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Plot Development – Tools for outlining

In this last article on plot development I want to talk briefly about tools you can use for outlining your novels.  There are any number of tools you can use, from low-tech to high-tech, depending on your preference.  You can simply write or type an outline.  You can use some kind of graphical computer program to create a visual picture of the structure.  Or you can use an in-depth charting tool.  In writing Consequences, I actually used Microsoft Project because I had a lot of dependencies that I needed to keep up with so that the timing worked to build the suspense and tension as the story progressed.  But that’s overkill.  You don’t need anything that complex to outline a novel.

The method I prefer is actually very low-tech…multi-colored index cards (or large post-it notes) and poster boards.  This is easy to use and provides a great big-picture, visual depiction of your plot.  Here’s what I do.  I use different colored cards for the MP and SPs and red dots to signify the “hooks.”  Hooks are simply points where I want to provide surprises or throw out something that will keep the reader turning pages.  On each card I write a quick note explaining what happens in that chapter.  Then I stick the card on the poster board.  If the chapter includes both MP and SP content then I’ll put the SP card below the MP card on the board.  You can accomplish the same thing by using the same colored cards and writing the info on them in different colors.  But I prefer different colored cards because it really jumps out at you when you stand back and look at it.  You can also lay the cards out on the floor and shuffle them around.  I prefer putting them on poster boards taped to the wall because I’d rather work standing up than crawling around on the floor.  It also keeps my cats from sitting on the cards or batting them around and getting them out of order.

This poster board with the cards attached works kind of like the storyboards they use for movies.  It makes it very easy to survey your plot to make sure everything is flowing like you want it to, that the SPs are woven through the story at the proper intervals, and that you’re providing enough hooks at the right places to keep the reader interested.  You can easily shuffle things around if you find gaps or problems with the sequencing of events.  You can add hooks if you identify any slow areas that need a boost.  And you can quickly see where you’re repeating yourself or putting in scenes that aren’t really needed.  Remember that you don’t have to write out your chapter cards in order, either.  You can write the cards as the chapter ideas come to you, then shuffle them around to see how they best fit together.

If you’ve never used this technique before I highly recommend it.  I think you’ll be surprised how helpful it is.  It’s cheap and easy and doesn’t require any hardware or software or other technical junk that can get in the way.  And, if for some reason you don’t find it useful, you haven’t invested a bunch of money.  As a matter of fact, you probably already have the materials you need to give it a try.


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Plot Development – To outline or not to outline…

I’ve had more than a few authors tell me that they don’t outline their novels.  They just sit down and start writing and see where it goes.  For what it’s worth, one of those was a successful author.  None of the others have met with any measure of success.  Be that as it may, the subject of this article is to discuss outlining your novel.  This is in reference to fiction writing, obviously.  If you’re writing a non-fiction book or anything other than fiction then you’re going to create an outline for your project.

I’ve heard lots of reasons for not outlining – it stifles creativity, it’s too confining, it’s boring, it’s too much like writing a term paper, to mention just a few.  Typically these excuses come from authors who are more enamored with the idea of “being a writer” than authors who actually produce manuscripts that are readable.  On the other hand, if you were responsible for creating a huge, important sales presentation at your day job, would you outline what you wanted to present?  After all, this is an important presentation that could bring in lots of money for your company.  It needs to be professional and slick and impressive.  Besides, your name’s going to be on it and you’re going to be responsible for presenting it to the big wigs.  Your credibility is at stake.  You better believe you’re going to outline that sucker.

So…what’s different about a novel?  Do you want it to be a money-maker?  Do you want it to be professional and impressive?  Unless you’re ghost writing or using a pseudonym, your name’s going to be on it.  Your reputation and credibility as a writer are at stake.  If an outline could help, why in the world would you not create one?  Well, again, there are lots of reasons and I’ve even used some of them myself.  As a matter of fact, I have about five novels that I’ve worked on without an outline.  They aren’t finished yet.  Go figure.

I think one reason authors don’t outline their novels is because they don’t know how.  It’s actually quite easy and if done properly won’t stifle your creativity.  In fact, it’s a very creative process itself and can be a lot of fun.  The first thing you do is develop your “cocktail party description.”  This is what you tell people you meet at a cocktail party who, when they learn you’re a writer, inevitably ask, “What’s your book about?”  Or maybe it’s what you scribble down on a cocktail napkin in the airport lounge as you’re waiting for your flight.  This is one paragraph, only four or five sentences, that states what your story is about.

