For the first two entries about this
topic, I’ve talked mainly about theoretical aspects of Plot. For
this final segment, I have a little more theory to impart, and then
I’ll examine some practical tools to use while plotting your story
or novel. The majority of writers who have emailed me in response to
the May and June articles have been writing Romance plots with
sub-plots of Mystery, Adventure, or Family Drama. Because of that,
I’m going to focus on ways to develop plot using examples relevant
to the Romance realm.
In discussing writing with other
authors, I’ve learned they fall into two major—and opposite—groups
in the way they tend to compose their stories, with a third, smaller
group falling somewhere in the middle. On one end of the continuum,
there are those who get the first inklings of a story and/or
characters, sit down, start writing, and spend little time planning.
On the other end are those who, long before they ever begin
composing, take time to plan meticulously, using outlines,
storyboards, index cards, flow charts, or other tools to keep the
characters, plot, and timeline in order. The third group of writers
falls somewhere in the middle, sometimes outlining, sometimes
planning, sometimes just writing and not knowing how it will all fit
Regardless of your writing style,
keeping track of your plot and characters is always a good idea,
especially if you see yourself writing a series. For instance,
Patricia Cornwell, one of my favorite mystery/thriller writers, ran
into some timeline problems. Her first novel, POSTMORTEM, takes
place in 1989, and her niece Lucy is age 10. The third book, ALL
THAT REMAINS, starts on the last day of August 1992. By this time,
Lucy is 16 and a high school sophomore. Even more amusing, by the
time of the fifth book, THE BODY FARM, set in 1993, Lucy is 21 and
about to graduate from college. I use this amazing metamorphosis as
an example of discrepancies to avoid in your fiction. Even if you
write an entire novel without ever outlining or fact checking, when
you go back to edit and revise, all the facts really should be
squared up. Also, if you intend to write a series, planning ahead is
a good idea.
Let’s try some practical application
by plotting a Romance. The bare bones plot of Romance looks like
this: boy/girl meets boy/girl; conflicts arise; something or someone
is lost; conflicts are dealt with; boy/girl finally gets either the
object of his/her affection or someone better. Within that plot
construct, there are at least a dozen scenarios such as the
- Amnesia – One character helps (or
takes advantage of) the other who has lost his or her memory.
- Beauty and the Beast – One of the
characters is marred or scarred—usually physically, but sometimes
- Cinderella – A classic plot where
the protagonist (male or female) goes from rags-to-riches and wins
a Prince/Princess after experiencing deprivation and want.
- Class Differences – One is in a
different class or world than the other. Doesn’t have to be
monetary—could be due to education, lifestyle, or work.
- Family Feud – Two characters are
interested in one another, but their separate worlds seem closed
because of family hatreds and misunderstandings.
- Good/Bad Dynamics – Character #1
is desperately in need of redemption, and Character #2, who is
clean-cut and straitlaced, is amazed to find him/herself attracted
to and interested in the "Bad" Boy or Girl. Another version of
this is that Character #1 is somehow kinky or kooky and drives the
clean-cut Character #2 to distraction, but between the two of
them, they find a way to bridge their differences.
- Homebody v. Adventurer – The
characters have opposing traits. Which one will change in order to
preserve their love? Another variation on the theme is City Mouse
v. Country Mouse.
- Kidnapping – One character is
kidnapped. The other character may be the kidnapper, a
helper, a detective, bystander, or someone else.
- Lost/Snowbound/Stranded –Two
characters who were formerly not interested in one another—perhaps
didn’t even like one another—are thrown together in
solitary, forced intimacy complete with pitfalls and danger. They
learn to get along and, surprisingly, grow in respect and
- Mistaken Identity – One character
isn’t who the other thinks he or she is.
- Secret – One character has a
secret that must not be revealed or all love could be lost. This
works well with coming out stories, too.
- Unknown Baby – One character has
a baby, but the father never knew. At a later time, the father and
mother meet again, with him still not knowing the baby is his.
To carry this further, let’s say you
decide to write a Kidnapping Plot Scenario. You already know you are
starting the action in media res, your initial point of view
is taken from the victim’s experiences, and one of the kidnapper’s
helpers will also have a point of view later in the story. You know
you want to be able to tell some details outside the points of view
of the victim and the kidnapper, so you add a sympathetic cop. You
can decide these things in advance. What you don’t know at first may
include: Why did the kidnapping take place? Who is the helper, and
why is s/he involved in this heinous activity? How will victim and
helper ally with one another? Who falls in love with whom, and why?
What conflicts will occur until the victim is released (if indeed
s/he is). How does it all end up?
