However great the storyteller, however well published the author – one truth remains constant. Plotting, beast that it is, can never be side-stepped, shortened or eliminated. Short story to novel, fiction to non-fiction, romance to suspense, each writer must face the daunting task of basic plotting.
Breaking the process of plotting down into specific bites can make the entire process more palatable.
Who . . . What . . . When . . . Where . . . and Why:
basic questions guaranteed to cook up plotting
Who – be specific, which character is the target of this plotting session.
1) One of the protagonists?
2) The villain?
3) A secondary character who’s crucial to plot development?
Tami Hoag's, The 9th Girl, is expertly plotted, with twists and turns that actively involve the reader throughout the story. If we take Ms. Hoag's female protagonist, Detective Nikki Liska from a plotting standpoint, this is an established character, secure in her life choices - or so it seems on the surface - who is embroiled in the hunt for a serial killer.
What – be specific about the goal of the plotting.
Not necessarily which scene or chapter; that’s actually irrelevant. Much more important is the character arc. Will this session deal with tricky external plot points? Or the deeper, more emotional internal conflict layers? Or the difficult task of intertwining the external with the internal? Always think of bite-sized pieces no matter how complicated the plotting goal.
Supersized may be wonderful at your favorite fast-food restaurant, but it’s likely to lead to difficult digestion with plotting. With internal (emotional) conflict, the character will grow (arc) through more than one learning experience. Knowing and truly understanding what the character must absorb in order to aid this growth will greatly enhance the writer’s ability to slice the character’s education into morsels for the reader to devour.
REMEMBER, those kiddie plates for our little ones?
Sectioned off so their peas didn’t roll into mashed potatoes? Capture those slots in your mind. If the character must learn to trust, spoon out the ‘life’ lessons into smaller parcels until the plate (or the lesson) is complete. While most characters transition over the course of the story, understanding that multiple bites will be necessary for this process, keeps the writer truer to the process. And helps alleviate that worst of worst: the disappointed reader.
We’ve all encountered books that left us wanting more. That frustrated because those plotting steps that allowed us, as readers, to grow, to stretch, to learn right beside the character from beginning to end were somehow incomplete. Something of that ‘real’ process was missing. Plotting . . . at least, doing it well . . . will prevent those missing steps.
In The 9th Girl, Nikki Liska is overtaxed mentally and physically. As the job of hunting the killer cuts into sleep hours, parenting time with her two sons, even sitting still for a decent meal, single mom Nikki finds her personal life in turmoil. Fighting the age-old conflict between home and career, millions of single moms, moms with demanding careers, and women who find themselves often alone in raising their children, can and will identify with the character of Nikki Liska. What appears to be early story filler turns out to be plot-driven necessary information. Ms. Hoag sets up her protagonist as an in-the-dark overworked mom of a 15-year-old son. Through the choice of a reserved, hard-to-understand teenager as a secondary character, Ms. Hoag offers nibbles of insight into the internal conflict that Nikka Liska is experiencing, but also weaves a complicated external plot to the ultimate necessity to catch the killer.
Who and What belong to the story, to the characters, to the plot.
When – belongs to the writer. A writer should focus on his/her body rhythms.
When are ideas freshest? Most open to new twists and turns? Daydreaming? During the day, is there allotted time to actually let go and allow imagination free reign? Identifying those times, scheduling quite hours, a secluded walk and hitting the time-frame when it aligns with our body will inherently equal more successful plotting.
Where – not quite as simple as the question implies, also belongs to the writer.
1) Is plotting time better at home with a white board/chalk board/stack of sticky notes?
2) Perhaps being AWAY from home with a recorder? Is plotting better in motion like on a walk, or in a swing, or rocker? Does the motion literally force your brain into forward motion? OR perhaps a drive down country lanes?
IMPORTANT **If so, consider how to best accomplish a good recording of these imagination trips. I often work with the recording app on my phone and a Bluetooth. But I’ve checked the recording quality in different environments so I know when I can literally hear myself think . . . and when there’s just too much background noise.
3) Perhaps as a plotter, you work better in stillness, calm surroundings, in a space specifically designed and designated for writing?
4) Or is this process better completely away from home? A writer’s retreat with critique partners? Or a mini-vacation with a spouse or significant other? If so, make certain to set clear partner perimeters. What you expect to accomplish and when you’ll be available for them. Same goes with critique partners. How much time is allotted to each partner? Make a schedule. And always allow for quiet time then to flesh out the plotting that you’ve accomplished together. The quiet is as important as these great brainic sessions.
5) Learn to avoid those places that are mental drags. I cannot plot in my breakfast nook even though I love the furniture. Why? Because when I look up, my glance is constantly drawn to something else that needs to be done.
And finally, Why – this step reinforces the ‘What’. And is back to characters, story and the basics of plotting.
1) Why does your character need to learn this particular ‘What’ task?
2) Why does this ‘What’ internal conflict need to be resolved at this part of the story? The ‘Why’ is crucial to on-going plotting.
*Ever-so-often, this one piece of the puzzle will lead to further plotting. Internal conflict resolution must take place in a logical and often linear manner. For writers, this can be taxing. Our brains have a tendency to jump from Point A to Point M, skipping over everything in between: mainly because we don’t know our characters or the story well enough at this point to fill in each individual phase.
**However, through the ‘why’ stage, a writer can boil it down to the bare bones. Then the writer is free to explore and open the character up to each point of the ‘conflict resolution’.
Through this process, the writer will often discover exact scenes for character enlightenment, whom (which other characters) must be on page at the time, where the discoveries will take place, and exactly how much the character will learn at that precise moment.
Early in The 9th Girl, Detective Nikka Liska's shy and reserved, but good student son is suddenly in big trouble at his private artistic school. Nikka is forced to breach the proprietary walls of the school and her own son's privacy in order to first, protect her child, and second, to hunt a killer. While a limited amount of information is released to Nikka at this early juncture, the groundwork is set for several necessary school and school friend scenes. From the initial conflict at her son's private institution, Nikka is firmly entrenched on this path. And what turns out to be the twisted path to find the actual killer of The 9th Girl.
Almost done, but not quite.
For the final and easy to overlook step – don’t forget to capture all this greatness in useful format. If it’s a recorder, make certain to transcribe notes. If it’s a white/chalk board, take a picture and upload to your ‘progress of plotting’ file. Sticky notes get added onto the greater plot board. (I’ve used a corkboard, divided up into the appropriate number of chapters then added the sticky notes to the correct chapter.) As I can type (and delete) faster than hand-writing, I currently use a Trello board app. With its cut and paste, drag and drop, highlight and illuminate features, the Trello app covers all the bases for me. It’s also available on my phone and tablet. I can connect anywhere with this app and upload my momentary brilliance.
Spooning out plotting into manageable and thoughtful bites can make the task of gnawing through this often overwhelming process of writing so much easier to swallow.