Friday, December 08, 2017

Fill in the Blanks: A Plot Template to Keep you on Target

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

A while back I shared some great plotting tips from Southpark creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. I've been using them myself as I revise, but I couldn't stop thinking of other ways to apply this technique. I was also thinking about something a commenter said, and how this applied to the bigger macro issues, not just in the smaller goal-driving aspects. I was working on a blog post for that when it hit me.

This could make a really cool plot template.

The tip works on a micro level to see if your protagonist's actions are driving the plot, but when you pull back, you can also see how the entire scene works on a larger scale. The cause and effect of your scenes doesn't have to be as specific as my examples last week.

Using The Shifter as an example again (sorry, but I do know it best), the first scene is as follows:
Nya is trying to steal eggs for breakfast when she's caught by a night guard. While trying to escape, she uses her pain shifting ability and is seen by wards from the Healers' League. She tries to tell them she didn't do anything, but they don't believe her and know she shifted pain. They're going to tell people about it.
This describes the first scene. The second scene is:
Nya goes to the Healers' League to get rid of the pain she healed the night before. Her sister takes it from her, even though they're not allowed to do this. When Nya's leaving, she's spotted by the two boys and an Elder from the League. He calls her over.
The cause and effect between these scenes:
The boys see her shift pain, therefore/and so they tell the Elders about her. Nya tries to leave the League in secret, but she spotted by the boys and the Elder.
You could even go more general here and say:
Nya uses her powers, but she's spotted doing it. (This one is shaky since without more details the conflict for that "but" isn't clear, but hopefully it still works as an example. You'll know the context when you write these for yourself. The conflict here is that she's not supposed to use her powers let alone get caught doing it, and now she's caught).
Nya goes to get rid of her pain in secret, but she's seen leaving the League by the boys, the Elder, and another man she doesn't even knows spots her. (It's okay if there are also later consequences, as long as something that happens in the scene leads to the next scene)
The macro level shows plot movement. It's your call how tight you want to use this technique. Paint the plot with broad strokes or work on it at the action by action level.

Now, this is when it got really interesting for me. Take another look at my original scene descriptions. Notice a repetition of certain words?

Trying to. When.

Goals, and complications to those goals.

Mix those in with the but, therefore, and so, and you get a pretty solid breakdown of how a scene unfolds. It reminded me of a very common query template many folks use and I started playing with it more.

Trying to: In every scene, your protagonist is trying to do something. Her goal. You can't have a scene without it.

When: In every scene, something is going to be in conflict with that goal in some way.

But: In every scene, something happens that the protagonist doesn't want to have happen.

Therefore: In every scene, something triggers another event to occur.

So: In every scene, the protagonist changes tactics/ideas/plans and a new goal is created.

These are all key words that describe how plot works. If your protagonist isn't trying to do anything, and no buts get in the way, and no whens change things, there's a good chance there's a problem with the plot.

Throw this into a template and you get:

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].

How you flesh that out is up to you. You could write a line or a page for each bracketed section. You could use it on a micro or macro level. Just think about the things that are going to move your plot forward. Using my scene as an example we get:

Protagonist is trying to [escape from a night guard] when [she's forced to use her secret powers to get away], but [she's seen doing it], so [she knows people are going to learn about her ability and come looking for her].

Protagonist is trying to [get rid of the pain she healed the previous night] when [she's seen at the League by the same boys and a League Elder], but [before she can escape she's called over to answer questions], so [she has to lie to avoid being caught].

There's a lot of leeway with this template, but I think it's a useful tool when you're not sure if your plot is working or not. It forces you to think about the goals, conflicts, and how they affect the story moving forward.

What tricks do you use to help you plot?

If you're looking to improve your craft, check out one of my books on writing: 

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel. 

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), and Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).   
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


  1. Ah, Janice, as usual you come up with exactly what I need. I swear, you're my writing angel.

  2. Brilliant! And great timing for me! Today I'm starting my first revision pass on my new novel. Will add this to my scene checklist! Thank you!

