So You Want To Commit Novel: Part 3b More Plot

Let me introduce you to two have my favorite books on writing.  I know there are hundreds out there, but these two work for me.  First off “Scene and Structure” by Jack M. Bickham .  This is a condensation (less verbose) of the some of the ideas put forth in “Techniques Of The Selling Writer” by Dwight V. Swain.

Secondly “The Writer’s Journey” by Christopher Vogler.   This books takes many of the concepts of Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero With A Thousand Faces”.

When I enter into the pre-writing phase of a new project I take my plot diagram, a stack of multi colored 3X5 index cars, a hole punch and notebook ring to hold the cards, and these two books to the kitchen table – it’s bigger and less cluttered than my desk.  For milepost cards, plot points and stages of the journey, I use white.  For the actual scenes I have written, I color code according in Point Of View.

Mileposts: As we discussed last week on the plot diagram, I transfer to the white cards the story goal, plot points, mid point, crisis, climax, resolution and the pinches.  If I don’t know what happens at these points, (sometimes I need 3 drafts to figure out my theme and insert the pinches at the proper point) I leave the card blank except for the above labels.

Then I go to “The Writer’s Journey” and give a card to each of the stages of the protagonist’s journey. Ordinary World, Call to Adventure, Refuse the Call, etc.  For dramatic purposes I tend to leave off The Road Back, Resurrection, and Return with the Elixir, preferring to end the book shortly after the dramatic climax.  These I salt into the mix with the plot points, filling in ideas of what should happen at these places in the story if I know them.

The first half of Vogler’s book talks about character archetypes.  Hero is self explanatory, as the author you should know who’s story you are telling.  For “Thistle Down” I always knew this was Thistle’s story, even though I’m taking two books to tell it.  I’ve had to change this for a couple of books about half way through.  But cards are cheap and disposable.

You can call the Mentor Merlin, or Yoda, or Mom.  In “Thistle Down” I have Mabel. She’s the semi-retired police dispatcher who knows all the skeletons in everyone’s closet and has an army of Pixies enlisted as her spies.

Tricksters, Shadows, Heralds, and Shapeshifters I fill in as I know which roll fits which character best.  Some characters are both Allies and Shapeshifters when they start out as Shadows.  Yeah sometimes the villain at the beginning of the piece is not truly the villain by the end.  In “Thistle Down” the Pixie Alder is kind of the villain, but he turns into a Shadow and Haywood, who is a Pixie in human form, turns out to be the real bad guy.

With these white cards in place I can go back to the computer and the desk with “Scene and Structure,” and my colored notecards.

Jack Bickham defines a scene as a character with a goal, conflict to that goal, and ends with a disaster to that goal.  Scenes are active and move the plot forward.  A sequel is the character’s reaction to the disaster, a restatement of the dilemma, followed by a decision which becomes the goal in the next scene.  Sequels slow the action, giving the character and the reader a chance to catch their breath.  These should be short, often a mere paragraph at the beginning of the next scene.  Or you can pile up a bunch of action scenes into a series with a sequel at the end.  In “Thistle Down,” I have a City Council meeting where Thistle and her friends read statements against logging off the beloved Ten Acre Wood.  The testimony and arguments take up several scenes before the meeting ends with much shouting and shoe pounding.  Then Dick and Thistle discuss the meeting as they wind through forgotten stairwells in City Hall.

For each of the scenes I have written, I choose a color for each character.  Thistle gets purple because she’s Thistle.  Dusty and Chase are the romantic protagonists so they get pink and blue.  Dick is Thistle’s childhood boyfriend so he gets green.  Phelma Jo is antagonistic toward everyone so I give her a not very flattering orange.  Pick your own color scheme to suit your characters and mood.

On the top line I put the chapter number and page number in pencil, they will change over the course of 4 drafts.  Then I write 1 sentence about this scene, “Thistle land in Fountain, naked.”

When I first started this process I was insecure about my story telling abilities so I added lines for the goal, conflict, disaster, or reaction, dilemma, decision.  Below that I made space for the source of tension.  Thistle used to be a Pixie.  Now she’s human, she’s naked, rush hour car horns are honking so loud she can’t think, and she doesn’t know how she got here or why.

For the last line on the card I try to find a purpose for the scene.  I introduce Thistle and her problem.  I also set up conflict with Chase – the police officer who arrests her for public nudity and drunk and disorderly.  Showing that a character is kind to children and animals usually isn’t sufficient reason to include that scene.  Getting characters from here to there isn’t either.

Over the course of 25+ books I have learned to fill out my color coded cards when I finish a scene.  If I try to do it before I write the scene I end up tossing the card because the characters did something else and the purpose changes along with the tension.

Not everyone will find this scheme helpful.  I’ve heard writers say that paying attention to structure and piddling little details suppresses their creativity.  I’ve been told I can do this in a separate window on my computer.  When I started this process I didn’t have enough RAM to do that and I like the tactile experience of flipping through the cards.  I can also take the cards to a brainstorming session with writing partners.

