Sunday, August 22, 2010

How do I plot thee? Let me count the ways

My problem is plot. Often, in the quiet of the night as I stare at my desktop I wonder if I am doomed. The opening of Ansen Dibell’s book Plot addresses my plight: Coming to Plot the Hard Way.

That’s me, hard way and all. Entering that plot fortress, walking through the dark entrance into a maze of choices, left me frustrated and convinced I’d never find my way to the other end.

I’ll backtrack here to two years ago and full-blown pantser writing, where I ended up with a 105,000 word story. I’d repeatedly tossed one minor conflict after another against the wall, keeping every strand that stuck there, the same as that age old cooked pasta test. I’ve been rewriting the last half of that manuscript, fixing all my dead end detours and misplaced road signs. So I set out this year to find a better way to create my stories.

On the positive side, I’ve been told my story characters shine, my dialogue is good and believable, my setting throbs with scents, and textures and color, but my plots…ah, ,my heart burns with desire, but I’m denied. Premises explode on the page to later fizzle into flat plotlines. I’ve read book after book, taken workshop after workshop, seeking the right fit.

In my epic search I’ve tried several approaches and after hours of tedious effort tossed them aside.

The 3-Act Solution with turning points. My one attempt resides in my computer with no third act. No matter how many times I tried, this process didn’t work for me. Yet, I know this can be effective. It’s just too exacting for my Mexican-jumping-bean mind.

The index card system. Similar to the script writing technique, where each scene is on a card and you shift the cards to create that fast moving, well-thought out story. I now have a pile of cards with no cohesive meaning. Some writers find this a perfect fit. I’m stumped again.

Is it me? I asked my husband if he thought I showed signs of dyslexia. I am left-handed, maybe that’s one reason. Left hand in touch with the right brain, the creative side. So, I decided to create my own system, based on techniques from workshops and a writer’s website.

First, I begin with a log line based on my idea (premise). I struggled with log lines until I took the recent FTH online workshop with instructor Cindy Carroll. What a difference that made!

Second, I work up the hero and heroine character sketches, their archetypes and I identify how they mesh and how they conflict. I use elements of Debra Dixon’s GMC: Goal, Motivation & Conflict as a guide.

Next, I begin with the log line to write a one page synopsis. Stop, don’t run away with your hands in the air shouting, “No, No, No, not the dreaded One Pager….” Write that one page synopsis before writing your story and see if the premise works. I don’t expect your story to remain exactly like the one pager. Characters do unexpected things, and sometimes their actions are better than what we first imagined.

I use Beth Anderson’s Writing the Tight Synopsis as my guide. You can find a free copy at her website:

My critique group endorsed my one page synopsis. It’s important to run this by someone for input before your next step. Expand that one page synopsis into five or more pages. This includes the subplot action. I feel so happy and confident with my “new” plotting system. I’ve reworked the story a few times, fine-tuning the emotional development between the hero and heroine.

I found my light at the end of the tunnel. This technique isn’t for everyone. I couldn’t use the 3-Act or Index Card System some of you love, but I’ve found my solution to plotting. Do you have a unique way of plotting? I’d love to hear from you.


Joan Leacott said...

HI Sheila, I, too, tried the pantser method and wrote about 250K through three major revisions to end up with 81K. Argh! The pantser method isn't for me! Your idea sounds fabulous! So much easier to edit five pages than 400. Plus, you're forced to see cause and effect. Excellent!

Sheila Tenold said...

Hello Joan,
I envy pantsers who can write a story without the dreaded revision nighmare, buried under a mountain of scene cuts.

I'm glad I was of help to you!

Carolyn Hughey said...

You know, Sheila, plotting has always been my problem too. I think that's a category everyone at one time or another struggles with the process. The more you do it though, the better and easier it becomes.

As a matter of fact, four of my friends and I will be meeting for an entire day to plot out our next stories. This will be our first time trying this out and I'm counting on learning some new techniques to make it easier. Let's hope it's not just wishful thinking on my part. :-)

Good article, Sheila!

Sheila Tenold said...

Thanks, Carolyn. Please consider sharing any new plotting techniques your friends and you devise. I'm always open to trying somethng new!

Lee Lopez said...

Plotting is something I struggle with, but know I need. If I just go the panster route, somewhere I get lost. I loose the black moment at the right time, the GMC, seems to get mangled and I just lose interest because the task becomes to taunting.
I'm also working on a way of plotting that works for me, minus all the color coded art boards, and cards. That is as bad as panstering, at least for me.

Joanne said...

I did a double take after reading your post, because I thought that maybe I wrote it. I have such a terrible time plotting my manuscripts.
Thanks for Beth's information. I will contact her.

Jill James said...

I love being a plotter. I love white boards, index cards, outlines, anything that tells me where the story is going. I have trouble with conflict. I'm too nice to my characters, so I have to plot out ways to be mean to them. hahahaha

Sherry Gloag said...

Thanks for sharing your plotting dilemas. I'm a panster who is trying to get her head round 'real' plotting. So far I've got to asking the 'how, why, where, when and what' questions at the end of each chapter and gone on from there.
The more I write, the less I find 'pantser' working for me.
It's good to know I'm not the only one struggling to get myself organised.