  3. All right! Let's do the first couple scenes of this and see what happens:

    Protagonist is trying to [put out a fire] when [She realizes the fire was set by another magic user. She sees someone inside the building and she goes to rescue them], but [The person inside the building is the Arsonist, he appears to be quite insane], so [She knocks him out, and gets them both out of the building before the police arrive. He is arrested, she is injured and is taken to the hospital. Her hair has also been partially burned off.]

    Protagonist is trying to [find out about the arsonist because she's never met another mage before] when [Dr. Acland tells her that it isn't uncommon for mages to go crazy from the combination of power and knowledge their immanent death, then leaves to go get pain medication for her injury], but [Dr. Acland does not return with medication and instead leaves for the day], so [She goes home confused, in pain and without closure]

    Protagonist is trying to [deal with the possibility that most people like her go crazy] when [Her mother, who is cutting her hair to something more reasonable, reminds her that her brother's fiancee is coming over for dinner the next day], but [She thinks that Fiancee has been avoiding her for the duration of the courtship], so [she makes some snide comments which her mother shoots down and then goes to bed.]

    Interestingly, I hit a snag at the next scene, because it's the inciting incident. My protagonist is reacting to something that happens suddenly and her goal for the scene cannot be explained until what's happening is elaborated on.

  4. It's really interesting you've set it up that way, because it reads almost exactly like another template I was taught in a writing class by Holly Lisle.

    In order to make sure all your scenes have the essential bits, she mentions boiling it down into one sentence that includes the protagonist, antagonist, setting, conflict, and twist (twist being defined as the surprising turn of direction that sends the MC into the next scene).

    So I broke it down into: At the (setting), the (Protagonist with a need) (conflicts with) (Antagonist with a need) but (with a twist).

    This template works really well for me, but sometimes the antagonist isn't as easy to figure out, especially if it's something internal.

    Your template speaks more for the flow of the scene. My previous template was more like a summary of the entire scene, while your template feels a lot more "in" the scene itself. You're summarizing, but those key words are directing the events of the scene rather than just stating them (hopefully that makes sense).

    Thanks for the excellent post! This is definitely going to come in handy!

  5. I haven't tried to use the exact template (I've tried using templates before to no avail), but when I was working on my synopsis last night, I found something that worked for me I hadn't tried before.

    Instead of trying to write the plot from begining to end, I started with the climax and worked my way back. Kind of how you pointed out the "buts" and goals and complications, I focused on what caused the scene to happen, and wrote that.

    Then I did the same for the scene before that, and before that.

    Finally I got a synopsis that gives me an idea of what the plot looks like, without dwelling on all the subplots.

    Just wanted to thank you, because it was reading some of the past few posts (like this one), that got me thinking to try writing the synopsis backwards.

    Now I just have to go back and edit the synopsis and see where any weak points in my manuscript might be.

  6. Wen, sweet! I just love when that happens.

    Angelaquarles, oh cool! Let me know how this works for you. I'm liking it so far, but I really want to know if it has legs.

    E. Arroyo, most welcome!

    Kathie, awesome. I think there will be spots where this doesn't exactly fit, but it's nice to see it's a good test. And there will be times when the goal might change or something will send the story in a new direction.

    Elizabeth, oh cool! Her template is very similar to the classic query template. Let me know how this one works out for you :)

    Sbibb, great tip. I've heard folks suggest this in the past for plotting, and I can see how well it would work for a synopsis. It really would cut away the extraneous plot points.

  7. Clear and simple! I'm sharing.

  8. Wow! Love it! Will be using this to check out my ms during revisions this month. Thaaank yooou! :)

  9. I ran some scenes of my WIP through your template.

    I tweaked it slightly, asking the additional question of whether the conflicts and new goals were actually plausible, and whether they were spelt-out clearly.

