’re looking for something that is specifically character-driven and which focuses more on your characters’ intentions, you might want to try this fill-in-the-blank method of plotting that I discovered not too long ago. On her blog, Janice Hardy wrote about this method in detail. Janice lays it out very plainly — there are just a few items you need to determine when plotting. These include, trying to, when, but, therefore, and so.

If you set up a document with those words written down one side, you should be able to fill them all in to create your story. According to Janice, the resulting synopsis or scene description would look something like this: “Protagonist is trying to [goal of scene] when [what happens in the scene to create conflict], but [why the protagonist doesn’t want that], so [result of what happens in the scene].”

It’s so rare, in writing, that you can find a formula that will work well for you. I really like what Janice has laid out here and I’m going to try it when I plot my next story. I encourage you to try it as well, if you’re looking for something that will help you zero in on your characters’ motivations in a story or even just a scene. Happy writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: Let the Plot Be


Each writer has their own technique. Some of us are planners and some of us like to fly by the seat of our pants. If you’re a planner, then you probably spend a fair amount of time outlining or describing what your plot is going to be. That can be a very helpful and worthwhile process, but it’s important to remember that those outlines aren’t set in stone.

In a post that detailed random storytelling thoughts and tips, Chuck Wendig reminded us to sometimes let the plot go. He says, “If you want to know why your characters keep getting in the way of your plot, that’s because it’s the characters’ job to get in the way of your plot. The solution to this is discard the plot and let the characters be the characters. We don’t read books for plots. We think we do. But we’re also dumb. Characters are everything in a story.”

You know how strongly I feel about the importance of characters. So, it’s no surprise that I agree with this advice. If you stick rigidly to a plot that you set out at the very beginning of your story, you run the risk of missing opportunities to discover things about your characters or let your story move in a new direction.

Now, that’s not to say that you should necessarily write a rambling character study in which nothing happens. Unless, of course, that’s what you want to write. And this doesn’t mean that plotting or planning is useless. Do your plotting, but know that your characters may lead you to a new plot you hadn’t planned on.

Happy writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: Story Checkpoints


Although I tend to rebel against writing self-help manuals, I do like finding little tidbits of advice that focus on the mechanics of writing. It’s helpful to have something of a cheat sheet when it comes to constructing good, sound plots. There are tips out there about writing in five-act structures, or even seven-act structures. There are tips about how to construct a plot that fits best with what you want your character to experience, and how you want them to grow. And then there are tips like this one, which help you understand exactly where things should happen in your story.

In a recent post on Writer Unboxed entitled “Plotting, Pacing, and Crossing Over,” blogger and author Anne Greenwood Brown wrote about a writer’s workshop she recently attended. At this workshop, she heard a talk on the 12-stage hero’s journey, which includes the suggestion of having a “crossing over” point and a “near-death” point in your story. Here’s what Anne said in her blog post:

“One of the things that I found most interesting about [Christopher Volger’s] presentation was his 12-stage hero’s journey, which suggested that every well-plotted and well-paced story had a “crossing over” at approximately the 25% mark, and a “near-death” at the 50% mark. His case in point: Star Wars. At the 25% point, Luke “crosses over” by leaving his Aunt and Uncle’s farm, and at the 50% mark suffers a “near death” when he’s caught in an intergalactic trash compactor.”

I really like this bit of plotting advice, and I think it’s a good way to keep yourself on track. As you’re writing, you can mentally note where these spots might be, and either insert a note or try to write in these events in the first draft. Even when you’re going back to edit or revise what you’ve already written, you can use this system to check that your plot is progressing well.

These plotting devices also just make sense in terms of storytelling. About a quarter of the way through, you should have finished your initial exposition, and should be ready for some character-based action. Here you can insert a moment where your character “crosses over” into a new direction. And halfway through the story, they should experience something that makes them want to turn back or simply puts them at peril, which creates a moment where they could potentially give up, but probably won’t.

Do you include “crossing over” and “near-death” moments in your story? Do you think that knowing about this plotting technique would help you in your writing? Share your thoughts in the comments!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Discuss: The “Real” Story


What is the essence of a story? What element of a story is most important to focus on as a writer? What method do you use to reach that “real” story? Recently there was an article on Writer Unboxed called “Here’s What Both Pantsing and Plotting Miss: The Real Story,” and it intrigued me. For those of you who don’t know, “pantsers” and “plotters” are two different types of writers. “Pantsers” are those writers who fly by the seat of their pants and just start writing without plotting at all. “Plotters,” as you may be able to guess, are the writers who plot out their story before writing a word.

In this article, Lisa Cron suggests that both of these types of writers are missing something essential about the writing process and about their story. Cron says, “Both Pantsing and Plotting, by definition, bypass the key element around which a story is built. It’s the element that drives every story forward, which is why both methods often yield manuscripts that are primarily just a bunch of things that happen, rather than an actual story. It’s a big part of why agents reject 99% of submissions, and why most self-published novels sell fewer than 100 copies, and it’s simply this: your protagonist’s inner issue, her inner agenda, and the story-driven evolution of her internal belief system, is where the real story lives.”

Cron says that there is a “third rail” to every story, which falls outside the blind creativity of  pantsers and the over-organization of plotters. This third rail is your character’s inner agenda. What does she want? What is he striving for? That inner struggle and inner desires are the heart of your story. Those things –allegedly — are what will make your story interesting, and will make readers keep reading. Those things may not come through the blind discovery writing of a pantser or the more strict, methodical writing of a plotter.

