Rethinking a Plotting System…Again

As I get closer to finishing the Breakout Novel workbook, my thoughts are jumping forward to starting the next draft of the WIP. Meaning, of course, they’re jumping into that not-so-little puddle of worry that even this draft, with all the work I’ve done, will still feel tangled and messy. Meaning, of course, that I’m trying to visualize myself organizing scenes, drawing out character arcs, laying out a nice, tidy order of events into which the actual words will just flow.

Hey, I can dream, right?

Plot is my burden, my battle, and my quest.

Every time I start a different project, I find myself searching for the plot system that will work. For me. Forever. I read blogs about plot, I play with my whiteboard, I picture myself with the perfect set of index cards that I basically toss into the air then watch settle happily into place…a place from which I can write.

I know that part of the “problem” is that, as a reader, I don’t really notice plot much. I’ve probably said this here before, but I can read the same mystery three times (okay, years apart, but still…) and not figure out whodunnit. What gets me when I read is the character dynamics, the interactions, the layers of personalities that play out on each other. And those are the pieces I really love about writing. Unfortunately, the best character studies fall flat without story. This, I get.

So…this time around, here’s what I’m thinking.

  • I’m going to read Save the Cat. I’ve been hearing about it for years, and lately Debbi Michiko Florence has been singing its praises. I’m going to see if there’s a takeaway for me that’ll push me forward this time around.
  • I’ll troll through Robin LaFevers’ blog posts, because I know she’s got some great plot stuff.
  • I’m thinking about index cards a little differently. Maybe I’ve missed this before, while everybody else got it (very possible), but I always get confused about who goes on what color card. I mean, my hero is in EVERY SCENE, right? So when does a blue card get assigned to one supporting character and the yellow one to another? What I’m thinking is that maybe those are the background stories, the plot lines that happen off-scene, that we don’t actually see. The events and actions that impact my hero IN the scenes that make it to the page. So I’m thinking green for every on-stage scene, with Caro’s plot points on the cards. Then, oh, purple for her BFF, yellow and blue for the brothers, red for her mother, etc. But the other colors track the back story, the arc of the other characters–what they’re doing while Caro runs around in the foreground crashing into obstacles. Yes? Maybe? If anyone out there realizes this has always been the way to use index cards, and that I’m a clueless wonder for not having realized it before, please feel free to let me know. Nicely.
  • See what I can do with Scrivener. As I go through the workbook, I have been tossing scene cards into Scrivener. Maybe I’ll work with my new index card system in this application. I do have a dread of getting all the physical index cards laid out on the floor, forgetting to close my office door, in comes the cat, and….poof! I’m not sure there’d BE any saving the cat, at that point.
  • Steal ideas. Here’s where you come in. I know a lot of you don’t plot. To be honest, I don’t actually want to hear from you guys right now. Except, you know, in sympathy and support. BUT…those of you who, like me, want a structured home to pour the stories into, who’ve managed–at least once–to build that home and have it work, how about sharing? Pretty please? With a cherry on top?

Yes, I know there is no perfect system. Yes, I know plot is a living, breathing, kicking and biting thing that resists any attempts to tame it. Does this mean I’m not going to try? Nah. I’ll look around, play with what I find, heave a deep sigh, and dig in. But I’d really love it if I had a shovel that at least has a sharp edge and an unbroken handle, that didn’t give me splinters or fall apart when it hit the first rock. So if any of you have a tool you’ve used and like, do, please drop it into the comments. With my thanks!




  1. Jenn Hubbard says:

    Well, you know I don’t do *detailed* outlines, that I’m more of a pantser. But I do have a few simple approaches to plot:

    The main conflict should arise from the character’s main flaw. Therefore, if the character is selfish, he will be challenged to be generous. If she’s too timid, she will have to take a risk. etc. A variation on this: the main character must lose (or have put at risk) the thing s/he values the most, whether it’s a physical object, a loved one, something of less concrete value like reputation. etc. (This is if you’re trying to figure out the crisis/climax of the book.)

    Every scene should take us somewhere–the character should learn or do something, whether internal or external, whether it’s a step forward or backward. No scene should be static.

    I sometimes start with a very simple outline, just numbered 1 -10, and figure out what the main crisis/climax is. I put that at #9, leaving #10 for denouement. Then I put the starting gun, the event that sets things in motion, at #1. Then I figure out what big things must happen around points #3 and #6, then fill in the rest from there. I seldom stick to this “outline”–often I don’t even look at it again–but it gives me a sense of where I’m going, so that I don’t just wander around or stall out.

    No one plotline should go on for too long without taking a break for a subplot to come in. So if the main plot is A and the two subplots are B and C, my scenes might map out like this: A A B A B A A C A B A A B C A C A B … with A predominating, but never going too long without B or C cropping up.

    I have no idea if this is the kind of thing you’re looking for. Good luck!


  2. I find ‘The Hero’s Journey’ by Joseph Campbell extremely helpful for plotting. I believe that is what ‘Save the Cat’ refers to as well 🙂 there are 12 specific stages your character moves through…it has always helped me not get lost!


    • beckylevine says:

      I’ve read The Hero’s Journey, and I agree it’s a must-read, in terms of the overall arc. I’m hoping Save the Cat will help me fill in that middle with some more concrete plotting steps.


  3. I too have a hard time with plot. As mentioned with your mystery reading example, most people are more concerned with story. Plot is just the order of events. This person goes here. That person says this. The villain does that. The meat of it all, the layers, the ‘why” is all story. That’s so much more interesting. No two writers would write the same story even if they used the exact same plot. So, it’s always been a struggle from me to know that I need to get from point A to C in a story and go through point B in between because I often don’t know how to motivate it. I plot one thing but then my characters want to do something else. Trying to force them to stick to the plot leads to all kinds of failure. I did find some aspects of Save the Cat helpful, but I think most writers will find it to be oversimplified and a geared toward a certain type of action oriented story.
    For me, any plot begins by figuring the major dramatic question of the story. Will the hero save the girl, Can the child survive a night in the haunted house, Can the lawyer/cop/detective change a corrupt system without becoming corrupt herself, etc. When you know the central question you then have an idea of theme. You also know the climax because it will answer the question raised. You know the first act has to lead to this question being asked. Something dramatic has to change in their lives to get them or the audience to ask the question. You know that Act II consists of the protagonist trying to answer the question one way and the antagonistic forces trying to answer the question the other. You then know that answering the question changes the life of the protagonist, and Act III is where you have to demonstrate that change.


    • beckylevine says:

      Cassidy, I like that idea of Act II being the protaonist & antagonist coming at the question differently. Thanks!


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