    So it looked more like this:
    -Are the MC's motivation(s) made clear?
    -Is there a conflict and is this conflict strong enough to be interesting?
    - did the conflict trigger a plausible adaptation?
    - What did the adaptation lead to?
    - Is there a new goal? Is it interesting?

    Not all of the scenes passed. Back to the drawing board.

  10. I was trying to use this as a main event plotter - where each thing that is important (protag meets someone, this causes a death, because the sub-antag had made a threat previously etc.), but I found that often two things happened as a result of one instigating event or that some subplot notes needed to be inserted.
    I did a bit of Googling and discovered how to make a flowchart in Word. You can use SmartArt or shapes to make a flow chart. I found that having it physically in front of me, visually represented, helped me a lot. So, the instigating event had two major events, and those two major events each had a result, which led to the protag having to adapt her goal. I could make that with one box at the top (main event), two arrows to two more boxes, which both led to one box.
    Normally I use OneNote for writing, so I can have all of my writing and notes and chapters separate but in one place. Word is, however, far superior for using flowcharts than OneNote.
    Just thought I'd offer up that idea.

  11. Chris, thanks! Share away :)

    Amelia, most welcome. Let me know how it works out.

    Jo-Ann, great breakdown. Amazing how much pops out when we ask questions like that isn't it? Even for scene that looked solid.

    Izzy, thanks! Fabulous idea. I've never tried a flowchart for plotting before, but I might have to try it for my current WIP. They plot's very layered and multiple things happen like you described. I have several friend who swear by OneNote.

  12. So glad my friend linked your post today, because it is very timely. Awesome advice.

  13. Patti, me too! I love when the right post finds the right writer at the right time.

  14. I used this recently to do an overview analysis of an older story that I am revising to publish. It was incredibly helpful.

    I broke the book into scene-sequel units (ala Dwight Swain) and did a So-but-therefore sentence for each one. In the process I was able to clearly see what was missing in the scene-sequel unite (often most of the sequel--ARGH!!!). It was also very easy to see what I needed to add it.

    This is a great tool that I plan to use again in the future.

  15. Fantastic, thanks for letting me know how it worked for you.

  16. This is SO brilliantly simple! I am truly having my "A-Ha Moment", and this will certainly be a big help for me.

  17. Deb, oh good, glad it helped!

  18. Sounds like Dwight V. Swain's Goal/Conflict/Disaster//Reaction/Dilemma/Decision--which, I think, means it's probably awesome. :P

  19. Susan, I think it really all goes back to whoever first coined the terms for story structure. Probably back in Roman times or something ;) Everyone has different ways of explaining them, but that's good since different people "get" different things.

  20. It's been a while since I read this article, but it feels real timely for me right now. I'm working on the beginning of a new manuscript, a continuation of a series I've started, and while there's been a decent amount of tension in the scenes, something wasn't quite fitting. It felt like my protagonist is literally sitting back and observing the events.

    Rereading this article, I applied the template to the scenes in question, and realized that's the problem. My MC is present, but has no real goal other than curiosity. While she gets a surprise or two, it hasn't really effected her that much.

    I'm probably going to need to go back and consider that, then rewrite those scenes once the rough draft is completed so that something, even if minor, is actively working against her goals.

    Thanks, again, for all the awesome posts you write. I'm finding that if I'm having story issues, this is usually the first place I come to look and see if there's anything of use. :-)

  21. Sbibb, most welcome, and that's actually what I'd hoped the blog would one day be when I started it. Glad the template helped!

  22. This sounds somewhat similar to what Holly Lisle did in her How to Revise Your Novel, though with some wording differences and using index cards. Very much much of an outliner technique though -- didn't do much to help me out a pantser, even on an already finished story.

    1. Does it? Not too surprised, as the process is similar no matter how you approach it. Interesting. I'd think the structure would be helpful to pantsers once the draft was written.

  23. Great tip. Hit a lull in my WIP and this helped me over the hump. Thanks!