Friday, June 10, 2011

Look Close: Pinpointing the Parts of Your Plot

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

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


  1. I'm not an outliner. I also just recently finished up a revision workshop. I learned a lot from it, but mainly that there are some things I need to pay attention to and other things that will work if everything else does and not to pay attention to them. Which is the reverse of all writing advice I've read over the years.

    So, this is what I need to pay attention to help me organize my writing:

    1. Beginning/Inciting Incident: When I first create a project, I have a hard time seeing the big picture. The result is that I often start way too late, and that in turn causes setup to pop up in the wrong places; kicks out subplots and themes -- heck, I have things turning up near the end that are supposed to be the beginning. If I had to pick only one thing to pay attention to, this would be it because of the enormous amount of impact it has on the story.

    2. The ending: I've tended to let the ending go until I get there, which creates headaches in revision. So I try to work out what the ending is so I have something to work towards, rather than nothing at all.

    3. Identify the protagonist and antagonist in the scenes. Taking a second to think about this helps me to make sure there is conflict in the scene. Sometimes the antagonist isn't a person but a thing, and other times, it may even be the main character.

    4. Info: I track only the things I'm having trouble with, which is as little as possible. Since I do tend to have trouble remembering some characters' names during the draft, I write their name on an index card and leave it on my desk. I can grab it when I need to remember it, and if it migrates away, that's a sign I have the name down, so it can be tossed.

    5. Villian's motivations: This is one I've tended to leave for later, and this is one I need to pay a lot more attention to because of the overall impact on the story it has.

    6. I also may need to pay more attention to researching the setting going into the story. I'm finding that it turns into a major character in my stories, so having the groundwork laid in with a basic layer of research may help.

    Things I can let go:

    Characters: They'll work if the rest of the story works.

    Strucutre: I can't explain it, but I understand how it works. I just have to make sure I start in the right place, and structure will work.

  2. Great post. I agree it's not the first outline to develop your story. I've been using the chapter summary to keep track of my story as I revise. But I'm going to print this up and consider adding at least some of these other issues in the outline for my next book. Thanks so much for analyzing what's needed in such detail.

  3. Oh, Argh. If I planned that much, I'd probably never write. Although I DO keep those things in mind when I craft each scene. What does my character want? What happens if he gets it? If he can't have it, what happens? I've been trying to do that 'tension in every paragraph' technique that Donald Maass recommends. But I rarely know what's going to happen in the next chapter until I get there.

    Argh - got an error message when I tried to comment. I've seen these, and they're still funny. And, related to one of my recent blog posts, you couldn't write these in a book because nobody would believe them, true or not!)

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  4. Linda: Great breakdown. That's a lot closer to my regular process.

    Natalie: Anytime. I play mix and match with outlines and templates all the time. I have my basic template, but some books (like this one) need specific things that others don't. I find the flexibility helpful.

    Terry: I used to do even more detailed outlines than this when I first started. It was awful! It took me a lot of years to find the one that worked for me. But I do think that experience helps me get more detailed when I need to.

  5. Wow. I haven't seen it broken down like this before. I'm going to need this much detail in my plotting with this series I'm working on. Thanks, Janice.

  6. I'm an outliner and my only question is, when are you going to put all this in a book? I've started a binder of great blog posts on writing and I have given you your own chapter.

    As far as my process (and I'll be adding yours for the revision phase) I like to know what the character is after, how what is going on will affect them, what the antagonist is doing or has done and what the coming chain looks like. Of course, through writing the scene things can change due to a moment of inspiration or realization. Which is what makes your breakdown process so excellent, it helps to capture those adjustments and see into the heart of things.

    Excellent post!

  7. I always love finding new ways to outline. Some things work for me, some don't, but a strong structure helps me stay on target. I'm going to try out these tips on my new WIP today. Thanks, Janice!

  8. Thanks for this one - it really worked for me. I had started a scene (we'd talked about it) I thought should work well and had a couple of pages finished. I rethought the scene using all these elements - it is richer and frankly, it was easier to write. I'm planning to examine most of my scenes in my wip using this guide.


  9. This was amazing! I will definitely start using this as a template for revision!

  10. This is great! I just completed a spreadsheet with many of these same ideas. I broke it all down so I could more easily see what should stay, what should go, and what needs strengthening. I plotted the book, but still, it needs a lot of work. Thanks for the great tips!

  11. Donna: Oh good, I'm glad it works for you. It was an experiment for me, but I like this as a second draft outline to double check myself.

    Gene: LOL Actually, I do have several e-books in the works, they just end up on the back burner a lot. Soon as the novel is done and off to my crit group I'll try to get at least one finished.

    I love outlines that allow for spontaneity. I'm constantly updating mine.

    Vonna: Most welcome. I'm exactly the same way.

    Ann: Oh cool! I'm really liking this one.

    Elizabeth: Hope it works well for you :)

    Julie: Anytime. I'm glad you mentioned a spreadsheet. I used one a long time ago with a mulit-POV novel, but I think I might do one for my WIP to help with the timelines. Be nice to have an easy to check one sheet.

  12. Hi Janice :)

    Very interesting post.

    I'm full of outlines (outline for entire book, for chapters, for events), spreadsheets for everything (that's due to my profession), auxiliary files and cards. So full that I tend to get lost in the files I have for everything. :D

    The only thing I use free style is for the characters' biographies, in full detail, like a story for each. The only rule there is to keep a timeline from the beginning to the point the book starts. It helps with the characters' development, emotions, actions & reactions, relationships & interactions with others.

    For me, the book is like a puzzle which comes together from all the satellite files :D.

    I like very much the structure you present, I'll use features from it :D

    Thank you for the great post

  13. Irene: Most welcome! I love outlines and notes and whatever works to keep me on track and the story developing. Like you puzzle analogy :) So true!

  14. More good ideas--another one I'll add to my writing bookmarks. I ought to give you your own folder!

  15. Another excellent post! I've added a link to your blog on mine as well as an RSS feed. Your tips on outlining and planning will probably save me a lot trial and error with my next book. Thank you so very much!

  16. Thanks! You'll have to let me know how the next book goes.