Category Archives: Plot

The Complete Writer: A Few Notes on Plot

The Complete Writer
Part V. Writing Fiction

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Chapter 24. Notes on Plot

Plot is the structure of a piece of fiction. When you write nonfiction, you’re building something similar to the fiction story’s plot: an organized narrative with a beginning, a middle, and an end, whose fact-based rising action leads to a high point and falls off in a resolution. It is, in a word, your work’s organization. A fictional work has—or should have—much the same kind of structure.

In fiction, plot is driven by conflict. Any conflict: could be between two or more people, between a person (or persons) and an external force (Man vs. Nature!), between conflicting emotions within an individual . . . any number of things. But conflict there must be.

Conflict moves the rising action from the beginning of the story up through one, two, or even more difficulties or calamities (often called turning points or complications), until the story reaches its climax. At that point the action is resolved into a dénouement, sometimes called falling action, that leads to the story’s end.

So here’s a question: do you write down a plot outline and dutifully follow it, or do you juggle your story’s direction in your head?

And, as long as we’re posing questions, if you have a written outline, what format does it take?

Some people—many of them prominent writers—claim they have no set outline, and that a piece of fiction seems to take form on its own, as it’s imagined. Others—also prominent writers—insist they must have a formal, carefully written outline, which they follow from beginning to end. Until recently, I tended to hang with the latter group.

For the current fiction enterprise, though, I got in the habit of sketching out ideas for coming action in notes at the end of a chapter in progress or in a separate Word document. It helps for remembering little insights and bright ideas.

But it’s not very efficient.

Recently it struck me that one of those Word docs full of ideas and notes was beginning to resemble a plot outline. So…now I’m about ten chapters in to what probably will be a 25- to 30-chapter novel. The ten chapters in hand aren’t in order—there are gaps, and they represent several subplots.

Those gaps and uncertainties, I suspected, could be wrangled with notecards. This makes it possible to shuffle chapters around, to move them from one section of the line of action to another, and to add or delete items easily.

I ended up with something that I called a “timeline.” It’s not exactly a plot outline, at least not yet: at this point it’s just a rough chronological arrangement of imagined events. The events in the timeline are narrated in the chapters.

One stack of notecards represents parts of the timeline. Each card shows what chapters are related to that timeline—presumably indicating approximately where they should appear in the finished manuscript, if not in what order. A timeline notcard also lists the subplots that would play out in those chapters:

In another stack, each notecard is dedicated to a specific chapter.

Exactly how well this will work for any given writer remains to be seen — by the writer. If it interests you, try it and see if it helps you to organize your scenes, chapter, and plotline. At the least, it should make it possible to keep track of a plot whose complexity seems to be running amok. At the worst, I doubt if it can do much harm!

 

The Plot Outline: Do You Write a Formal One?

Plot is the background of a piece of fiction. When you write nonfiction, you’re building something similar to the fiction story’s plot: an organized narrative with a beginning, a middle, and an end, whose fact-based rising action leads to a high point and falls off in a resolution. It is, in a word, your work’s organization. A fictional work has — or should have — much the same kind of structure.Notecards5

So here’s a question: do you write down a plot outline and dutifully follow it, or do you juggle your story’s direction in your head?

And, as long as we’re posing questions, if you have a written outline, what format does it take?

When I was a working journalist, I usually would crank a brief story out of my head. Of course, I knew where it was going and what it would cover, but, often working on short deadlines or for low pay, I wouldn’t or couldn’t take the time to map out a formal outline and put it in writing.

But sometimes I would. It depended on one (or both) of two things:

  • How important I felt the publication or the story was; and
  • How much I was being paid.

notecards6If it was a fairly complex story, an important subject, a high-quality publication, or an unusually well-paid assignment, then I would go to some lengths to refine and polish the organization — the story’s “plot” — in writing. This might take the form of a rough topic outline or a tree structure (a type of outline that sometimes works well for so-called “visual” learners).

But if it was a very long and very complicated story, with a lot of interviews, a lot of observed facts, and a large amount of research in primary and secondary sources, then I would follow the example of My Hero, John McPhee. As he is reported to do, I would use notecards coded with keywords, which I then could lay out in the order I thought I might use the facts, quotes, or whatever, but which easily could be reordered as needed.

For the fiction enterprise, I got in the habit of sketching out ideas for coming action in notes at the end of a chapter in progress or in a separate Word document. It helps for remembering little insights and bright ideas.

But it’s not very efficient.

Recently it struck me that one of those Word docs full of ideas and notes was beginning to resemble a plot outline. I’m about ten chapters in to what probably will be a 25- to 30-chapter novel. The ten chapters in hand aren’t in order — there are gaps, and they represent several subplots.

Those gaps and uncertainties, I realized, could be wrangled by transferring the material to notecards. This makes it possible to shuffle chapters around, to move them from one section of the line of action to another, and to add or delete items easily.

So I ended up with something I called a “timeline.” It’s not exactly a plot outline, at least not yet: at this point it’s just a rough chronological arrangement of imagined events. The events in the timeline are narrated in the chapters.

Each event in the timeline has a notecard, numbered and color-coded in blue-green ink.

Notecard1Each chapter also has a notecard. These are color-coded in magenta ink — easy to distinguish at a glance) and also coded for their specific place in the timeline, shown on the chapter’s timeline card.

Notecard3Each chapter card also bears, in brown ink, a note of which subplot the chapter contributes to. Chapter 2 is a series of vignettes, and so it contributes to several of the novel’s subplots. Whether this last flourish will ever be useful, I don’t know…but it can’t hurt. Could come in handy someday.

The segment of the action shown on Timeline Card 1 comprises four chapters showing the homeward journey of a group of war bands. Longer, more elaborate notes reside in a Word document — these notecards with their coded notes (such as TL 1) point straight to the relevant section of that .docx file containing the details.

Notecards4,jpgSo this stack of about 40 cards (so far: it will grow much larger) amounts to a kind of movable feast. It simplifies keeping track of the action, and it also makes adjusting or even hugely reorganizing the plot fairly easy. And it’s tactile: something you can handle and shuffle around.

I’ve never tried to use something like this for fiction. Should be interesting to see how it works.