The Power Of Plotting! Part 1 – Plotting The Plot
To plot or not to plot, that is the question.
A cursory search through Google or YouTube (they’re the same company but shh!) will show you endless results of ‘how to’s. From unknown to famous authors, they all value ‘plotting their stories.’ Whether or not you plot your stories, you should know how to do it. Let me prove it to you.
Tell me if this sounds familiar; you’re writing away (a mile a minute) at a new story that you’re passionate about! A few dozen pages in (or a few hundred) you find yourself stuck. Are you unsure how to resolve a conflict? Perhaps you’re uncertain how your character would respond to events in the story? You stare at the page for what feels like a slice of eternity. The outcome? You succumb to the siren’s call that is whatever your preferred way of wasting time online is. You might find a new story more alluring than your unfinished one. You may forget this difficult story-child of yours. This is your writing cycle; writing – getting stuck – moving on to another story.
No? That doesn’t sound like you?
How about this scenario; you slave away at your keyboard – writing until your Muse leaves you exhausted and dehydrated. You sleep and relearn to socialize. Once rested and the tale your Muse forced out of your forgotten, you come back to it… And you cringe, hard, as you read through your first draft.
You’ve seen the Masterclass adds with Neil Gaiman. It’s obvious and OKAY for your first draft to be awful. You know that you’re supposed to EXPECT it to be! But this – wow – this isn’t what you remember writing! The further you read, the more the all-consuming self-doubt makes your blood run cold. If you’re brave, you make it a few chapters in before you can’t take it anymore. You convince yourself this was a bad idea, and you shelf your story.
Still not familiar? Fine. Be that way.
Regardless of your writing struggles, plotting resolves common writing issues such as plot holes, character and villain decay, etc. And if you are working a series? Let me tip my hat and pray to the Gods. Because authors who write series without plotting are supernatural beings. I’m not jealous! You’re jealous!
I am not a supernatural creature who can dream up and tell a yarn on my first try. I wish I were, but I am not. Worst, I am a discovery writer. Which means that I discover my story as I write it. Unlike say architect writers (G.R.R. Martin, for example) who plot out all aspects of their story in advance. Now, I’m not saying that writers cannot write great stories without plotting! However, each writing style has its weaknesses. Knowing what they are can help you tailor your writing style towards the kind of story you are writing. Discovery writers have an easier time with short stories and novels. Architect writers have an easier time with projects that span multiple books. No one style of writer is better. The point is to know what tool works best when.
An architect writer has a map that makes whimsical discoveries difficult. Discovery writers excel at surprises because they often experience it themselves while writing! But getting lost can be a double-edged sword. I often take the scenic route in my storytelling. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing–however it has created story arcs I wasn’t planning for—ballooning a story that should have been short into a full-length novel. Did I think it was interesting? Hell yeah! Did my audience enjoy the detour? To my fortune, yes! But I planned for this story to be a few chapters long. It is now at 66 chapters and on-going.
The takeaway is that each writing methodology has its strengths. Knowing them helps your writing be more efficient. And now that I’ve made a case for WHY plotting is important EVEN if you hate doing it. Let’s discuss strategies on plot.
I’m not here to tell you HOW to plot. There are smart and accomplished people who already have. A quick search will net you any of Brandon Sanderson’s lectures. As an accomplished author who teaches writing, he’s far more of an authority on the subject! He’s covered plotting in many full-length lectures, which span an hour or more. No, I would like to draw your attention to WHAT you are plotting. It’s easy to plot the events in your story. A goes into B, which leads to C, etc.—adding which character does what and where. Those are valuable details that help build your road map.
However, I would wager that your character development is what your readers are here for. They like the plot–but they become fans of your characters and their evolution. See any Twitter fandom and scroll through some shipping wars. It’s obvious that people get invested in character development. You’re smart–you see where this is going.
What should you be plotting?
The tried-and-true method of plotting is invaluable. But consider the following as well:
- Character development (how is your character evolving in this story versus in a single installment within a series?).
- Relationship evolution (this includes professional relationships, friendships, and romance).
- Conflict evolution (the villain(s) and the hero(s) share a bond, and it must develop).
- The relationship between your character(s) and the plot.
Let’s unpack this.
Character development gets shouted up and down the street for its importance. There are character profiles, interviews, etc., in the quest to learn about your character. There’s also taking apart the hero’s journey and applying it to your character. Then you have the myriad of ways to plot character development if you’re writing a series!
When working on a series, it’s easy to forget that your characters need to develop in each individual entry. Not only over the course of your series. Failure to evolve your character incrementally leads to complaints of character decay. (For the unsure, character decay is defined as where your character acts outside of their personalities or where their change feels unjustified to your audience). This is the same for your villain and often the cause of villain decay. And the best way to avoid it is to plan for it. It’s a lot easier to foreshadow changes if you know what they are going to be.
As characters develop, so will their relationships with other characters in the story. This planning pays off when you show creative character evolution to your audience. For example, your character’s outlook on people changes. Wouldn’t that alter the way they treat their acquaintances? Or their colleagues? Showing growth in small ways goes a long way in cementing that character’s development.
What about conflict? How is the conflict evolving as your cast does?
(We’ll get to the villain(s) in a second but mull this over first!)
Take a minute–I’ll wait.
Now, for another example.
Your character is an assassin that works for government A. They went through intense training and years of hardship for this job. And they did it for the good of [insert personal motivation here]! Their conflict? Complete Mission X. How do they react when they realize that government A has been lying to them? Government A is an evil entity. The deception was a small white lie. But that lie erodes trust. Now our protagonist has questions. And the answers may lead them to renege on their mission objectives.
That’s what I mean by conflict evolution. Much like friends can become lovers. Conflict’s nature can change. Or the actors in conflict change. And plotting out switches like that makes their transition smoother, which leads to better reading experience for your audience.
I promised I would talk about villains.
Your character(s) relationship to the villain(s) matters.
There are countless articles and videos on this topic for a reason. Conflict is only as interesting as the actors in it. If you don’t know those actors (most often the villain(s)), how can your audience expect to be invested? With regards to series, as your character(s) evolve, so must their relationship(s) with their antagonist(s). This evolution needs to make sense with your story. If your villain is the forces of physics, it’s understandable that those forces won’t evolve. This isn’t my attempt to advocate that you add in evolution for its sake. As writers, we need to make judgment calls on what is best for our stories, and I expect you to be ruthless about that. Always do what you feel is best for your narrative. However, it is important to note that a one-sided relationship is still a relationship. Relationships change over time. Even characters with few exchanges (think of Sherlock and Moriarty in the original stories by Arthur Conan Doyle) have a bond founded on their actions. Soldiers can feel passionate about the arena of war they’re in. And have powerful responses to the actions of the opposing army, etc.
Plotting the evolution of conflict. Show the impact or cost of conflict on the cast and their world.
This final point doesn’t get a lot of love, and to be fair, it doesn’t apply often. Developing your character(s) feelings towards the plot may not always apply. In a single story, there might not be a chance to address it or comes through internal musings. Even if character(s) aren’t conscious of their feelings, it helps the writer to know them. This is useful when breaking down a longer story (series). It can pinpoint moments of change. Having anchored changes through your story cements that character(s) ’s evolution. And that is satisfying to your audience.
Whatever your feelings or methodology for plotting. You cannot deny it is an essential tool in any writer’s toolbox. Don’t shy away from it; use the tools as you find fits your needs. Here’s hoping these four ideas have helped you in your writing journey.