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.
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.
If 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.
Each 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.
Each 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.
So 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.