Now, I know that there are people out there who hear me talking about planning and plotting out a story, and they might gloss over it and think that this is a simple part of the process. But it isn't. In fact, it's one of the most important parts of the writing process that there is, and it's something that we all need to really concentrate and focus on before we even begin writing all of the other elements of our story. It will tell you what you're most excited about writing, how to connect one event to another in a thoughtful and realistic way, and how to get rid of some of those scenes that you can probably toss out before you waste time even writing them out beyond a few notes.
I wish that I could tell you how my brain works when it comes to expanding on an idea and putting all of the experiences together in a sequential order that will make sense and draw in your readers to follow your story all the way to the end. But the truth is, I don't really know how I do it. I just gather my thoughts, look at the blank screen and the keyboard, and it just makes a certain kind of sense to me. It would be like asking someone how they're able to play the piano, or ice skate, or dance. There really isn't a science to it, but you can develop instincts that will make things easier and easier over time if you keep practicing. As always, practice is everything. Putting a story plot together isn't always easy, but it's essential to know how everything is structured from beginning to end. So don't downplay its importance when you get started.
For this article, we're talking about story plotting, and how to make it work for you in the most effective ways possible. You see...most people go into a story with a very vague idea of what they want to accomplish by the time they finish writing their story. Nothing wrong with that. I used to do that too when I first started out. But over time, I learned how to sharpen that focus and become more detailed in guiding my ideas in certain directions when writing a new project. Or even just a single chapter in a much larger series. I truly believe that it makes a difference in the overall presentation. Think about it like the difference between walking towards a specific tree in the middle of a wide open park...and wandering aimlessly through an entire forest of trees at random. It just helps to know where you are, where you're going, and what your goals are, ahead of time. Done right...you can use that as a literary compass to create an engaging experience for all of your readers, and really use your fiction to make a significant impact that will last long after the story ends.
So...buckle up, folks! Let's talk about story plotting!
On the site, I have a story called "Jesse-101: Online Celebrity" that I want to use as my example for this particular exercise. Now..."Jesse-101" isn't finished yet, so...to avoid spoilers for future chapters...I'm just going to throw in some ludicrous bullshit along the way to fill everything in and make it sound like a completed story, even though it isn't...YET. Hehehe! K?
Now, for those of you who don't know, I once had a week long contest on the main Shack Forum (https://www.voy.com/15900/), because we love to play games over there! Hehehe! And I decided to test everybody's 'gaydar'! I posted videos of really cute boys doing vlogs and skits, etc...and I asked everybody watching whether or not they thought the boys were gay or straight. Just by watching their mannerisms, listening to their content, and getting a feel for who they were in a series of videos. I knew the answers ahead of time, of course...but I kept it a secret. Just to see what my readers would guess for themselves. Some were a little off, and some did better than they thought they would. Anyway, it was this exercise and these Youtube channels that led to the creation of "Jesse-101". It's a story about a teen boy that develops a huge crush on a big Youtube influencer, and discovers that he's not only openly gay, but that he only lives a quick bus ride away from him, and is definitely within reach, if only he could find the courage to go for it and take a chance at finding that dreamy boy that he randomly saw online.
So...how do I plot this story out? I know what I want to happen, and I have an idea of how I'd love for things to play out, right? I get some ideas in my head, and I come up with some kind of basic idea of the story that I want to write. I'm creating a daydream scenario for my readers...and I want it to really touch on things that makes the whole fantasy feel real and enjoyable. So I begin taking notes. Nothing too specific...just notes. Where do I want to start? Where do I want it to end? And what am I trying to say? It's all about emotion. How would I feel in this particular situation? It's important to think about this stuff, because I'm trying to get my audience to feel the same way, right? And that means making a game plan that I can look at and actually SEE in order to complete my 'mission' of putting a good story together.