Use those questions and all the rest
that pop up as you puzzle through, and place them within the
framework of Aristotle’s Story Arc. You can do this in advance
before you ever start writing, and it could possibly look like
USING ARISTOTLE’S STORY
- Initial set-up:
place, character(s), point of view, setting, etc.
name and circumstances, a bit about her life and something being
- While at the bank, Victim is taken
(You could also start from Kidnapper point
of view and describe the action.)
explication: wants/needs/intent are described.
Victim in getaway car with three masked men who have just shot up
the First National – she’s in shock and scared to
- Introduction to
the kidnappers and details about their motives come out in
- In a change of
scene and POV, a caring Cop is introduced who is going to dog
Kidnappers’ steps and try to capture them before Victim is injured
(and before money disappears).
- Rising action:
i.e., "stuff starts happening."
- Driver takes the car to a remote place
and big fight about the money occurs which then expands to an
argument about whether to kill Victim. Third man (the "good"
Kidnapper) argues to let Victim live since she hasn’t seen their
- Meanest Goon
struggles with Driver and shoots him. Goon is also injured
- Good Kidnapper
grabs Victim and the duffel and they run. Goon
- Cop traces them
to the abandoned car; finds dead Driver; manhunt
- Reversals: also
known as "plot points" or complications.
- Victim and Kidnapper are in grave danger;
Goon nearly catches them.
- Surprise to Victim: When unmasked, third
man turns out to be a woman.
- Nowhere to go and few places to hide. All
three are on foot, trying to get across forest (or desert or some
other deserted area).
- Kidnapper protects Victim, risking life
at least once.
starts asking questions and getting information out of Kidnapper –
finds out Kidnapper had an ulterior motive for attending the bank
robbery. Goon has hidden her child with a confederate at a storage
facility, and Kidnapper has to get there before Goon
changes occur and choices have to be made.
- Victim finds she can’t help but be
attracted to the Kidnapper. It makes no sense to her, but it
happens. She originally only wanted to get away, but now
identifies with the Kidnapper’s plight and wants to help
- Close proximity,
stress, and worry combine to cause the two to lean on one another,
and Victim realizes that Kidnapper is someone she could
- Victim and
Kidnapper pair up to elude the Goon, but he’s close on their tail.
They sneak into a convenience store to buy food and water, and
Victim’s face is plastered all over the TV. Now they know they
have law enforcement to avoid, too. The cops are on the lookout,
but so is the Goon.
steal a car and take off.
Goon comes on the scene a short time later, just missing them.
Hijacks a car.
- Climax: when
status quo shifts from one state to another.
- Cop gets report of stolen car and of
convenience store shooting and puts two and two
- Car chase
occurs. Victim and Kidnapper very nearly elude the Goon, but he
knows where they are going and gets there moments after they
- Confederate has kid
all tied up when Victim and Kidnapper attempt to approach. He
holds them off by threatening to kill the kid.
- Goon arrives and Kidnapper has to jump
him and fight. Victim tries to help. Kidnapper gets shot, but
manages to incapacitate the Goon.
- Now Victim has the gun. She stages mock
shootout to confuse Confederate while Kidnapper limps around the
storage unit and tries to rescue her child.
- Cops ride in, surround the place, and
snipers shoot the Confederate before he can kill the
- Falling action:
as loose ends are tied up.
- Kidnapper is reunited with her
- Kidnapper and Goon
are arrested and taken off bleeding to the
- Victim gets in
car with caring Cop and starts telling the tale.
resolution leads to the ending.
- Victim goes to the hospital to visit
Kidnapper who apologizes and thanks her for helping save her
- Victim meets the
child and likes the kid a lot.
- Sympathetic Cop shows up, tells Victim
and Kidnapper that he expects the DA to go easy under the
takes Kidnapper’s hand and promises to stick by her, and there is
the promise of a future for the two of them.
I made all of that up on the spur of
the moment, and I've already thought of one question that somehow
must be answered: what skill does the "good" Kidnapper
possess that makes the Goon and Driver force her to participate in
the bank heist? Maybe it’s not a bank heist after all? Maybe she is
a good lock-pick and can get them all into the back of a jewelry
store or some other place that would have lots of money or valuables
on hand? Or maybe she works for the store and knows the key-code?
Whatever the reason, I have to "sell" that to the reader – or I have
to convince the reader (and the Victim) that the Kidnapper has a
viable reason for willingly participating in a robbery, but is still
innocent—or that she is at least worthy of redemption.
Outlining by using the Story Arc is
one good way to make sure you have all your causality and facts
lined up. If you know what your story is all about, then you can do
this in advance. If you are like me, you may not have a clue about
all the events that will occur, but you can still use this tool
after you have written the novel to make sure that things
Somebody once said "Character is
plot, and plot is character." I don’t know if that’s true, but your
plot will be enhanced if you make sure that your characters from
scene to scene (and from book to book if you write a series) are
consistent in qualities and details. Keep an inventory of all of
your characters regardless of whether they are major, secondary, or
even seem inconsequential. Crawford Kilian has a nice tool for
character building at his site (see below). You can use his outline
there to keep track of every character about whom you write.
