Techniques to Wrestle Your Plot into Submission by Sarah Sundin
Plotting often feels like a smackdown wrestling match to me. Characters, scene ideas, and plot twists battle with each other. And they don’t behave themselves. Over the years, I’ve come up with techniques to wrangle these elements into submission.
Writers are as unique as our stories. We each use different techniques throughout the writing process. My methods might strike you as obsessive-compulsive and neurotic. They are. But perhaps you can sift out a nugget to help you.
As an outline-oriented “plotter” who needs a detailed road map before I venture into a new story-land, I do this wrestling before the rough draft. But if you’re a “seat-of-the-pants” writer who gets an idea and dives straight into the story (how do you do that?), these techniques might aid you in the editing process or when you get stuck.
Characters are the heart of a story, so I spend lots of time getting to know them. I fill out a character chart, a long list of questions about the character’s background and personality. I keep the master template on my computer, print it off, and fill it out by hand—I brainstorm better with pen and paper, and I can do this work on long car rides or during my son’s karate class. I use the back of the paper to free-write key moments in their lives, such as traumatic childhood incidents. As I fill in the questions, I delve deeper into the character, finding her goals and motivation, and scene ideas pop up.
My list of scenes starts to fill in at this point, so now I look at story structure, using a “hero’s journey” analysis from Christopher Vogler’s excellent book, The Writer’s Journey. Looking at the twelve stages of traditional story structure helps me plot and shows me if the characters’ story arcs are complete. I also keep this as a template on the computer and fill it out longhand.
Then I fill out a plot chart. The chart below shows the first two scenes in my newest novel, In Perfect Time, the third book in the Wings of the Nightingale series. This is a simple table that can be set up in Microsoft Word or Excel. Each row is a scene—I list the chapter number, date, a title, and what happens in that scene.
This chart helps me see if each plotline is developing appropriately. If I’ve neglected an aspect of the story, it pops out here. The chart also shows me if I have enough meat for a complete scene, or if I need to beef it up.
There are columns for the action plotlines, spiritual journeys, and the romance. Since friendship is a major theme in the Nightingale series, I include a column for friendship.
Although I find this most useful before the rough draft, I first used it while editing one of my early novels. Breaking the story down with this chart helped me to analyze why it wasn’t working—and to fix it.
The last thing I do before the rough draft is to fill out scene lists, one page per scene. At the top I record the date, location, point-of-view character, weather, outfits/props (don’t want to lose a purse!), the character’s objective, and the scene conflict. Then I sketch a brief outline of what will happen in the chapter. Sometimes I draw maps or diagrams for tricky scenes.
Try new techniques until you find what works best for you, adapt the methods to meet your needs, and then write your story!
Sarah Sundin is the author of six historical novels, including In Perfect Time (Revell, August 2014). Her novel On Distant Shores was a double finalist for the 2014 Golden Scroll Awards, and Sarah received the 2011 Writer of the Year Award at the Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference. You can find her at her website or on Twitter.