I was listening to the radio a while ago and heard a writer talking about plotting a novel, a crime novel. He stressed the fact that he wrote out scene details on pieces of paper, different colours for different sub plots, and stuck them up all over the walls of the room he wrote in. He spent some time rearranging them periodically to see how the parts balanced and to discover what the order should be. He said, as well, that many writers use the technique.

All of this was news to me.  I don’t plot anything, and I don’t use little pieces of paper to check balance or order. I do, however, carry a little book in my car, so when I’m stopped, enjoying a cup of coffee in some park or other, I jot down ideas that have been floating around, usually concerning a problem I haven’t yet solved.  The results are often less than stunning, but the process seems to focus my attention on something I should pay attention to and don’t want to.

I’ve written  novels without solving one of these problems. For instance, in my second novel, I don’t know what my murderer does with the clothes of the girls he murders. I won’t go into why the clothes aren’t with the girl. Just accept that they aren’t since my killer took them with him. I have to find out why he did that and where they went. At least he’d been consistent, doing that every time he killed. So there’s a pattern anybody could see. I see it alright, I just can’t account for it. I’m sometimes as much in the dark about my character’s motivation as any reader would be, and I’m the one who created him in the first place!  I know, I know. that makes little sense, but there it is. So for me, plotting on paper beforehand or even during, doesn’t help. I let the character become who he is, sometimes in spite of me, and then I have to try to understand why his actions are as they are. It’s frustrating.

I haven’t solved that little problem of the clothes yet, and the novel’s finished and in its second edit. I’m still messing with it, of course, and I have to solve the clothes thing somehow. Since I couldn’t in the second novel, I had my killer escape the final attempt to catch him. That meant a third novel, which is now over half done, and I’m no closer to an answer.  A recent plan was to have the character caught and when questioned about the clothes, have him explain it to the dumb cops. But that doesn’t get me out of the jam since I still don’t know why the clothes must go or where they must go to. Now, I’ve decided to kill him off in a large park somewhere, a big shootout and a really exciting ending! If I can’t explain his actions, at least I can distract my readers and maybe they’ll ignore that little point.

I’m not sure whether what I’ve been talking about has anything to do with plotting, but I feel that narrative structure evolves: no excessive plotting, characters sometimes out of my control, and problems, lots of problems. Somehow, though, things eventually right themselves.

I do have to admit, however, that I spend a lot of time rearranging sections of my novels to try to fit the stuff together in a way that will make sense to a reader. Maybe if I planned a little beforehand, I’d save myself some time and stress. But it just isn’t how I work, so I don’t plan much, other than a vague outline of what I intend. Sometime when I feel stuck, I’ll maybe give the planning thing a try.

Admit it. Plotting a novel can be a bitch. You start down the path all plucky and excited to translate your beautiful novel onto the page, and what happens? Characters fall flat. Tension fizzles out. Scenes go nowhere. And climax ideas feel, well, anticlimactic.

Pretty soon the cursor on your screen has been blinking so long you’d swear it’s trying to hypnotize you into some plot-devoid pit of despair.

That’s why it pays to have a few plot tools like these in your back pocket.

Last week, we covered three renowned novelists’ trust-your-writing plot tips from the online writing course through University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop, How Writers Write Fiction.

Get caught up if you missed them. They’re definitely worth the look, especially if you prefer a more organic—or what some would call the “panster”—approach to writing.

Today, though, we’re covering plot tips for planners. Outline-lovers. Structure-o-philes. Whatever we call ourselves. These plot tools—from How Writers Write Fiction lecturer, Bruce Elgin—will feel like the writers tool belt for anyone who gets the willies from hitting the blank page unprepared.

Even if you love the panster approach (it’s my go-to for short and flash fiction writing), these tools may save your story next time you’re stuck. Hey, we’re all writers here. Getting stuck happens.

What I loved best about Elgin’s lecture on writing and plot is that, like last week’s novelist lineup, he says it’s important to trust you’re writing. But then he hands over a ton of great tools to help you get unstuck anyway.

Here are some of my favorites.

Unstick Your Plot Tool #1: Define Character Desire vs Need

Many would argue that what really powers the character-driven story is the tension between your main character’s desire versus his need. Character arc happens naturally when you pit these two together. And it’s when the character finally overcomes the flaw inherent to his need that signals the end of their story arc.

Right about now, you probably want to know what the heck character desire versus need is. Here’s Elgin’s straightforward explanation:

Character desire = the character’s outer goal (the big thing they’re after in the story)

Character need = the inner block or flaw that needs to change and, often, stands in the way of the character’s desire

Unstick Your Plot Tool #2: Write The Log Line

Sometimes we writers get stuck just because we’re not sure what our story is really about. Enter the log line technique.

Here, Elgin says, you sum your story up in a single line. And it usually has to do with your main characters external goal (their desire, if you read tool #1).

This is how to write yours: protagonist + antagonist + what’s at stake = your log line.

The log line can help you boil your story down to its main drama. And knowing that can keep you on track until The End.

Unstick Your Plot Tool #3: Sequence Structure the Second Act

Ugh, the dreaded middle. Why are the first and third acts so much easier to write than that quicksand mess of an act II?

Too many writers get lost in the middle of their story without this plot tool to help them write their way out. Elgin says that messy middle of an act II doesn’t have to be a monster. Instead, break act II down into 3-4 mini sequences, each with their own three acts.

Elgin gives the credit of this technique to author, Chris Soth of the book, Million-Dollar Screenwriting (affiliate link).

Need an easy way to approach sequence structuring? Think up three obstacles between your main character and their goal. Then take the main character through each obstacle in a short sequence that ends in failure or on a cliffhanger.

That cliffhanger ending has the added benefit of keeping your readers turning the page.

Unstick Your Plot Tool #4: Follow the Causal Chain

Every action produces a reaction. That’s true in physics. It’s true in human relationships. And it goes double for fiction. Real life is random. Unpredictable. But in fiction everything needs to happen for a reason if you want the story to feel real. Writers who want to create a satisfying experience for their readers observe this law of causality.

Causality,  or what causes what, holds the events of your story together. So isolate each event, and follow it to its logical consequences. You may find you’ve finished your novel’s climax before you know it.

Unstick Your Plot Tool #5: Start at the End (aka The Backward Pass)

This plotting tool is similar to causal chaining above. Except, with the backward pass, you write your story’s ending first.

Ask yourself what your story’s final scene should look like. What are your characters doing and why? Get it clear in your mind or draft it down. Next? Ask yourself what had to happen in the scene before it to bring your story here.

You’ll take your story backward like this, scene by scene, deciding what must have come before to cause present events. For some, this backward look makes it easier to see the story. Plus, bonus! It ensures you meet causality and get all its wonderful benefits outlined above.

The Bottom Line

No matter your approach to writing, whether you’re a panster or a planner, every writer needs a few tools to help them get unstuck once in awhile. Keep these and other plot tools like them in your back pocket for the next time you need to get your story back on track. And, if you’re feeling generous, share them with a friend. By Mandy Wallace

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