There are many other tools you can
use to build and manage your plot. In addition to Aristotle’s Story
Arc, here are favorites suggested by a variety of writing
Plans & Maps for
Organizing and Remembering Plot Structure
Some writers use an Outline format (and most
Word Processing programs have one). Like the Story Arc tool, this
can be used in advance or written as you go or worked out once you
have completed the first draft of the manuscript.
I highly recommend the use of a timeline. It
can be as simple as getting a large piece of paper, drawing a line
from left to right in the middle and then charting the events of the
novel and their dates of happening from left-to-right.
I do a timeline for every book I
write. I start with the character(s) born the earliest and the
events that have any sort of importance and work forward in time. As
new information or events emerge, I add them to the timeline. Try to
be as exact as you can. I use the Perpetual Calendar (see URL below)
to make sure I have the right date and day of the week. You would be
surprised at how many readers associate a day and date in history.
John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963. If your plot
calls for that to be a Monday evening, some readers will call
foul because it was actually a Friday morning.
Keep an Ongoing Notebook or
a Large 3-Ring Binder
I know writers who use color-coded pages and
separators to keep track of scenes, characters, and the plot line.
Some print out the various scenes and tuck them into the notebook in
an organized manner. One writer friend keeps it in her car or with
her most of the time and can be seen scribbling marginal notes as
new ideas come to her.
cards have been useful to me, especially because I tend to write
scenes willy-nilly all over a book and am not always sure what order
they should go in. Each time you write a scene, title it and/or
write a line or two description of what occurs in the scene. After a
while, you’ll have a stack of cards you can lay out on the table and
organize. Is something out of sync? Go back to your computer and
cut-and-paste everything to achieve proper of order.
Also, visually laying out the index
cards can help you find gaps in your story. Get a couple of people
to listen to you talk through the scenes in a linear fashion.
Encourage them to ask questions about anything that doesn’t make
sense. Usually, wherever they get confused is where you are missing
a scene or something is not in the proper order.
Screenplay writers talk a lot about
"storyboarding," which consists of using large pieces of cardboard
or whiteboard to draw, diagram, and illustrate a scene or scenes.
It’s usually done in advance in order to lay out a visual plan for a
movie. Each scene is arranged with all the particular angles and
details in sequence so it can be filmed. A director like Alfred
Hitchcock laboriously laid out every single scene and detail,
including cartoon-like drawings of each part. (This enabled Gus Van
Sant to come along later and re-do "Psycho" exactly the same way
Hitchcock had!). Other directors may have simple or elaborate plans
on paper or drawn out on storyboards, too, and writers can use this
same technique to organize plot and characters.
In a visual manner, you could
storyboard your plot with a pack of oversized index cards or sheets
of paper. Each page represents one scene. Use each card to record an
image, graphics, or the layout of the physical scene. You’ve got
plenty of paper, so don’t worry about messing up. As you think about
your story line, you can easily move the images around into the
order that makes sense. And as you rearrange, you will see where you
could use more scenes or more exposition. Think in terms of asking
what the reasons are for every scene. Does it advance the plot? Do
you show the reader more about the characters? Pretty soon, you have
an entire plot line all laid out.
In addition, if you happen to work
as I do, half the fun of writing a novel is the discovery process.
You don’t have to use the storyboarding technique BEFORE you write.
You can do it as you write or afterwards, if it will help you map
out the events, chronology, and sequence of your story more clearly.
I’ve never used a flowchart, but some writers
swear by them. FlowCharter, SmartDraw, Inspiration, Visio,
and MacFlow are just a few examples. You can chart the
action, the plot, the sub-plots, the character growth, or even just
Software like StoryCraft, Power
Structure, Power Writer, Dramatica Pro, StoryBuilder, Fiction
Master, WritePro, Story View, and StoryBase are
complex programs that a writer can use to format, create, expand,
and analyze a story or novel. They range in price between $100 and
$300. I haven’t met an author who actually uses the software,
but someone must because there are a couple dozen on the market. If
anyone tries any writing software, drop me a note and let me know
We have come to the end of the
3-part series on Plot. I hope it has been useful to you. If you have
questions, comments, or divergent points of view, please drop me an
email at Lori@LoriLLake.com.
Crawford Kilian’s site: http://www.capcollege.bc.ca/dept/cmns/character.html
Perpetual Calendar: http://www.wiskit.com/calendar.html
© Lori L. Lake,
2003 - Associate Editor of Just About
From her untitled
book about novel writing, a work in progress.
Not for distribution or copying without the
express permission of the author. Lori can be reached at Lori@LoriLLake.com and welcomes questions
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