6th January 2011

The Plot Planner

Unfinished Plot Planner

I’ve mentioned my plot planner in one or two posts now and it’s generated a bit of interest, curiosity and intrigue among other writers, and, apparently, some squinting as certain tweeps (you know who you are) have attempted to work out, from my last post, what the heck I was up to!  So I’m dedicating this post to you, and my plot planner.  I cannot take credit for the plot planner idea, which came to me via writer Liz Kessler @lizkesslerbooks (via writer Jenny Alexander @jennyalexander4) a few months ago.  Around the same time that I asked Liz about her plot planner, I also watched and listened to a set of plotting tutorials on Youtube, by Martha Alderson, known as The Plot Whisperer (@plotwhisperer).  You can view/listen to these here – start at step one and work your way through – I shut myself in the bedroom for a whole weekend to do this.   So huge credit and thanks to all of the above!

For me, the reason I felt I needed some assistance with plotting was that I wasn’t very good at it – in a nutshell – preferring to just go with the flow, using a few jotted down ideas as my guide.  However, the result of this was that I wrote an 80,000 word novel, which, despite publishers complimenting the writing, left a lot to be desired in the way of plot and pacing.  I wasn’t surprised by this.  So, having hit some initial plotting problems with Buttercup Magic too, I decided to ‘swat up’ a bit for writing my first YA, known as TSP!

I know there are ‘things’ – I.T. things – available to help you with plotting and the like, but

Stuff needed for Plot Planner

I really don’t want everything being too structured and being made too easy for me – after all, I’m a writer, I have imagination (don’t I?)  Anyway, this is a whole lot more fun – making a plot planner is a bit like a day in the Blue Peter studios.  You need: a large sheet of A3 paper (or 2 A4 sellotaped together); sellotape (possibly, if you are going down the A4 paper route); index cards; scissors for cutting up index cards; glue stick; pen – Voila!

So, to make your plot planner, you’ll divide the piece of paper into 4 equal sections – paper should be horizontal, lines vertical (I am soooooo enjoying this), then headings at the top of each section: Beginning, Middle, Middle, End.  If you listen to Martha Alderson’s wonderful videos, she explains in detail about the quarters involved in plotting.

Maurice Sendak: Where the Wild Things Are

For example, where the first major change should be – the protagonist moving into another world, changing goal or a major turning point – which should appear around the end of the first quarter.  She gives some wonderful examples of this from young children’s picture books to novels.  Maurice Sendak’s ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ is one example she cites.  She explains where the tension in your writing should build and where the crisis point and climax should be.  This immediately then gives you a sense of where you need to position these points on your plot planner.

I’ll give you an abridged version, as follows, but I do recommend you listening/watching Martha’s videos:
1st 1/4 – (Beginning) Hook; end of 1st 1/4 – turning point, goals may change.
1/4 – 3/4 – (Middle bits) Keep tension rising.  Crisis point (middle of middle). Different world / unique.
1/2 – 3/4 (2nd of Middle bits) Protagonist needs to be in a scene where he recommits to the journey.
Last 1/4 (End) Build towards climax, change/transformation of character/s. Climax – about 2 scenes or chapters from end, and before resolution at end.

This is the long bit – and it is a lengthy process, as Liz Kessler will verify.  Basically, you write down your scenes and action points – one per strip of index card, so only the basics – then cut these up and place them where you think they should go… so, if you know the

Completed TSP plot planner

end (hopefully you’ll have some idea of where you’re heading), you can write that on a bit of card and place it at the bottom of the End part of your planner.  I can’t be too specific here, but to give you a couple of examples from TSP: ‘Background on P, family, house’ is one of my Beginning section cards, as is ‘O & P go back to cliff top’ – a lot of this beginning section sets up the story and introduces the setting and characters.  In the Middle sections, the action builds.  To start with, it’ll look a bit bare – more paper than cards – but as the ideas come, it is SO satisfying to see it fill up.  Don’t glue them down straight away.  I found that the first 1/4 came quite quickly, with other odd bits in the other sections.  This is a personal thing, but I decided at this point to write the 1st quarter, see how that panned out, then went back to the plot planner to continue with planning.  This worked really well for me, as I couldn’t see the big picture until I had done some physical writing.  I then completed the planner in a few days.  I can’t tell you how exhilerating it was to see my novel laid out in this way.  You know those moments you frequently have as a writer, where you stare at the page and have no idea where you’re heading… or, you’re not sure if what you’ve just written ties in with what you said earlier… etc?  Solved!  I then stuck the bits of card down, but  was careful to leave a gap inbetween each strip of card, so I could add additional points and scenes if I needed to.

