Wednesday, March 5, 2014

How I Became a Plotter: Sticky Notes

This is a long one, people. You have been warned.
Actual image of my sticky note rainbow.

So can I just take a second to emphasize the absolute life-saving necessity of a good solid plot outline? Even as a pantser I scribbled out a basic plot outline because if I tried to hold all the ideas, subplots, character interactions, and chronology inside my brain I never would have been able to organize it all into something even remotely cohesive.

As a plotter-in-training, I had big plans to outline with so much detail that all I would have to do is add some descriptive words and dialogue and I'd have a first draft. Boom.

Once I got over that delusion, I worked up a more realistic approach:

1. I wrote three headings along the top of my white board: Act 1, Act 2, Act 3.
Now, there is some debate about the 3-Act Structure and whether it is the best way to go about writing a novel. I think, maybe, this argument stems from people not wanting to trap writing/creativity into any kind of formula - which I get - but, personally, I think it's nice to have guidelines to learn from and expand on. Anyway, there are plenty of other 'structures' you can follow, this is the one I picked.

2. Along the top of the white board - beneath the "Act" headings - I listed what should occur in each act.
I used the character arc exercise here and a 3-Act structure template I can't seem to find now* and plugged in the following:

Act 1
   Reveal M.C. flaws (character arc)
   The Call/Inciting Moment (plot structure)
   1st disaster (plot structure)
Act 2
   Introduce Moral opposite (character arc)
   Attempted Solution/2nd disaster (plot structure)
   Inward training (character arc)
   3rd disaster/internal failure (plot structure)
Act 3
   Big Choice (character arc)
   Solution/Resolution (plot structure)

3. Along the left side of my white board I listed every plot, subplot, relationship, behind-the-scenes plots, I thought was important.

Here is a generic list based on mine:

M.C. main goal
M.C. secondary goal
M.C. friendship with supporting character
M.C. relationship with other supporting character
Antagonists goal/plans
Supporting character's relationships with each other
Other subplots

4. I drew vertical lines separating the plot moments and stuff, pulled out my sticky notes and a pen, and closed the door.

5. I pulled up the exercise from my previous post and started plugging the info I'd gathered there into the appropriate places on my white board outline/grid.

6.I took about three days to do this.
Partly because, kids. (Who knew they needed to eat and stuff, psht.) But also because I got stuck a couple times. The beauty of sticky notes is you can write whatever you like, see if it works, and if it doesn't: unstick, crumple, throw away. I have also become a big advocate of flow charts for working out questions/problems that arise. I may have to get into that in another post.

Whew! So that's my big outline. I refer to it just about every writing day. Just seeing it all laid out in a rainbow of sticky notes keeps me from getting discouraged because the whole story is already there, it just needs a little fattening up.

Does my method not quite work for you? Check out some more outlining gloriousness:

The many faces of plot structure - Beyond the three act structure.
Beat sheeting template - Screenwriter's method for laying out plot. Definitely trying this next time.
More beat sheeting info
All about mini plots - Breaking down each SCENE. Now we're getting crazy. Watch out.

*Google Image "plot structure" and you will find a bazillion templates
**I added setting after I was all done, but I think it's incredibly important. Yes, you can just throw your characters anywhere in the world that you've created for them, but why not have the setting reflect the mood of that moment. For instance: Your M.C. meets with a shady new character for unknown reasons. Could they meet in an alley? Sure. But what if they met in a foggy cemetery, playing up the mystery of the moment and foreshadowing a possible fatal outcome?

Previous Post: Working Out an initial Plot Outline
Next Time: Getting Unstuck (aka The Flow Chart)