Harry Bishop is living comfortably in a quiet little southern town, the kind of town where nothing much happens, and that suits Harry just fine.  But his peaceful existence is soon interrupted.  The trouble begins when a friend dies in what appears to be a tragic accident.  In the aftermath Harry learns that his friend had a few secrets of his own…the kind that involve the type of people he left Detroit to get away from.  In spite of his attempts to avoid involvement, Harry soon finds himself embroiled in a deadly, real-life chess match with a ruthless mafia hitman and an adversary from his past who still holds a grudge.

Next you take the cocktail party description and expand it into two paragraphs, then three, then four, and so on until you have two or three pages that outline what’s going to happen in your novel.  Keep in mind, this is still a high-level, very general outline.  But it does include how the story ends.  This is what an agent or publisher might request if they ask for a synopsis.  This should also include a paragraph or two about each of your subplots.

Once you’ve completed your synopsis you will work through the same process with your characters.  Refer back to my earlier articles on character development for more information on how to do this.

Now it’s time to sit down and diagram your plot like we discussed in the article on main plots and subplots.  Once this is completed you write a brief description for each chapter.  Keep it brief, no more than three or four sentences.

Harry comes home to find Charlie waiting for him at his house.  They listen to a CD Charlie brought over and make plans to meet for lunch on Monday to celebrate Harry’s birthday.  But when Harry hasn’t heard from Charlie by Monday evening he goes to his house and finds him, dead, floating face down in the river.

Now, when you sit down to write the chapter described above, you know what you’re going to write.  But you haven’t outlined it to the point that it becomes restrictive or limits your creativity.  There is still plenty of room for creativity in how you set up the scenes, how you describe what happens, how you write the dialog, etc.  And, of course, this is just an outline.  It isn’t set in stone or written in blood.  It’s written on paper, in pencil…metaphorically if not literally.  If you get a better idea you can always change it.

When you’re outlining your chapters you may want to do them all before you start writing your first draft, or you may only do a few at a time.  I generally outline three or four chapters, then write those chapters, then outline the next three or four chapters, and so on.  That way I always know what I’m supposed to be writing at any given time when I sit down and starting mashing keys.  You will need to experiment a little and see what works best for you.

That looks like a lot of work, but you know what?  Writing a novel is a lot of work.  Outlining will help you stay focused and “on track.”  It can also help prevent writer’s block since you know what you’re supposed to be writing when you sit down at the keyboard each day.  Outlining also helps reveal places for twists and turns and “hooks” to keep the reader turning pages.  I’ll go into more detail on this in my next article.

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Plot Development – Memories, flashbacks, and linear progression

Writers use a lot of literary devices to tell their stories.  Two of the most popular are memories and flashbacks.  Although similar, they are not the same.

A memory is simply that – a character remembering something that happened.  It’s simple and can be very effective in character development.  It’s brief, provides insight, and doesn’t break up the flow of the story.  It can also be a good way to create intrigue, build suspense, and bridge subplots to the main plot.  The key point here is that it’s just a quick trip inside the character’s head.  It only becomes distracting if there are too many of them.

A flashback, on the other hand, actually takes the reader back in time to another place.  This may be a quick detour or the plot may be reset, so to speak, at that point in time and move forward from there.  Flashbacks show us something about the character, explain why he behaves the way he does, or expose something important to the development of the plot that would otherwise not be known.

The problem for many writers who use flashbacks is that they overdo it.  They put in so many flashbacks it becomes distracting.  Sometimes it’s hard to keep up if the flashbacks aren’t sequential.  If the first flashback is a year ago, and the second six months ago, and the third two years ago it’s easy for the reader to get lost.  Especially when the flashbacks involve the same characters.  In movies it’s a little less confusing because the characters may look older or younger or dress in different styles.  But it’s still hard to keep up and trying to set the scene in a novel can be cumbersome.  You could do what they do in the movies and establish the time specifically…three months ago…  That works fine in movies but not so well in novels.

A much more common use of the flashback is to begin at a point very near the climax, then reset the story to a previous point in time and move forward from there, explaining how the character came to be in such a desperate predicament.  This allows you to “hook the reader” right off the bat.  Then the story resets and moves forward in a linear progression, building tension and suspense as it leads up to the point where the novel began.  In essence, the whole story is a flashback but I prefer this technique to the quick detour because of the linear progression.  It’s easier to follow, requires fewer “establishing shots,” and allows the story to flow without too many distractions.