I am now writing the rest of TSP with plot planner by my side.  Of course, I still have to write the scenes, and I have already peeled off two or three of the stuck down bits of card and re-stuck them somewhere else, and added some new bits… but that doesn’t matter, that’s all part of the process.  It isn’t cast in stone.  The main thing is that the shape is there and I can see how it will work and how the subplots connect.  And perhaps, most importantly of all, I have faith in this story before it is written, and that really is something!

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About Abi Burlingham

I write children's books and paint pictures inspired by nature, animals, trees etc, mostly in acrylics. I am a crisp addict.
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32 Responses to 6th January 2011

  1. A really brilliant post, Abi. Just reading it helps me to clarify the structure of my work in progress in my head but I might actually get the scissors out if the first draft looks a bit spongy. Thanks for posting this.

  2. Oh brilliant! If it just helps you realise you’re on the right track, that’s fab. Go on, get the scissors out… you know you want to 😉

  3. Martin Day says:

    Abi, Thanks for this. I’m wondering: Are you finding that you re-structure as part of the process, so that (for instance) the reader doesn’t get bogged down with too much scene setting up front, so that you spread some of this throughout the story, in order to control the pace of it all?

    I have only written short stories before so I have a curiosity of how an author manages something so much bigger (along with all the possibilities and choices before it gets set in stone) that can’t be held in a sub-Einsteinien head like mine.

    I am engaged in two projects at present (neither bookish, sorry): One a musical and one a series, to be aimed at TV.

    For the musical, I have sat on the plot for years (I’m not exaggerating). I had the basic plot in my head but becasue of the nature of the medium I needed to flesh it out with further characters, bit-parts, chorus opportunities & sub-plots. My real hang up was over an ending. After the climax it just seemed to fissile out. But last year I hit on the idea of writing the whole thing in flashback. I would start with an opening scene in the ‘today’ that would be returned to once the story had been told and so, by coming full circle, would give an artificial end by way of resolution.

    For the series, in considering other examples in the particular genre, I realised that the function of an almost unrelated or loosely related sub-plot was to pad out to the 30 minutes required for that medium and could conceivably even be moved to another episode if required.

    Sometimes it seems that my life is composed of me discovering of the blindingly obvious.

    [PS. I must write another blog of my own rather than bleeding all over yours! (But thanks for the opportunity anyway)]

  4. Ha ha ha! Feel free to bleed all over mine any time! I appreciate your comments, and they’re always very thought provoking. In answer to your question – I am doing some re-structuring as I go along, but I think it will more or less follow the structure of the planner. But, inevitably, there’ll be changes. This is only the 1st draft too. But it does get you to see how your story will work, before you write it – in the past, I have been going along with the writing, then suddenly hit a point where I realised the plot wasn’t working. I know this plot works already, and I have the sub-plots built in too. The tension builds, climax, resolution, are all in there. If I can make this analogy – it’s like following a footpath – your planner is the footpath, but around you are trees, animals, the sky, the imprint of people’s feet – that’s all the extra stuff that really makes your novel a novel, but which doesn’t appear on the planner. Good luck with the series and musical – they both sound really exciting!

  5. Essjay says:

    Thank you for this brilliant post. Not only have you saved me from yet more squinting but also helped me realise where I’m going wrong. I really struggle with plot and pacing plus I tend to wing it which leads to more chaos. I’m taking a break and planning at the moment so am excited to try this. Thank you!

    • Hoorah! So pleased to have helped in your plotting… and saved you a trip to Spec Savers! Winging it never works does it? If you know you’re winging it, then a publisher’s going to spot it a mile off. I really hope this works for you, and please keep me posted – can’t wait to hear how you get on 🙂

  6. Wendyfreckles says:

    Hope you’ve written it in some obscure language, Abi, so those who know who they are can’t decipher ; ) Thank you for sharing it with all your personal touches. It’s a great concept and blog – inspiring one to be physically organised and not just keeping it all in your head like I tend to do. Your excitement and enthusiasm leaps off the screen at such planning HA HA! You’re really a Blue Peter wanna be presenter aren’t you! I love this sort of thing too.

