Before you get all excited about this post, know this. I'm just learning how to plot and am quickly putting together a simplified, streamlined version of all plotting templates that I have found online and in books. One that works for me. For now. I expect it will change and keep changing in the near future as I keep learning. I intend to read every book on plotting out there (or as many as I can), until I puke plot out of my ears and out of everywhere else. I want to saturate my mind with it until it can take no more, and maybe then I'll stop and reevaluate everything I've learned.
However, having warned you, know something else too.
I'M TERRIBLY EXCITED TO SHARE MY PLOTTING TIPS WITH YOU!
When I was starting out to write my first novel, I read about plotting, but nothing sunk in my head for long enough to stay there. Maybe I wasn't ready, maybe it didn't make sense to me. Either way, the terms and the explanations were so alien and complex that I couldn't grasp them. I understood what they meant, but I didn't understand how to apply it to my writing. I hope what I'll outline below will help you if you're grappling with the same issue. If you just google plotting template images, your mind will reel from everything you see. And I wish I would stumble on such a simplified version of the plotting process when I was starting out. I wish. Although ironically, I see how my writing career is fitting into the plotting summary I have outlined. I'm smack at the rock bottom at the moment. You'll see.
I have decided to construct a very simple process that I can follow from start to finish, from one word to the finished book, from the simplest to the most complex. In a way it's similar to the snowflake method, but instead of expanding outwardly from the center, mine is expanding from the tip of the iceberg to its very bottom, the biggest part of it that you can't see under all the dark, frozen water. Ready? Here we go.
Start with one word. A single word. What do you want to write about? It can't be a sock, sorry. It has to be an emotion or a concept connected to an emotion, to an emotional truth about the world, YOUR emotional truth about YOUR world, not someone else's. Otherwise it's not a theme, it's preaching. It could be anything. Love. Revenge. Fear. Bravery. Loneliness. Only one word is not a theme. One word is what you want to write ABOUT, it's what YOUR TRUTH is about, but not the truth itself. Not yet. YOUR TRUTH, and your theme, is what you want to share with people via your book. Note: share, not preach. We're sick of having morals being shoved down our throats. We want to know a new truth about the world, to understand ourselves better. So. What is that truth? Something that bothers you, something that doesn't let you sleep. For example, if you picked the word "fear," then perhaps your theme is, "Face your fears." Think about this long and hard. This is your novel's skeleton. You need it to be solid in order for you to hang flesh on it later, then skin, then clothe it and make it presentable to your readers. If it has no skeleton, no matter how pretty you try to make it, it will collapse.
2. CHARACTER ARCS.
After you pick out the theme, you need to figure out who you're going to be writing about. People. Some people you imagine. Characters. The whole point of writing the book is writing about people who change. They start out weak, they end strong. How many characters, where, at what time, all this is not as important as the character arcs. It's nothing scary. It's very simple. You pick out what you want your character to be at the end. Note: if you don't know where to end, you'll have a hard time starting. Let's say, it's the same theme, "Face your fears." Then let's say, we will write a book about a Russian girl Katya. Katya is afraid of cockroaches. So at the end of the book we want her to be brave. Great. That's the end of the arc. What's the beginning? The opposite of that. Katya is scared. Now that you have the end and the beginning, what's the middle? The middle is where the character changes from reacting to acting. So, Katya decides to face her fear. See, there is our theme, right there. Later you can do the same process for all your characters. For now this will suffice.
3. THREE ACTS.
The oldest storytelling formula there is very simple: every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Or three acts: Act 1 (Setup), Act 2 (Conflict), Act 3 (Resolution). Act 1 is showing us how the character lives at the moment (and probably has been for a long time). Act 2 is showing us how a conflict has forced the character to change. Act 3 is showing us how the changed character is going to live from now on. So what we need to do now is take out character arc and fit it into three acts, one sentence each. Let's do it for Katya:
- Act 1 (Setup): Katya is terrified of cockroaches (scared).
- Act 2 (Conflict): People in Katya's village Tarakanovo change to cockroaches (facing fear).
