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So You Want To Commit Novel: More Plot

Originally published 6/17/2010

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.



1 thought on “So You Want To Commit Novel: More Plot”

  1. Bickham’s a little — well, bring along your salt shaker.

    He asserts that the disaster must always ensure that character doesn’t get anywhere. That is, Frodo and Sam can’t escape from the tower and make it into Mordor, because that would advance their goal. . . .

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