Every writer has their own process.  This is mine.  It keeps me organized, gives me a place to make notes about things I’ve forgotten or need to highlight and don’t want to go back and fill in until I’ve finished the draft.  Tiny post-it notes are great for this.  By the time I’ve finished the rough draft I will have a forest of notes.  My goal is to reduce the number with each draft.

After the book is published I’ve been known to tie my stack of cards to an ARC and donate to a charity auction.

Phyllis Irene Radford blogs here regularly on Thursdays, the same day her cozy mystery “Lacing Up For Murder” by Irene Radford is serialized on the front page rotation.

For more about her and her fiction please visit her bookshelf here on BVC

Or her personal web page


About Phyllis Irene Radford

Irene Radford has been writing stories ever since she figured out what a pencil was for. A member of an endangered species—a native Oregonian who lives in Oregon—she and her husband make their home in Welches, Oregon where deer, bears, coyotes, hawks, owls, and woodpeckers feed regularly on their back deck. A museum trained historian, Irene has spent many hours prowling pioneer cemeteries deepening her connections to the past. Raised in a military family she grew up all over the US and learned early on that books are friends that don’t get left behind with a move. Her interests and reading range from ancient history, to spiritual meditations, to space stations, and a whole lot in between. Mostly Irene writes fantasy and historical fantasy including the best-selling Dragon Nimbus Series and the masterwork Merlin’s Descendants series. In other lifetimes she writes urban fantasy as P.R. Frost or Phyllis Ames, and space opera as C.F. Bentley. Later this year she ventures into Steampunk as someone else. If you wish information on the latest releases from Ms Radford, under any of her pen names, you can subscribe to her newsletter: Promises of no spam, merely occasional updates and news of personal appearances.


So You Want To Commit Novel: Part 3b More Plot — 9 Comments

  1. OMG, you are -so- organized!! I do not work this way at all. I am a child of Nature — I just open the Word file and start adding sentences to it.

  2. I found Scene and Structure very useful too, though I tend to recommend a salt shaker while reading because he does tend to get dogmatic.

  3. There are times when I just have let the words flow, then I catch up with the cards. But inevitably one of these marathon sessions of just writing reveals something I didn’t know before but I need to include. The cards give me a reference point to attach a sticky note. As I said before, the milepost scenes give me something to work toward.

    Then there’s the story of Guardian of the Vision. My outline and scene cards went out the window about page 100 and I ended up with two books, each 925 manuscript pages that sort of covered some of the original plot diagram. At least I ended the second book where I’d planned on ending the first.

  4. Scene And Structure is sort of like the Pirate Book of Rules. We like to think of them more as guidelines.

  5. The problem I have with any set of writing framework is that it leads to a certain kind of book. This does not refer to the quality of the book (although I admit to dissatisfaction with a book I can predict because I understand the principles upon which it is built.)

    What concerns me are the numbers of new writers who hear ‘this is how you write books’ and ‘this is what a book should be like’ which is, of course, complete hogwash. Like bad ones, good books come in all shapes and sizes. You can tell a perfectly good story without a hero, or without a villain – it might be harder, and reach a smaller readership, but *everything* is optional as long as the story works.

    One of the most impressive things about Robert McKee’s ‘Story’ is the number of times he points out that successful and commercial films are all over the map in just about every aspect you can think of, which is a very good reason to write the story you want to write rather than the story somebody else thinks you should.

  6. The briefest survey of the field will reveal works that defy any rule every proposed. Kipling was wrong. There aren’t nine and ninety ways to write; it’s probably an order of magnitude more.

  7. Sometimes, however, newbie writers have to have this pointed out, and some writers — like, I’m afraid, Bickham — do the opposite. (Very dogmatic on occasion.)

    I still remember the time I assured someone online that no, I didn’t write an outline with Roman numerals and indents like her English teacher claimed that writers outlined with.

  8. Brenda & Mary:

    One of the most liberating things about engaging with real, successful, experienced writers online was that they were using *vastly* different methods to write – and all of them produced good books. You also cannot tell by the end product how it was conceived, unless the writer is slavishly sticking to certain ‘rules,’

    The problem with novices is, I think, that the whole writing and publishing thing is scary, and they’re looking for somewhere to start, particularly if they’re the sort of person who feels more comfortable working within a framework. I am very glad I encountered people who said ‘do whatever you want to do, it’s fine. You listen to your character’s voices? You have no idea where a story is going until you’ve written it? You write out of order? You write down one layer and it reads dreadful and then you go and put in all the other stuff and it no longer does? Your draft says ‘and [xx] went to [town] to [do things]’? FINE.’

    Sometimes, when you’re starting out, what you most need is for someone to give you permission to find your own path.

  9. In this series I’ve stated repeatedly that this is my process and may not work for anyone else. Yes I’m organized and keep track of scenes rather than rely on my faulty memory — Did I write the scene about the Pixies using hawthorn spikes as swords or did I dream it? A quick check on the cards tells me I dreamed it. With my deadlines I can’t afford the time to be less organized or I’d go through 20 drafts to get a book I like instead of 4.

    I have also said that I wander all around the straightforward diagram. This is a skeleton. I have to provide all the muscle and internal organs and stuff it into a skin that can contain it. Anyone else starting with the same diagram and notes about plot points will write an entirely different story.