Plotting, my demise

Last night, I plotted.

Plot has always bedevilled me, especially when writing novels. I find short stories to be simple to plot out: the action is (usually) straightforward, and the number of threads, events, and characters fit easily into my head. They have to fit into my head, because if I can’t keep track of everything that’s going on in a short story, then my poor reader has no chance.

Novels, however, are an entirely different matter.

I was able to plot out the entirety of The Taint (see link at left) in my head, but that story is only about 75 pages long, and even it pushed the limit of what I could reasonably handle without needing an external crutch. I got as far as I did because The Taint is structurally more like a short story: there is only one protagonist who always has POV, the cast of secondary characters is limited, and there weren’t very many cases where offscreen or backgrounded actions by secondary characters were crucial to the plot. I could plan out that novella by simply following my protag around, without needing to coordinate a tangle of related subplots and secondary characters.

My current WIP is another beast entirely. I have three protagonists and three POVs—something that I haven’t attempted before—and managing the interactions and intersections between them was driving me, frankly, nuts. The sketchy outline I had held in my head only brought the protagonists together in a few key places, and the movements of the characters between those pivot points was vague and undefined. When I began to fill in the blank spaces in my outline, I discovered I had enormous plot problems. Two of the protags were sidelined for a big chunk of the middle of the book while a third got all of the action; later developments required one character to be in two places at once in order for the timing to work out; the third protag’s character development hit a brick wall at one point; and I spent entirely too long getting the pieces into place for the finale.

My mechanism for finding this out, by the way, is very low-tech: I write a one-sentence summary of a scene or chapterlet on a notecard, and then spread the notecards around on a big flat surface in something vaguely resembling chronological order. To keep track of POVs, I write the first letter of the POV character for that scene in the corner of the card in huge print. (I’ve also heard of people using different colored inks or notecards for this purpose.) At the end, I can see everything that’s planned for the book in a easy-to-digest visual layout format, with gaps, omissions, and digressions clearly called out.

And this made it clear that my plot was a mess. It was a very familiar mess, though, as I had a lot of the same problems with my last novel attempt. In particular, I had a large number of scenes where I had written, basically “Something happens here.” For pacing reasons I realized that I needed to break up two events with a lull, but I didn’t have anything actually planned to fill in that space. Last time I tried to do this, the chapters in which “something happened” were the first ones to get cut since they were BORING. Instead, this time I played with ordering, bringing some events into the lulls and out of the climaxes so that the whole construction was less lopsided. I discovered some excellent places to have characters’ actions impinge on each other–one protag’s actions precipitate a crisis for the other protag in the next chapter, though without either of them knowing it–which really knits the plotlines together. And so on, working alone at night at the kitchen table until the whole thing began to hang together.

It’s done now. I have a thick stack of notecards sitting next to my laptop, just waiting to be turned into one chapter apiece. And to my delight, when I actually counted the chapterlets alotted to each character, I found that I had divided them up 10/10/11, meaning that the balance between protags is as perfect as it can be, and all without me having to distort the plot to get it that way. And when I read the chapters leading up to the climax, I can feel the rising tension and eucatastrophic catharsis, even though all I’m going on is one-sentence summaries scribbled on scraps of paper. This suggests that I’m getting it right.

Now all that remains is to actually write it all.



  1. Someone once told me that there was a room in Robert Jordan’s house that his wife wasn’t even allowed to go inside. The walls were covered with sticky notes all arranged in how the plot was supposed to work out over the series. An apocryphal account I’m sure, but I suppose it went viral because it seemed to be what it would take to work it all out.

  2. Sounds very complex. I’m sticking with one main protagonist for now in my novels, but I imagine I’ll have to make some sort of timeline and notecards when I do write a novel with multiple protagonists and POVs. But I’m glad to hear it’s all working out for you now.

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