What could be more delightful than a great story told well? Homer continues to gain “Iliad” fans after thousands of years and Shakespeare retains his reputation as a master playwright. How did they assemble the parts to create a satisfying whole? Is it possible to find a common denominator for all the successful plots out there? The approaches to building a story are so numerous and versatile that it could be daunting to pull out a basic principle that works for all, but this might be a good starting place.
A good plot cooperates with the way human minds process information.
The key to processing and digesting information is organizing it in a way our brains can use. Reading books is no exception. A simple narrative with few characters can get away with a scattered tossing of events and ideas, but the more complex a story becomes, the more essential it is to have a well-organized plot.
When we organize a plot, we’re creating a pattern of events, forming the basic structure of the story. The author’s success in weaving them together depends on how the pieces are coordinated. Ideally, authors lay out their stories in ways that make sense and don’t require too much guessing or backtracking on the part of the reader.
Reality happens in order—at least as far as we know in this branch of the multiverse—but we experience reality in complex ways because of how we process information; reviewing memories, comparing facts, dealing with trauma, struggling with questions. Our minds are existing in the present, and branch into the past and future as well, as we evaluate our lives. This is why we can enjoy stories told out of sequence and why breaking up the chronology of a plot can work.
In fact, it can be masterfully done.
“Memento” is a film about a man who can’t form permanent memories because of a traumatic incident that included the death of his wife. By showing only what he experiences and moving backwards, the movie captures what it’s like to be this man and shows us at the same time what is actually happening. It’s intense, tragic, and disturbing. The author set up the pattern very carefully so that, even as scenes were moving in reverse in time, our understanding of who the characters were and what was happening progressed in a logical way forward, building solidly. The viewer’s experience was sequential, like walking backwards in the snow, watching the ground so you can set each foot in the print you left on your way there, only seeing one at a time.
Most stories are told sequentially with occasional visits to the past.
Ways to organize the chronology of your plot
Take each of your main characters and jot down the flow of the story from their point of view. Let their motivations and personalities clarify gaps or redirect the plot. For example, “Joe” wouldn’t just be sitting there for seven chapters while “Mary” is battling a monster. Of course, you don’t have to write what Joe is doing, but you should know.
Once you’ve got each character’s thread, look at how they cross and interact. You may find some plot peaks and valleys this way.
Take the space of time your story covers and place events on it. The most logical approach is to tell the story in the order it happened, within reason. You wouldn’t interrupt a scene to throw in what was happening at the same time somewhere else unless it were essential to tie the two events together immediately. You may want to interlace chapters that deal with different segments in order to preserve the forward momentum of the plot.
If you aren’t telling your story in the order it happened, why not? Memories and flashbacks happen within the mind. Whose mind are you connecting it to? It could be a specific character or the reader, as if they had found a historical resource to draw from.
Ask questions like:
- Is there a good reason why this isn’t happening in chronological order?
- Who is linked to this and how will I maintain the continuity of the plot?
- Would putting this section back into the timeline make more sense or improve the plot?
- Does this help the reader to know what I (the author) know or does it confuse them?
One of my novels was really suffering until I did this. I laid the scenes out on a timeline and realized how I had been botching it by neglecting the importance of chronology. Reorganizing the flow helped me regain momentum not only in the story progression but in my writing.
By key points
There are specific landmarks you need to get to, pivotal events in your book that are essential. Identifying those and placing them in strategic places will help you decide what should happen between them. I may not have decided how to accomplish this, but I know that about halfway through the book, that character has to be in this situation. Anchoring these might change the structure of your plot somewhat but that’s good. Now you know where you’re going.
The reader will sense that direction even if they don’t know where you’re taking them.
When composers craft a symphony, writing musical notes in patterns, choosing instruments and how they blend together, they are weaving a story with sound. The conductor interprets the notes, expanding or contracting tempos, creating highs and lows, excitement or calm, making it individual. The musicians follow the conductor’s instructions, but each one has their own level of skill, talent, and nuances of style.