There are people who don't need to type their plans out for their story...but I, personally, like to see the words on the screen. I like to take handwritten notes on paper. I want to have a visible document of what I had in mind when I was trapped in the moment and locked into the creative process. Even if I don't use half of those ideas in the actual story, I like having a representation of where my head was at during the creative process. So I suggest that you keep a 'junk file' somewhere in whatever word processor you use to write your stories. If you get an idea online, or a witty 'back and forth' moment of dialogue, or an idea or concept for a new story and you decide not to use it right away...open that junk file and save it for later. You'll be surprised at how many random and fleeting ideas just hit you out of nowhere...and have the potential to be seen as an absolute GENIUS choice for this story (or possibly another one, entirely) later on. So keep that junk file close and ready to go. Label you random thoughts, and save them to come back to another day. Or month. Or year. Hehehe! They matter! Trust me!
This doesn't just mean a whole story, or a chapter. It can just be a sweet scene between two characters. I remember one moment that I thought up where I was like, "Wouldn't it be cute to have two boys make out while going through an automated car wash? Almost as if in desperation, because it was the only privacy they could get away from their parents and friends?" I wrote it down in my notebook, and didn't use for the story that I planned it out for, but got to add it to a different story later on, and it worked remarkably well. It went from a random thought to actually being a truly tender moment in one of my other stories that I didn't write until a long time later when I probably would have forgotten about it. And that's what 'plotting' is all about. Taking specific moments...emotionally impactful moments...and stringing them together between your main characters, in order, to tell a great story.
I'm guessing the we all have a grasp on the 'three act' structure of writing a story (Beginning, middle, and end), but I'd ike to go a bit more in depth with that idea today. There's soooo much more to it than that when you really stop and think about it. There are a lot of moving parts in a single project, and while the three act rule still applies...I personally go further than that when I'm putting things together in my head. What you want to do is put many different events in their proper places and design them in a way that will work to highlight the emotions and situations in your story in the best way possible. Peaks and valleys, conflicts and rivals, surprises and plot twists. That's the secret to good plotting, in my opinion.
Hmmm...now this is where I stumble around trying to explain things in words that'll make some sense as I think about them. So bear with me for a bit, k?
I saw something in a writer's magazine many years ago, where the author actually used file cards to plot out their story. They were using pushpins on a board, but I gave it a try by just laying them out on the floor. Hehehe! I can honestly say that this method really helped me to think about plotting a story out in a very vivid and professional way. Basically...you get an idea for an event or a conversation that you want to take place in your story...you write it on a small file card. Just one idea. Then...when you get another idea that takes place at any other point in your story, you write it out on another card. now you've got two. You just keep going until all of your current ideas are now written on a collection of small file cards, each one separate from one another. Still following me?
Now, what you want to do is take those same cards, look through them, and put them in an order that makes some kind of logical sense in terms of your narrative. I can do this in my head now, but sometimes a visible, physical, representation of your thought process can be really helpful in developing those instincts that will come in so handy later on for those of you who decide to keep writing as long as you've got that creative bug under your skin. Hehehe! Especially if you're writing this story over multiple days or weeks. You don't want your brain to get all jumbled up and concerned with keeping it all in order. Give the note thing a try. It worked wonders for me.
So...the question is...how can you take those engaging random events and put them into an order that won't feel awkward, boring, or confusing? Well, you do that by breaking your story down into its individual parts, and understanding what each one of those parts mean when it comes to storytelling. Having a knowledge and building up a gut feeling about the purpose and reason for each of the scenes that you've written down, will make plotting a whole lot easier than you may think. It's all about what the events mean, and what their purpose is when it comes to the art of storytelling.
Think of it in measures of ten points, like this...
- The Hook
- The Inciting Incident
- The Goal
- The Plan
- Obstacles And Challenges
- The Build Up
- The High Point
- The Low Point
- The Climax
- The Future
Now, this is a tried and true story structure that I usually use with my own work, and I often use these ten points to sort of contain and control my writing ideas, occasionally deviating from the script whenever my personal muse gives me the appropriate nudge. Hehehe!
Again, I'm going to use the "Jesse-101" story to demonstrate my point here. But don't worry, I'm not giving away any spoilers about Tristan and Jesse here. Promise.
So, let's say that I'm taking random notes on what I want to happen in this series. Write your notes down on your file cards and spread them out in front of you. They might look something like this...
Now, I'm just sort of brainstorming at this point, but I'm trying to think of some major plot points here, twists and turns that might happen along the way, and a possible outcome. So now the question is...how do I begin putting these in order? They're there for you to play with. Rearrange them into some sort of system that works for you, and read through your story plot from beginning. And if you still feel like something feels a bit awkward about the main order of events, keep switching them around until you find something that you can be happy with.
If you keep stumbling on one of your cards, and it doesn't feel like it really fits in anywhere, see if just getting rid of it will solve the problem. Sometimes I try to hod on to something that I think would really be cool...but no matter where I try to add it, it ends up coming of as clunky, or it distracts from the main plot and the characters. So I have to ask myself, if I just got rid of it altogether, will my writer 'flow' seem much smoother in its delivery? If the answer is yes...then it's gone. 'Junk file' for now, and maybe I'll update it and write it even better later on for something else.
When putting events in order, think about the ten points above. You don't have to have all ten right away. Just try to see where the notes you have so far fit into your story.
Ask yourself...what is the 'hook' for my story? That's the first part of the equation to figure out. For "Jesse-101", it was the fact a high school boy who's in the closet, was lucky enough to find another boy to be with and satisfy his need to find someone special to be with...only to have his heart broken later on as he discovers that he's been used and then tossed aside by the first person he trusted his heart to. Anyone reading the beginning of this story is going to immediately find themselves drawn in by the very idea of it. I'm starting off with an event that will immediately create an emotional understanding between my readers and the main character. So let's move that up to be my top card, and shuffle everything else around accordingly, like so...
So where do I go from here? I've got four file cards left, but they don't really seem to 'connect' just yet. Again, I have to ask myself where these situations should land next in the story. The idea is for each event to have some sort of an end result due to the scenes before it, and an impact on the scenes to follow it. It should heighten the emotions being presented and increase the stakes. Looking at my last four cards...I can already tell that I've got a *LOT* more work to do. Why? Well look at them for yourselves...
- We've got 'Lori pushes Tristan to talk to the boy of his dreams'. Well...who is the boy of his dreams? Jesse? But we haven't even met Jesse yet. We don't know anything about him. It's safe to assume that he's cute, but nothing has happened yet to get the readers invested in him or his personality in anyway. Not only that, but that completely undercuts the pain of having heart broken if he can just go out and fall in love all over again with somebody else. So that wouldn't be the way to go. We can set that card aside for now.
- Next, we have Tristan meeting Jesse for the first time and thinking that he's beautiful. Okaaaay...so? So what? He's at the mall on a Saturday. There are cute boys everywhere! What makes Jesse so special? This scene has no set up. It's right there with the second card. So let's put that one aside too. And if they fall in love right away and have a first date...that falls flat as well, because nothing was given to your audience to have them earn that special moment. Even if I'm writing a short story, I try to give some backstory to my characters and their interactions to make it seem like this moment has been a long time coming. Otherwise, it carries no weight. No stakes. So we can put that aside for now as well.
- One card left. And that says Tristan comes out to his mom. Well...that was anti-climactic, don't ya think? If him telling his mother that he's gay was going to be that easy, with no real reward, or real consequences...then why even take the time to suggest that it would be a problem in the first place? I could have just had Tristan be out and proud from the very beginning and saved myself from wasting time even focusing on it. If there's not going to be a significant payoff to this reveal, then it's a distraction. Either build up to it, or toss it aside. You know?
So...it looks like I've got a 'hook' for my story, and a handful of situations that don't really have any meaning or substance yet. I still want to keep them in the project, but let's work on a few things that we want to happen between these events to make them a little bit stronger. K?
Don't get frustrated. This is how it starts. You've got to temper and fold that sword to make it sharp! It won't start out that way. Keep going!
Let's say I think things out for a few minutes, examining what I've got so far, and I add another file card like this one...
Ok! Now we're getting somewhere! So now I can introduce Lori into the beginning of the story, slip in some exposition about who our main character is, what he wants, and what happened between and his former jerk of a boyfriend. We get to see what their relationship is like by demonstrating it through their dialogue and sense of humor, as well as their real affection for one another. Also, we get a solid introduction to the story's love interest, and we get to see him in action as Tristan laughs along with his videos, blushes at his comments, and begins to obsess over the idea of taking the time to watch them all. Now we've got a few block pieces that actually 'fit' together without having to guess as to why they should care. The connection begins! What next?
Do I want to jump forward to Lori finding out about how much Tristan likes this random boy on Youtube and then just have them drive out to the mall to seek him out? I could do that, sure. But I think I can make things a little more potent by extending that anxiety for a bit longer while taking my readers along for the ride. Maybe I let him sigh dreamily to himself for a while and then readdress some of his issues to explain he doesn't just run out there and tackle the poor boy in the mall. Maybe he thinks about the fact that he's in the closet still, or that Jesse is just too far out of his league. And keep the idea going that he's afraid of making the same mistake that he made with his first boyfriend when he went charging in blind without thinking about the heartbreak that could follow. These are all details that can add depth and emotion to your story as a whole. But...since we're just in the plotting stages right now, how about we add a moment like this one?
Now we have our 'inciting incident'! This is what puts your story into motion. For anybody who wants to know, "What is this story actually about?" This is the time to show them. Put it right after the set up. Don't let it linger for too long, or it begins to get boring.
This introduces elements of hope, excitement, confusion, and joy. You readers have something to work with and can start cheering your main character on as a definitive goal is brought to light. And this would be a good time to bring in one of the cards that you put aside, where Tristan's best friend, Lori, pushes him to go chasing after the boy of his dreams. We know who she is, we know who Tristan is, we know who Jesse is and why he would be so alluring to our main character. We have a goal in place, and we know why Tristan would be so hesitant that he would need encouragement to move forward. Is this starting to make sense now?
I could have things move forward from there, but you guys know me and my need for teen angst! He's never been this much in love before, he's coming off of a heartbreak, he's not 'out' to anybody at school or at home, Jesse is famous and could find another boy at any moment...forcing him back to square one all over again. He's got a lot to worry about. And angst is a weapon that I wield like a battleaxe when I have to! Hehehe, so my personal choice would be to have Tristan panic and freak out and crawl back into his shell almost immediately. It's much easier to be infatuated someone when you don't have to worry about them ever finding out about it, meeting them in person, or having to actually find the courage to give them your heart while asking for theirs in return. So I might add a file card that says...
Now I've got conflict involved. What's in my main character's way of finding true love right now? He's been given something to overcome. That's important.
From there, you keep rearranging your ideas, finding the gaps and holes in between them that need to be explained, and seeing what you can add or take away to strengthen your most important moments so they really get to shine in the story's spotlight when you need them too. Keep adding notes, and before you know it...you'll have a whole story plotted out from start to finish. It should look something like this, with labels beside each scene to describe their meaning and purpose throughout the narrative as a whole.
Now, this is a bare bones plot of the "Jesse-101" series, as there is a lot of other stuff that happens, more characters, more big moments, etc....but this is something that I can use as a map so I don't find myself lost at sea with nowhere to go. Take notice of how every scene on the list is both a result of the actions preceding it, and a build up of the scene that's next to come. That's exactly what you want. It makes your story read as one cohesive piece, and not like a 'bunch of disjoint things that just happened'.
I can add more notes along the way as I think of them, I can change them any time I want, and I still have the total freedom mold things the way I want to, even in a spontaneous moment of delight.
You can make as many notes/cards as you want. Make thirty! Make one hundred, if you're feeling ambitious! But I think if you can come up with enough quality events to hit these ten major plot points in your writing, everything else is a pleasant bonus in the long run!
Whew...that was a lot! Sorry for talking so much! Hehehe, but, as always...I hope this made sense. And I hope it helps. Cool? Have fun! And I'll seezya soon with more!