Friday, June 10
Look Close: Pinpointing the Parts of Your Plot
I’m an outliner, but I like outlines loose enough to allow for spontaneity and to let the characters just be themselves and figure it all out. But with my new project, I find myself flipping back to double check a fact, or remember who knew what when, and it’s getting hard to keep track of everything. I realized I needed a little more structure to keep me from losing my mind.
I created a new outline template to double check the first half of the book I’ve been revising. Now, you hardcore structure folks are going to love this. You pantsers? You’re about to run screaming from the room. But bear with me, because even though this is a very tight outline, there are some good things here to think about even if you don’t use outlines.
I focused on a few key elements with this new template.
I wanted to keep track of and understand the goals of all my characters, not just the POV (since I have more than one). And because other characters are doing things that will affect my POVs and their goals, I wanted to remind myself what their motivations were so I could make them act believably in every scene. (And so their actions would track no matter whose POV they were in)
I also wanted to keep track of the various layers of goals. This particular story has a lot going on, and making sure all those goals and conflicts lined up and kept the story moving in the right direction takes work. It’s a lot easier when I know the goal hierarchy of my POV characters. For example, they each have a general story goal, an internal goal, a thematic goal, and then individual scenes goals that help drive the plot.
With so much going on, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t forgetting the reader or why they were reading in the first place. They’ll need something that captures their interest and makes them want to read on (the intellectual hook) but they’ll also need that elusive “why should I care?” hook (the emotional hook). I have to capture their heart and their mind to really hook them into the story. If I’m spending too much time on the plot points, I risk forgetting about these important elements.
The unknown combined with the unavoidable is a powerful combination. (Learned that at a panel at World Fantasy a few years back). So I paid attention to what was unknown, and what was unavoidable, and looked for ways to make those two things raise the tension of the scene.
Here’s the template and what I’m looking for with each piece:
Chapter Summary: This is my general overview of what the chapter is about. I basically just write down what happens, maybe a motivation or two here and there. It’s my typical outline paragraph.
Emotional Hook: This is the “why should I care?” factor. The things in the scene or chapter that are going to make a reader care about what’s happening.
Intellectual Hook: This is all about plot. The plot event, puzzle, or mystery that is hooking the reader in the scene.
Unknown: This is what will make the reader worry. What the reader doesn’t know but will want to know.
Unavoidable: This edges towards stakes and tension. What the reader is dreading/anticipating that they just know is going to happen.
Scene Goal: What the POV wants in every scene. The actual hands-on thing they’re trying to do that is moving that scene.
Story Goal: What the overall goal of that POV is. The bigger role they need to play for the plot. (and this might stay the same over several chapters since it doesn’t change much)
Character Goal: What the character wants overall. Their internal goal. It’s what they need or wish for, that hope or dream. (This might also not change much since the character arc typically doesn’t)
Non-POV Goals: What the other characters are trying to do. What they need that might be affecting the POV. This is especially helpful to keep track of what the other POV wants.
Antagonist's Goal: What the antagonist is doing (even offscreen) that will affect this chapter. Sometimes they aren’t doing anything or haven’t done anything that chapter, but the protagonists are still dealing with something they’ve done. Or preparing for something they fear the antagonist will do.
Information and Plans: Clues or key info in this chapter. Plans or goals mentioned that I want to have happen later (or that could happen later in a cool twist), wistful wishes that could turn into more. Info that is important to the later story, like when key details are revealed or when a character learns something or thinks something.
This isn’t an outline I’d use to plot a novel (though feel free to do so if this works for you), but it’s been tremendously helpful in revising mine. The more complex your story and plot, the more something like this might help. It’s really allowed me to dissect each scene and chapter and understand what every character is trying to do, and how those goals fit into the larger story structure. It’s helped me tie everything together in credible ways.
Even if you don’t outline, thinking about things like emotional vs intellectual hooks, or scene vs story goals, can be helpful while writing.
How do you organize your thoughts to keep your plots and stories straight?
Want more on hooks, goals and tension? Try:
Intellectual and Emotional Hooks
Raising the Tension in a Scene
Making Readers Care
Goals, Conflicts and Stakes: And Why You Need All Three