I understand what Cron is saying in the above quote, and in her article in general. By placing importance on a meticulous plot or simply having fun in your writing, you may be missing out on something else. I agree that the character’s inner desires are important, because I most enjoy reading and watching character-driven stories. But I don’t think that’s cause to discount either pantsing or plotting.

Both of these writing methods can be helpful to writers, and they can both be good jumping-off points from which to begin. Some writers need that method to begin with and then, once they get going, can either add some more plotting or be a bit freer with their discoveries when writing. I think a mix of the two methods would be ideal.

What do you think? Which type of writing do you most often practice? Check out the original article and let us know what you think!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: Index Cards

themisadventuresofmagatha. wordpress.com

Sometimes story planning can seem like an insurmountable task. Looking at the scope of your entire story can be very overwhelming if you take it in one large chunk. The most effective strategy to make this planning more manageable is to break it down into smaller pieces. One way to do this is to use index cards. Rather than itemizing your story in a spreadsheet or using something wide-reaching like a mind map, try writing down scenes that you’d like to see in your story on index cards. Use index cards for your character breakdowns and setting notes. Index cards may be the answer to all of your problems.

As before, we turn to Chuck Wendig’s blog post about 25 Ways to Plot, Plan, and Prep Your Story. Under the heading of “Index Cards,” Wendig says “Index cards are a kick-ass organization tool. You can use them to do anything — list characters, track scenes, list chapters, identify emotional shifts, make little Origami throwing stars that will give your neighbors wicked-ass paper-cuts. Lay them on a table or pin ‘em to a corkboard.”

I happen to agree: index cards are kick-ass. They’re a great and portable way to organize different aspects of your story or, frankly, different aspects of anything. As Wendig says, index cards can be arranged in any way that you like — you can pin them to a cork board in your office, you can carry them with you in your purse, and you can lay them out in a grid on your floor and stare at them, wiling the novel to write itself (spoiler: that doesn’t work).

The best part about index cards as a planning tool, I think, is that you can move them and shift them as your story takes shape. If you’ve written down scenes that make up your story, then you can arrange them under different chapter headings or in different orders as your story changes. Index cards leave your story fluid and allow you to plot and plan even while you’re writing.

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: Beat Sheet


When it comes to story planning, some of us are big picture people and others are more focused on the minute details of what is going to happen in the plot. Luckily, there are planning and plotting techniques for both kinds of writers. As I said last week, I will be talking about different plotting/planning techniques each Monday in October. Next month is National Novel Writing Month, which means that this month is all about plotting out your story. Even if you’re not participating, though, I hope you find these posts helpful for planning your story.

This week I’m focusing on the “beat sheet” approach to plotting. In this blog post, 25 Ways to Plot, Plan, and Prep Your Story, Chuck Wendig talked about the writer’s beat sheet. I had not heard of this approach before I read Wendig’s blog post, but it sounds like an interesting way to go. As Wendig describes it, the beat sheet is “for you real granular-types, the ones who want to count each grain of sand on your story’s beach… Chart each beat of the story in every scene. This is you writing the entire story’s plot out, but you’re writing it without much dialogue or narrative flair. It’s you laying out all the pieces. The order-of-operations made plain.”

This sounds really, super in-depth. And that might be overwhelming for a lot of writers, but this also might be right up your alley. If it’s something that you’re interested in, I think there are a lot of advantages to the “beat sheet” plan. Knowing these granular details of what will happen in your story will allow you to sit down each day and know what you’re writing that day. If you don’t have to stop and think about what you’re writing each day, that will give you more time to actually write.

It may sound strange, but knowing those itty bitty details of your plot will also give you more room to change things. If you know everything your characters will experience, from top to bottom, then you know where things can change and where they can’t. Having this kind of up close and personal relationship with your story means that you can alter it if you need to and make adjustments easily.

I hope this helps you out! Happy writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: Planning Tentpoles


Right now, we’re in the midst of October. This means, of course, that November is right around the corner. And, for me, November means National Novel Writing Month. By extension, this means that October is typically a mad dash to plan a story, write out character profiles, and construct some kind of outline so that I’m not lost in the literary woods during the month of November. This is not always easy, and it doesn’t really help that there about a gazillion ways to plan a story. There are different techniques, different things to focus on, and different ways to even structure your story at the most basic level. Throughout October, I’ll be talking about several ways to plan a story, based on tips from Chuck Wendig’s 25 Ways to Plot, Plan and Prep Your Story. Please go check out that post because Chuck Wendig is super awesome.

So, the tip that I want to focus on today is all about tentpoles. When planning, Chuck suggests creating tentpole moments within your story that you leap to while you’re striving toward your ending. Chuck says, “You might have five, maybe ten of these. Write them down. These are the elements that, were they not included, the plot would fall down (like a tent without its poles). The narrative space between the tentpoles is uncharted territory.”

What bits of your story are absolutely essential to the plot? This question will help you establish those tentpoles, and it might force you to make some hard decisions. At this stage of the game, some of your original ideas might be cut because you’re sticking only to the most important things that will hold up the “tent” of your story. Once you have these, write them down so that you can refer back to them as you’re in the thick of writing the story.

Another reason I love this philosophy is that it leaves you so much leeway! Sure, you have those solid tentpoles in your story, but you’ve also got vast swaths of wilderness between each pole. In that wilderness, you’re free to lead your character through rough terrain until they arrive at that next tentpole.

I hope this bit of advice helps you. Happy writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan