Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Planning Your Plotting

By Chris Eboch, @Kris_Bock

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: I'm a huge supporter of both plotting, and planning your plotting, so I'm delighted to welcome Chris Eboch to the lecture hall today to share some thoughts and exercises on plotting. Some of these are also great techniques for those who like to jump start the brain with a writing exercise before your writing session.

Chris's novels for children include The Genie’s Gift, a middle eastern fantasy; The Eyes of Pharaoh, a mystery in ancient Egypt; The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan adventure; and Bandits Peak, a survival story. Her writing craft books include You Can Write for Children and Advanced Plotting. Learn more at www.chriseboch.com or her Amazon page, or check out her writing tips at her Write Like a Pro! blog. Sign up for her workshop newsletter for classes and critique offers.

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound

Take it away Chris...

To celebrate the release of my new book, You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers, I’m sharing an excerpt from a chapter on plotting.

A plot has four basic parts:
  • Situation: something difficult for the main character.
  • Complications: the situation should get worse, perhaps due to the main character’s actions.
  • Climax: finally, the main character must succeed or fail. This is the last chance.
  • Resolution: generally, the main character should resolve the situation. The resolution may be happy or unhappy.

So how do you come up with all these parts of a story? Once in a while, a complete story may come to you. But often writers start with an idea that needs development. Here are some ways you can figure out the rest of the story.

Brainstorm. Jot down lots of ideas. Try using the plotting questionnaire below for inspiration.

It can also help to get into a different environment. Take a walk, sit on your porch with a cup of coffee, or go to a local café.

Experiment with different writing tools. Some people like to use decorative notebooks. Others like yellow legal pads. Maybe using colorful pens or an old-fashioned fountain pen will help you. It sounds strange, but sometimes taking yourself out of your usual patterns will help free up ideas. I like to take a walk with a miniature digital tape recorder to capture my ideas. If your best ideas come in the shower, get some waterproof bathtub markers so you don’t lose your brilliant breakthroughs.

It’s also helpful to have a journal and pen light by your bed, so you don’t forget ideas that come from dreams, or that half-conscious state when you’re dozing or starting to wake. Keep a notebook nearby when you’re out of the house, too, so you have a way to take notes in the car or while waiting in line. The best ideas can come in strange circumstances, and you don’t want to lose them!

You can also try special brainstorming techniques such as a “mind mapping.” A quick Internet search will provide instructions and examples.

Free write for ten minutes. This is a process where you write continuously, without stopping to think, for a set period of time. Don’t worry about spelling, grammar, finding the right word, or even making sense. Simply write whatever comes into your mind, without pausing. It’s best to set a timer so you don’t keep checking the clock.

Take a break, and then try another ten-minute session. Read back through your notes and circle or underline ideas that might be useful for your project. Do you have enough for a story? If not, try free writing again, focusing on developing what you have so far. Or switch to another technique, such as brainstorming answers to the plotting questionnaire below.

Brainstorm with others. Sometimes it’s helpful to talk through an idea with other people. These could be friends, family members, or critique group partners. Writers are often better at seeing story possibilities, but great ideas can come from anywhere.

However, only discuss your ideas with people who are supportive. It’s important to avoid criticism, from others or yourself, at this stage. Some ideas will be silly. Others will be useless. Some might make no sense at all. When brainstorming, that’s fine. The goal is to gather lots of ideas, not to analyze them. Negative opinions will shut down the brainstorming process. Be sure to explain what you want and need from your brainstorming partners. If someone makes a lot of comments such as “That’s stupid” or “That won’t work,” avoid brainstorming with that person in the future. (If your own internal critic makes those comments, promise that you’ll let it analyze everything later, but now it must go away and be quiet.)

Take breaks. Don’t give up too quickly if the ideas aren’t coming. Mull over the possibilities for a few days.

Outline. Use the plot questionnaire below. Brainstorm ways to fill in the blanks. This doesn’t mean you have to have a formal outline where every piece of the story is filled in. Simply coming up with a few complications, or an ultimate resolution, can give you direction.

Or simply start writing.
  • Write whatever scene is strong in your mind, even if you don’t know where the story is going.
  • Write about your character, or put him or her in a scene and see what happens.
  • Interview your character or write a diary entry in his or her voice.

You probably won’t use this material in the final story, but it’s a great way to get to know your character and to develop ideas.

Experiment – What works best for you?

Plotting Questionnaire:
  • Who is the main character?
  • Who or what is the antagonist?
  • Who are the other characters in the story?
  • What does the main character want? (What’s the problem, goal, or greatest need)
  • Why is this important? (It should be vital to that character.)
  • What prevents the main character from reaching his or her goal? (The challenge can be a person, circumstances, society, or the character’s own weakness. However, it should be something the main character can actively fight.)
  • What does the main character do about this?
  • What are the results? (Things should get worse, the problem more difficult.) 
  • [Repeat the last two items several times]
  • What crisis finally results?
  • What is the climax? (Moment of decision.)
  • What is the resolution? Is the goal accomplished, or is it abandoned in favor of something else, or lost?
  • What is the theme?

Testing the Idea – what happens if you:
  • Change the character’s age, sex, or physical characteristics
  • Change the point of view
  • Change the setting
  • Change the external conflict
  • Change the internal conflict

Which of these techniques – or other techniques – have you tried? How do they work for you?

You can find much more advice on plotting (and other aspects of story development) in You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers, which is available for the Kindle, in paperback, or in Large Print paperback. Advanced Plotting goes into even more detail on a variety of plotting techniques, with a guest essay by Janice Hardy.

About You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers

Remember the magic of bedtime stories? When you write for children, you have the most appreciative audience in the world. But to reach that audience, you need to write fresh, dynamic stories, whether you’re writing rhymed picture books, middle grade mysteries, edgy teen novels, nonfiction, or something else. In this book, you will learn: How to explore the wide variety of age ranges, genres, and styles in writing stories, articles and books for young people. How to find ideas. How to develop an idea into a story, article, or book. The basics of character development, plot, setting, and theme. How to use point of view, dialogue, and thoughts. How to edit your work and get critiques. Where to learn more on various subjects. This book focuses on the craft of writing for children. It will help you get started, through straightforward information and exercises you can do on your own or with critique partners. If you’ve been writing for awhile but feel your writing education has gaps, this guide can help you work through those weak points. I share examples from my own work and teaching experience, as well as interviews and advice with published writers and industry professionals. Whether you’re just starting out or have some experience, this book will make you a better writer – and encourage you to have fun!

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


  1. I'm workin on platting a sequel to an MG story so this is very helpful. Thanks so much for sharing!

  2. I'm just about to embark on a new project. In the past, I've always thought I should start at the beginning and head toward the end. Starting the scene that sticks out in my mind might be a better way so that I'm not so likely to get stuck. Thank you for these suggestions. Very helpful.

  3. Working on some mind-mapping now in attempt to force out this idea that's stuck in my brain.

  4. Glad to be helpful! I hope everyone finds plotting success. Just remember, sometimes even success is painful and you don't recognize it at first. :-)

    And sometimes you need to try several things before you find the one that works. "They" say Edison made 1000 failed attempts at inventing the light bulb. Hopefully we won't need quite so many attempts!

  5. Thanks so much for sharing! This will be super helpful as I work on the plot for my new story.

  6. Thank you Chris and Janice. I have a contest I want to enter and this will help me structure the story.