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!