by Greta Boris
None of the cool kids plot.
I began my writing career (before it was a career) as a pantser. For some reason it seemed more “writerly.” Didn’t Steven King criticize James Patterson, or maybe it was Dean Koontz, or maybe both of them, for plotting their novels? I quickly—by quickly I mean three terrible novels, or approximately 280,000 wasted words later—discovered I’m not a smorgasbord kind of girl. I must plot.
When there are too many choices, I lose my appetite.
Pendulum swing. I pulled out color coded 3×5 cards, took two plotting classes, read three books on the topic, and dove in. Then I plotted the life out of a story. I wrote down so many details, I had no interest in fleshing them out. The whole thing was a bore.
Since that time, my pendulum has been swinging in ever-decreasing arcs. Recently, I arrived between the forty yard lines where, I’m told, most of the game is played. For me, it’s a sweet spot. I have perimeters, but I still have room to experiment.
I was too busy teaching and hobnobbing to attend more than a few workshops at the Southern California Writers Conference in September. But I did get to two that were pivotal: Ara Grigorian’s class on story beats and Seth Wagerman’s class on character development. And I attended them back-to-back, which was what really made the magic happen. My realization was character and structure are the perimeters, the yard lines, between which our work can bounce.
But back to the food analogy. I’m better at food than football.
A flexible meal-plan works best for me.
For a balanced meal, you need two things: protein and carbohydrates. For a balanced story, you need characters and structure. It may seem the possibilities are endless, but they’re not. There are only so many basic personality types. If we learn them, we won’t be mixing up fish and fowl.
The same is true for story structure. Whether you’re a fan of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, the screenplay approach of Save the Cat, or James Scott Bell’s Write Your Novel From the Middle, we must agree that story is more than a sequence of events. There must be inciting incidents, hooks, plot turns, mirror moments, black nights, and grand battles. And they must occur in the right places.
The Plot Menu is born
What I’m about to describe is a method of organizing all the thoughts you ALREADY have about your story. It applies when your research is done, story lines and scenes have been jostling around in your brain, and the characters have been whispering their secrets in your ear.
I’d been noodling around with book three in my series, had plotted out several ideas, knew who my characters were, but it was a mess. Consequently, I was having a hard time sitting down and getting any real writing done.
But my brain started firing as I sat in those two workshops. When I got home from the conference, I pulled out a spreadsheet. The old-fashioned kind, on green paper, and got to work. If you’d like to follow along on your own spreadsheet, you can download one here: Plot Menu Spreadsheet
The first thing I had to decide was who my main characters were. Not their names, ages, physical descriptions, etc… Although all that’s important, it’s not important to the plot. What’s important to the plot is their particular personality profiles.
- What drives your character?
- What do they want out of life?
- What’s their greatest flaw?
- What do they admire in others?
These characteristics will determine the kinds of decisions they make, and their decisions are what push the story forward.
The next choice I had to make was the story structure method I intended to use. This was easy. Three acts with the second act divided into two parts makes the most sense to me. It’s more, or less, as follows:
- Act one: Hook, inciting incident, and the step across the threshold
- Act two A: Resisting the new world, pinch point, and mirror moment
- Act two B: Proactive change, pinch point, and false victory
- Act three: Set-back, dark night of the soul, final battle, denouement
Four rows on my spreadsheet represented the above division of acts for my main character. Other POV characters get their own row, see below.
Now for the columns:
- Column 1: The driver. Primary motivation driving this act
- Column 2: Personality traits, history, desires being highlighted in this act
- Columns 3 – 6: Set pieces. This is where you describe the hook, inciting incident, the step across the threshold, or any other scenes, or information that must be included in this act. (You can add columns here if you have more scenes in your brain, but try to keep your menu small and succinct. That’s the beauty of it.)
- Column 7: Transition: Primary motivation for moving to the next act.
Side characters need to eat too.
If you have side characters with their own points of view, give them their own rows. Their information is divided by cells instead of columns.
- Cell 1: Their driver. Primary motivation in story.
- Cell 2: Their personality type. What defines them?
- Cells 3-6 respectively: Must accomplish in Act 1, Act 2A, Act 2B, Act 3
- Cell 7: Their wrap-up
I keep the Plot Menu in my novel’s notebook and pull it out regularly. I wrote it in pencil so I can add and delete as I go. If I’m not sure what the pinch point should be in Act 2A until half way through Act 1, no problem. I add it in. The menu reminds me it needs to be there.
The process works for me because it limits my choices. I don’t get overwhelmed by decisions and lose my appetite for the story. But it’s not so detailed I’m sick of my options before I even start.
If you’re having a hard time finding your own planning/plotting method, give it a try and let me know what you think. If you have another method you swear by, share it!
Greta Boris is the author of the 2017 releases, A Margin of Lust and The Scent of Wrath, the first two books in her 7 Deadly Sins domestic suspense series. Her nonfiction work includes the Amazon Bestseller The Wine and Chocolate Workout – Sip, Savor, and Strengthen for a Healthier Life and Aspiring to Author – A Guide for Your Publishing Career. She’s also the Director of O.C. Writers, a community of over 900 published and aspiring authors in Orange County, California.
You can visit her at http://gretaboris.com. She describes her work (and her life) as an O.C. housewife meets Dante’s Inferno.