- Act 3 (Resolution): Katya becomes a cockroach queen and rules the village (brave).
Or something. This is turning into a horror story quickly. Let's do another try.
- Act 1 (Setup): Katya is terrified of cockroaches (scared).
- Act 2 (Conflict): Katya's apartment is invaded by hordes of cockroaches (facing fear).
- Act 3 (Resolution): Katya reroutes all cockroaches to her neighbor (brave).
Haha! Yes! This is the story of revenge! Oh wait, we were supposed to write about fear. Anyway, you get the point. The point is, genres don't matter. You can write a romance story about Katya, and still your theme would be "Face your fears." The skeleton will remain the same, see? We can hang anything we want on it. But enough about this. Now that you have your three acts, let's expand them.
4. SEVEN PARTS.
Every fairy tale you have read adheres to this structure. It's very simple, and yet inside it it contains the three acts outlines above. Here it is.
- Once upon a time... This is a hook, the opening line of your story where you summarize the entire story for us. Yes, you read it right. Think about it. It's how we tell stories. "My car got broken into last night." Oh, no! What happened?" "Well, we went out with Katya to get that insect spray, and then..." You see how we already know what happened? It's natural. Stephen King does it all the time, "The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed," as do lots of writers. Just look at the most famous novel opening lines. If they don't state directly the content of the book, they state it metaphorically, or they even state the theme. The opening line tells you how the book is going to end, it hooks you. How you choose to do it, is up to you. But this is the most important sentence you will write, so better sweat over it. So, back to Katya. "Once upon a time there lived Katya Zaitseva who was very afraid of cockroaches after her mother dropped one into her kasha." Or something. Maybe Katya loved playing with cockroaches when she was little, and her mother decided to punish her.
- And every day... This is the part where we describe Katya's boring life. "Every day Katya battled her fear of cockroaches because her nasty alcoholic mother hung paintings of cockroaches all over their shabby Moscow apartment that was so empty and cold, no self-respecting cockroaches ever lived there."
- Until one day... Uh-oh. Some shit happens! "Until one day cockroaches started spilling into the apartment from every hole!" What will happen?? This is the first turning point of the plot, but don't worry about it for now. I will outline it in simple steps later. Just keep reading.
- And because of this... "Katya's nasty alcoholic mother fled the apartment and left Katya all alone perched on the wardrobe, terrified out of her mind."
- And because of this... "Katya got pissed off at the cockroaches who stole her apartment and climbed down and stepped on them and squished them, but they quickly forced her back up on the old tattered armchair. Oh no! Katya has spent an agonizing hour there."
- Until finally... "Katya looked around a found a box of yucky yellow paste that kills cockroaches and that her mother was sniffing to get high. She made a yellow road out of it on the wooden floor. It led directly to the bathroom where there was a hole in the wall to neighbor Nikita Petrovich who would always feel Katya's behind with his fat hairy fingers when they rode the elevator together. "There you go, Nikita Petrovich," said Katya. And all cockroaches followed the yellow road, dying on the way, and the ones that were left got Nikita Petrovich in his sleep.
- And then since that day... "Katya lived alone in her apartment, and Nikita Petrovich croaked. They said he had a heart attack. The end."
Now let me unpack these seven parts and show you how to expand your three acts into them.
1. Setup. Katya is scared. This is the hook of your story, to get the reader interested. Your character's starting point of the arc.
2. Turn 1. This is the part where something nasty happens.
3. Pinch 1. This is the part where another nasty thing happens to force Katya to act. She's not wanting to act yet. She's reacting.