    My first novel was written (surprisingly) planned in similar way but on the PC. What I did for my first draft was to type it all briefly and then put page breaks in where appropriate then fill in. Catching up to the next bit and it all coming together was exhilarating. Like you I found when I just wrote (my second one) and indulged myself purely in the actual “writing” it isn’t going anywhere and is one of those that kept growing without direction. Haven’t touched it in ages because I know it will frustrate me.

    So if you want to save time in the long run – just like planning for anything: cooking, decorating – if you spend time on this bit the actual process is quicker and better. Well it increases the chances doesn’t it! And there’s something very therapeutic about cutting and sticking and creating. BRING OUT THE CHILD IN YOU! (or the BP presenter). Thanks!

  7. Wendy, you’re so right – agree wholeheartedly. I know planning can seem tedious – I am not a natural planner at all, and avoid it normally – but it really does pay dividends, and it’s only a framework. As you say, it makes the actual writing process quicker and easier – hooray for that!

  8. This is wonderful!! I’ve used index cards and listen religiously to Martha Alderson (and have her Plot Whisperer book) but I didn’t think of the cutting strips and pasting on one piece of paper. I have a huge stack of index cards right now…. for my current WIP that I’m editing. I’ve been thinking of rewriting index cards, since reorganizing and adding info, but I think I may try your method instead. Thank you for such a practical post!

  9. Hi Julia, I thought you’d be able to relate to this, knowing how you’re using index cards for your current WIP. I think this could easily work alongside other methods, even as a kind of brain-storming technique – which, in a way, is what it starts out as. Get me being all practical eh… that’s a first 😀

  10. alison (deerbaby on twitter) says:

    This is really helpful. I’ve been struggling with dozens of index cards lately and it’s all over the place. I’ve toyed with doing this before but thought I could wing it and now I’m in a muddle. Pacing is something I know I really need to work on so being able to see it on a giant planner will help immensely. Thanks!

    • Hi Alison! Thanks for reading and commenting, and really glad you think this might help. It does help with pacing, and if you watch the Plot Whisperer videos, they’ll really help too. I don’t think I’m following you on Twitter, so will find you on there in a mo.

  11. Ann Wright says:

    I’ve always used index cards to plan too but as I don’t have anywhere to leave them spread out to refer to, I’ve found it a pain. I’m always picking them up and putting them down then they get muddled up.
    After reading this, I don’t know why I didn’t think of this solution – so simple. I guess that’s the problem – being a simple idea but very useful!
    Thanks for sharing.

  12. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head here Ann – we’re so busy digging deep that the simple things elude us sometimes – hope this helps!

  13. Jo Carroll says:

    I am drowning in admiration – such organisation! such discipline! *slides off to comfort self with cake*

  14. Ha ha! What you may not realise, Jo, is that this goes completely against my nature – so if I can manage it, anyone can 😀 … save me some cake!

  15. Emma Pass says:

    I too am in awe of how organised you are with your plot planner! It’s a wonderful idea. I didn’t use index cards or a planner to plot ACID, but I did lay out scenes in a word document in a similar way. When I get back to the WIP, though, I might just have to give it a try! I’m going to have to check out the Plot Whisperer properly when I have a moment, too – those videos sound fascinating. Thank you for another great post!

  16. Ah! Thanks Emma. I don’t really think it matters which way you do it, as long as you do it. Your way sounds great, but I like the visual and physical nature of this plot planner – I really felt as if I was building something. Also, what a lovely thing to keep after, eh… especially if TSP becomes a book!

  17. Jenny Alexander says:

    I love reading about other writers’ methodology! I’m more of an organic sort myself – I like to have the opening and know where I’m going to end up, but within those parameters I never plan more than a chapter or two ahead. Oddly, I do always need to know at the outset how many chapters the book will have (all four Peony Pinkers have 17!) My method means trying to supply publishers with a synopsis is torture. We’re a peculiar bunch, aren’t we?