In a story with numerous flashbacks it’s also helpful to have a linear progression with the flashbacks.  For example, let’s say you’re writing about a serial killer.  The main plot occurs in the present, but flashbacks can be used to explain how he became a serial killer.  The first flashback might be when he was six years old and something devastating happened in his life.  Then the second is when he’s ten and he first starts showing tendencies toward violence.  The third is when he’s seventeen and he assaults a young girl who lives in the neighborhood.  Then the fourth is when he’s twenty-two and he kills for the first time.  This type of linear progression within the flashbacks explains in a logical manner what transpired to create the psyche of the killer.  In this example, the use of flashbacks is critical to the story and more effective than if we simply started when the killer was six and moved to present day.

One interesting note about linear progression – it doesn’t have to be forward.  One of my favorite movies, Memento, progresses backwards.  It starts at the end and, instead of leading up to a climax, it works backward and explains how the main character got to where he was at the beginning.  It takes a few scenes before you realize what’s going on, but due to the really strange story line and a very unique flaw with the main character it works and it’s fascinating to see how everything is developed.

In summary…memories and flashbacks can be very useful tools in character and plot development.  But you should be careful to not overdo it.  Too many can disrupt the flow of the story and can be confusing.  Also consider using a linear progression, even with your flashbacks.  Life happens that way.  Time marches on, as they say.  Perhaps for that reason, it’s easier to follow a plot that has a linear progression.

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Plot Development – MP, SP1, and SP2

Have you ever considered how the plots were constructed in your favorite novels?  Do you look for formulas or plot structure in the novels you read?  If you’re a writer, do you diagram your plots so you know when to focus on the main plot, character development, or your subplots?

I think most authors say they don’t use a formula or plan their plots out in too much detail.  They say things like it’s too restrictive, limits creativity, even takes the fun out of writing.  If it becomes overly structured it’s too much like writing a term paper or a book report instead of a novel.

Well, this may or may not be true.  That probably depends on the writer’s personality, experience, talent, and so forth.  One thing is for sure – the authors who churn out one novel after another have a structure they follow.  It may be subconscious, but it’s there nonetheless.  You can prove this by diagramming their novels.  They follow a pattern that moves from main plot to subplots, back and forth, in such a way that you don’t get lost or forget what’s going on.  The experienced writers just kind of know to do this and don’t need to diagram it.  But the beginner or novice generally needs help keeping everything running smoothly.  The good news is that it’s really easy to do and if you keep it on a high level it won’t limit your creativity.  Let’s look at some numbers to illustrate the point.

By industry standards, a novel is 50,000 words or more.  The page count in popular fiction varies tremendously but most popular fiction runs about 250 pages in print.  That computes to roughly a 300 page manuscript.  With an average word count of 250 per page in manuscript format this computes to 75,000 words.  Obviously, these are rough estimates since these numbers can greatly vary depending on the amount of dialogue, descriptive content, paragraph length, etc.  But these are good averages to work with.  Plus, the math is easy.

Within all those words the writer has to develop his characters, throw them into some kind of situation or crisis, and add some additional material which will be one or more subplots.  A good rule of thumb for allocation is 65-25-10.  65% devoted to the main plot (MP).  25% devoted to subplot one (SP1).  10% devoted to subplot two (SP2).  If we continue with our math this breaks down to approximately 195 pages devoted to the MP, roughly 75 pages for SP1, and only about 30 pages for SP2.  Character development occurs throughout and is generally not included as a separate word/page count.

The key is to concentrate on the MP while working SP1 and SP2 into the storyline without getting too sidetracked.  You don’t want to be away from any of your plots so long that the reader forgets what’s going on.  In creating the structure you can actually map it out, chapter by chapter.  You want to loop back to your SPs every four or five chapters, depending on how long your chapters are.  For example:

Chapter 1 – MP
Chapter 2 – MP
Chapter 3 – MP, SP1
Chapter 4 – MP
Chapter 5 – MP, SP2
Chapter 6 – SP1
Chapter 7 – MP
Chapter 8 – MP
Chapter 9 – SP2
Chapter 10 – MP, SP1
…and so on.

This not only gives you some direction on what you need to be working on next, it also helps you keep the action connected.  In Consequences the MP was concerned with the mystery surrounding the death of Ron Maddox.  SP1 launched FBI Agents, Trevor Washington and Betty Logan, into a separate investigation that took them to South Florida.  However, while working on the case in Florida they uncovered evidence that pointed back to the Maddox case.  SP2 followed the actions of Ron’s widow, Carol.  This plot also provided information that tied back into the MP.  To make it all come together at the right time in the MP I had to chart out what happened where and when in both SPs because it was very time sensitive.  Without a detailed plot structure that would not have been possible.