Stories are compositions, like music. When authors sketch out a storyline, adding characters, locations, sequences of events, and dialog, they are composing a story with words. The style of writing fleshes it out, like a conductor, and determines the impact the plot will have.
Consider your book from a musical standpoint. Where are your crescendos and decrescendos? Are there long, legato passages and short staccato ones? Have you built a rhythm and pace that conveys emotion? This approach can identify long dull patches or consistently tense ones that never have peaks or valleys.
When you’re sitting down to organize your plot, there are several things to look at. You want to consider:
- The structure of the timeline in the story, what happens when
- The flow of how you tell the story, which isn’t necessarily the same
- Where your characters are at each point in that flow
This is helpful because:
- You can identify transitions and make sure you handle them the way you want.
- You can make a note of where support characters come in and how much the reader needs to know about them that hasn’t happened on the pages.
- You can get a feel for the tempo of the book, where it’s dragging or when it’s rushing at a steady clip for too long, and choose places to add pauses or excitement, as the case may be.
Tools for organization
My favorite tool for organizing plots is Excel. I can track as many things as I wish through the plot because there’s always room for another row or column. Sometimes it’s basically an outline. Sometimes it’s a lot more.
There are times, though, where I can’t get what I need on a computer no matter how many sheets I have open or how big the screen is. I need something that can be moved around or scribbled on or torn up with bare hands. Then I turn to 3 x 5 index cards, sticky notes, torn pieces of paper. Laying it all out and sometimes marking it with colored codes, I can solve problems that can’t be tackled any other way. I can see at once where everyone is, everything that’s happening.
This rescued that book I mentioned, spreading it out made me realize I had approached the flow all wrong. The how and when of the story had to change completely. Fortunately, it didn’t mean a lot of rewrites, but it did alter the pace drastically. Chapters I had written that had a good tempo acquired more of a rushed feel, but since the plot as a whole wasn’t working before, the gain was worth the cost.
Talking about the plot out loud can be handy as well. Listing the sequence of events may reveal a hole. Talking about character motives may indicate scenes I left out. Maybe something I thought was great actually sounds dumb when I say it aloud.
Organizing your plot extends into the details and can be an asset to writing individual scenes.
Once a scene has been written, I always go back and look at the flow. I have a tendency to jumble my ideas together, associating them in ways that aren’t sequential—especially when I’m comfortable with them and already blazing ahead in my mind to what comes next. A painting can do that. It can present all the pieces of its image together and let you choose how you examine it. One person may prefer to consider the colors first, and another looks for faces, but authors are only giving a piece at a time and if we aren’t careful, we can lose the reader before the picture is complete.
This sounds obvious, but sometimes I have to remind myself that the reader is reading sequentially.
Present ideas in order
The woman enters the room and sees the wild animal before pulling out her weapon with a shriek. She doesn’t scream first, shoot, and then enter the room. This seems obvious, and the example is kind of simplistic, but the truth is I usually have to go back and make sure I’m not doing this.
“Shrieking and pulling out her Glock, the woman blasted the creature repeatedly as she entered the room where the beast had broken in through a window.”
Reorganizing the progression makes it easier to follow.
“Entering the room, the woman shrieked at the sight of the beast, covered in glass from a broken window, and within seconds had pulled out her Glock and unloaded over twelve plugs into its bulk.”
This isn’t beautiful writing, but it’s easier to follow when the sequence makes sense.
Organize the flow of action, then identify and fill in missing pieces.
The reader has no idea about our story until we present it to them. They can’t see what we can see or know the characters like we know them. If we want them to enjoy the process of entering into this world so they can experience the adventure we’ve prepared, we need to assemble the parts in an easily absorbed way.
A story that sweeps you up into its grasp and carries you off into the sunset doesn’t happen by accident.
Someone laid a well-crafted snare.
This is the third of six posts about writing essentials. The next article is Organizing Your Publication Process.