  18. Ha ha! We are, aren’t we? Not a natural planner myself either, Jenny, but can’t imagine how I could get round writing this YA, which will be so much longer than my other things, without a more structured approach. But I agree with you, it’s lovely to just write and see where it goes, embracing the surprises along the way.

  19. Dan Smith says:

    Hi Abi, interesting post. It’s always fun to get a sneaky insight into how others do it – writing, I mean. For me, though, the sight of all those strips of paper fills me with dread. It feels almost too scientific; the idea that certain things have to come in certain places feesl too rigid. I can understand there’s a degree of comfort in knowing what’s coming next and I also realise that you don’t force yourself to stick to it exactly, but I’m a minimal planner (in life as well as in my writing). I have an outline in my mind, a few notes and then . . . I start writing. I like coming to the page wondering what’s going to happen next. I’ve thought about this kind of detailed planning before, considered using Scrivener or index cards or whatever, but it’s the sight of all those cards . . . brrrr. Scarey. Having said all that, I edit quite a lot so, in a way, maybe my first draft is my plot planner.

    Also, did you know there’s a tiny smiley face at the bottom of your blog? Just spotted it.

    • Dan, I know exactly what you mean – I hate planning anything – I drive my family mad with it, so THIS is completely different for me. I have never planned a piece of writing before… but, have got into fixes later. Given that are around 120 strips of card on the planner and around 80,000 words in a novel, what goes down on the planner is literally the bare bones. I didn’t think I’d get on with it, and am really surprised at how much I’ve enjoyed it… oh, give it a go, just once, go on… 😉 Smiley face???? Must check that out!

  20. I am so impressed by your organisation. I’ve used a spreadsheet on the computer to do this sort of thing but I suspect I’d get more satisfaction from your method. It sounds so tactile. Of course the advantage of a spreadsheet is that you can change things around more easily and you can always print the pages out and lay them in the order you suggested but I still may give your method a try. I’m hoping to get stuck into a new writing project very soon.

  21. Hi Rosalind – believe me, this is majorly organised for me! Your spreadsheet method sounds good too. This way is more tactile though, and being quite a kinaesthetic and visual learner, it works well for me as I can physically touch it and move the peices around. I also like the fact that it takes me away from the computer screen. Good luck with the new project – how exciting – and thanks for the comment 🙂

  22. I tend to be a pantser and the organisation in all this plotting is sending me cold! I absolutely agree that there needs to be structure, but it would take some major discipline for me to be able to sit down and work this way. It looks great and I hope it helps with the desired plan.

  23. I know what you mean, Rebecca, me and planning don’t go together very well at all, and, yes, it’s taken some major discipline for me to do this plan. Having said that, I’ve realised a lot about the structure of what I’m writing through the process. Probably wouldn’t do it for younger kids’ books, but for what will be an 80,000er, it’s proving really helpful.

  24. Nadine says:

    You can’t imagine how helpful this is to a newbie like me. I hit–no–slammed into a writing wall last week, and it had everything to do with the plot. This is such a timely and relevant post that has me doing the Snoopy dance inside. Gonna get started on it. Gratitude.

    • Oh fab! I am well familiar with those walls! Really hope you can make it work for you. A quick update – I was writing my YA using it yesterday and wrote 3,200 words from late pm through to evening – the most words I’ve ever written in a day, never mind a few hours… THAT’s how much it’s helping!

  25. Ooh I am really tempted to give this a go. I have tried to arrange notecards on the floor before but it just didn;t work for me at all, even though I loved the idea! Do you write on one line, Abi and then snip? You seem to have very neat writing, which I’m sure is a bonus! Mine is dreadful..

    • Hi Caroline. Yes, I write one action point and the character involved on each line then cut them up. It can take days to do – think mine took about 4 days in total, but I did it in stages. Handwriting… not so good close up!

  26. Am giving it a go as I write! Not sure I understand the two middles though at the moment. Am going to check out the youtube clips but very broadly, why are there two mid sections instead if usual three acts? Ignore me if too complicated to explain!

  27. Hi Caroline, I think if you watch the Plot Whisperer videos this will become clearer. it’s not dissimlar to the three acts, but you just divide the middle section into two. The videos will explain why much better than I can. Good luck – hope it works for you.

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