One more point about structure.  You can work on each plot separately if that helps.  Then you simply go back and weave them all together.  This is a great option if you find yourself with writer’s block.  If you’re bogged down with the MP, write for a few days on SP1 or SP2.  This also helps you come up with twists and turns and allows for foreshadowing and red herrings and all that other literary junk writers like to talk about.

The next time you read a novel, or watch a movie for that matter, look for the MP and SPs.  The MP will be the major conflict that drives the story.  Very likely one SP will deal with a relationship, usually romantic, in which the main character is involved.  The other SP will be a device for character development, typically it involves a little humor and levity, and may not be directly tied into the MP.  It will be very evident if you look for it.

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Plot Development – There must be conflict (part 2)

When we left off last week Mary was in a bad situation.  She was concerned about the well-being of her family and their financial woes.  This was compounded by the possibility of losing her job which was their sole source of income.  But then the stakes got decidedly higher as three armed men entered the bank.  Concerns over long-term issues suddenly evaporated as one of the men stuck a gun in her face and started barking out instructions.

“Fill one bag with the money in the drawers,” the man said.  For a second Mary was immobilized by fear and just stood there staring at him.  “LET’S GO!” he shouted and she took one of the bags and hurried to the first teller window.

As she was doing this the other two robbers herded the patrons and bank personnel into a corner of the lobby.  One of the men began collecting cell phones and personal items while the other man grabbed the two remaining bags off the counter and went into the vault.

Mary set the bag on the floor and opened the first drawer.  As she removed the bills from the tray the man slammed his hand on the counter.  “Quit screwing around,” he said.  “Just dump everything in the bag.  Come on, move it.”

She took the till out of the drawer and bent over to put it in the bag.  In her haste a bundle of fifties fell into the trash can under the counter.  The man didn’t notice and she left it there.  As she moved to the second window she realized that her position was blocking the view of the cameras and the robber on the other side of the counter couldn’t see what she was doing as she bent to put the till in the bag.

Mary realized she had just discovered a way to stash away several thousand dollars.  If she could figure out a way to get the “trash” out of the bank later no one would know she had the money.  The bank would assume the robbers had it all and the robbers wouldn’t know the difference.

She moved to the next teller window and removed the till…

So, what’s your impression of Mary now?  Faced with an opportunity in the midst of a chaotic situation she made a decision to do something that she never would’ve considered otherwise – basically, rob the bank where she worked.  Did this decision change your opinion of her?  What about your interest in the story?  Are you more interested in what will happen next?  In ten paragraphs we expanded a single internal conflict into something much more complex.  If we had devoted those ten paragraphs to Mary standing at the teller’s window, worrying about her financial problems, would you still be reading?

By adding conflict we created a moral dilemma in addition to the threat of physical violence.  We added tension and suspense that will extend beyond the actual bank robbery itself.  We also greatly expanded Mary’s character.  What she decided and how she reacted to conflict added depth to her character.  What if she changed her mind about taking the money?  How would that affect your impression of her?

In my next article I’ll explain how to actually construct a plot by alternating between the main plot and subplots and how to use those subplots to create conflict that feeds back into the main plot.  But the keys to remember at this point are that you must have conflict and internal conflict provides depth to your characters and generates a more powerful response from your reader.

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Welcome to my blog “On Writing.”  This is something I plan to use to provide tips, techniques, suggestions, comments, etc., on the craft of writing.  While the focus is on writing fiction some of the information is applicable to non-fiction, as well.

I’ll begin by posting articles on the following 12 topics:

  1. Character Development
  2. Plot Development
  3. Effective Dialogue
  4. Don’t Be Overly Descriptive
  5. Get to the Point
  6. Control the Pace
  7. Do Your Homework
  8. Point of View
  9. Practice Makes Perfect
  10. You Must Write Before You Can Edit
  11. Overcoming Writer’s Block
  12. When the Story Ends…Quit Writing

This is basically my “12 Step Program for Better Writing.”  Hope you find this helpful.

For information on my novels, visit “Novels by Merrill Heath”

Copyright 2009 Merrill Heath. All material on this site, the associated pages, and excerpts are copyrighted by the author and may not be used or reproduced in any manner without written permission.

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