4. Midpoint. Katya decides to face her fears. This is the part where Katya changes from reacting to acting.
5. Pinch 2. This is the point where Katya's fears, or cockroaches, or both, push back.
6. Turn 2. This is the point where Katya fights the cockroaches till death.
7. Resolution. Katya is brave! This is what Katya's life will look like from now on.
You will find the seven points in most plotting templates, the Archplot that is the most common one, and the tent one (the turning points the tent stand on), and so forth. I won't include them all here, they're all the same everywhere. I have simplified them for myself, and I fill them out in the following order:
7. Resolution. Paste the end of Katya's arc here. Where do we want Katya to be? Katya is brave!
1. Setup. Paste the beginning of Katya's arc here. What's the opposite of brave? Katya is scared.
4. Midpoint. Paste the middle of Katya's arc here. Katya decides to face her fears.
2. Turn 1. What conflict happens that kicks Katya out of her measly cozy world? Put it here.
6. Turn 2. What last missing piece does Katya get that helps her win over her fear? Put it here.
3. Pinch 1. How do bad guys (or cockroaches) pressure Katya into action? Put it here.
5. Pinch 2. How do bad guys apply even more pressure? Put it here.
This is of course a very simplified version of everything I've read so far, condensed. And finally, after you got seven points filled out, one sentence each, you can expand them into thirteen points of the plotting summary that you can then use as a guide and start writing your first draft that should roughly end up as 26 chapters.
13 PARTS (26+ CHAPTERS)
Here is where you add stages between plot points, or turns. Out of all the names I've seen, a stage makes the most sense to me. I've played in the theater, I've been around the stage for as long as I can remember myself, singing, dancing, doing whatever, so it made sense to me that the flat parts of the plot that lead from one point to another would be called "Stage," and the points would be called "Turn," like a stage turning upside down to a new decoration. I have also looked at all the descriptions of the turns and the stages, and the names like HERO and VILLAIN and PROTAGONIST and ANTAGONIST, and then I compared it to grieving stages and learning stages, and it's really all the same stuff. The stuff of living and dying. The stuff of learning something new by coming close to death. So I have settled on names like Old Self (Katya is scared), New Self (Katya is brave!), New Selves (those who have been through what Katya was about to taste, there are none in this story, but they're usually mentors or villains), Old World (apartment without cockroaches), New World (apartment with cockroaches and then without them ever coming back), Summary (I view the story as a wheel, all my stories end where they sort of began, so I follow the formula of storytelling, "Here is what the story will be about," "Here is the story," "Here is what the story was about," so opening and closing lines are about the same, summaries).
⁃ One sentence: Once upon a time…
2. Stage 1
⁃ Old self in old world: And every day…
3. Turn 1
⁃ Old world dies, new world born: Until one day…
4. Stage 2
⁃ Old self looks for old world: And because of this…
5. Turn 2
⁃ Old self meets new selves: And because of this…
6. Stage 3
⁃ New selves guide old self to new world: And because of this…
7. Turn 3
⁃ New selves leave old self alone: And because of this…
8. Stage 4
⁃ Old self enters new world: And because of this…
9. Turn 4
⁃ New world rejects old self: And because of this…
10. Stage 5
⁃ Old self sacrifices itself: And because of this…
11. Turn 5
⁃ Old self dies, new self born: Until finally…
12. Stage 6
⁃ New self in new world: And then since that day…
⁃ One sentence: Till the end of time…
And the diagram that makes most sense to me to illustrate it is the dip, like on the cover of THE DIP by Seth Godin. So you go and go and go, and BAM! you stumble into a dip and roll down to the very bottom and them climb out of it with the help of others (or not) and keep going (alone), having learned something new, and then bring it to the other side of the dip. You're out!
Now, I know this whole post must be too much to process if you haven't done plotting before, so let me do another post where I will share with you TUBE's finished plot summary that fits into everything above, and you will see how it works. The reason I didn't like to include heroes and villains in my formula is simple. The typical Arch Plot is based on conquering and winning over the VILLAIN. The world VILLAIN doesn't signify to me an internal demon, for example. Or a whole bouquet of external forces. So it was easier for me to use the idea of the new world. There could be inner demons there, there could be real monsters. it doesn't matter. They all fit in it.
There you have it! Typing all this actually just double-fried my brain. It's already been fried by all the plotting, but I promised you that I will do it. My main sources for this post were: