Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Plotting For the Non-Plotter: Organized Brainstorming

I'm not very organized. There are a couple layers of things covering my desk right now, for example, but I sort of know where things are. Some organizing is good for me, though, to avoid wasted time searching for things or recreating my entire year on an Excel document when it's tax time.

Same goes for my writing--I'm not much of a plotter, since I like to see the story unfold as I go. Also I usually have an idea of a few scenes that will show up at some point, so that's kind of like that knowing approximately where things are on or around my desk. But it does help to have an idea where I'm going so I don't end up chasing something shiny down a trail to randomland. Plus, I decided that my next midgrade novel will have a mystery, so I need to do enough plotting to make sure everything comes together. And there are ways for us pantsers to plot that give us a little guidance without making us feel boxed in.

I mentioned in a weekend post that I attended a brainstorming session at a local write-a-thon that was super-helpful in working out the plot of that next midgrade novel. I'd done some brainstorming on the story already, but it was kind of like "I have this character, and her family, and I think I know where they'll go, and some other stuff that happens."

Not quite enough to know where I was going. But Lynn Lorenz, who led the brainstorming sessions, took out her magical pad of paper and pen and started asking questions and writing. In about twenty minutes I left with this:

Hard to decipher if you weren't there, but I have a list of possible "culprits" for the mystery; one of those will be the real explanation or guilty party, and I'll use some of the others as red herrings. I'm not even sure yet which is going to be the real culprit yet, so I have the flexibility to allow that to be revealed as I write.

In addition to listing qualities of each character, we discussed how they're connected to one another; that's more plotting, since it's about their relationships. I'd had a minor character in mind, a cute boy that the main character meets along the way, but he'll have a bigger part than just looking cute now-- he'll work with the main character Nessie to try to solve the mystery. He may even have a clue he doesn't know is a clue. And of course Nessie's little brother will be trying to hang out with them all the time.

We also listed things about the setting (Lake Champlain, I'm thinking, and not just 'cause it'd make an awesome research trip) to consider as I write the story.

When discussing plotting again in a later session, Lynn showed a kind of plotting that reminded me of the Beat Sheet from Save the Cat!, another great resource for do-able plotting for the reluctant plotter, although this is even more flexible.

Dividing your book into four approximately equal parts, mark at the end of each section where an important turning point for your character will be. You can draw a chart on paper, but sticky notes on a posterboard or wall is more fun.

So the plan for a 20-chapter book would look like this, with one sticky note representing one chapter:

That first turning point will probably be that "point of no return," when your character has left the old life behind and is starting the new one. Knowing the other important turning points that will come up throughout the character's journey helps avoid writing a story that sags in the middle. After you figure out what those turning points will be, go back and write the scenes needed for your character to get to each one. On the remaining sticky notes you can fill in what will happen in the chapters leading up to each turning point.

For more plotting help, here are a couple of awesome resources I found online recently:

Adventures in Children's Publishing's "Plotting Made Easy" Complications Worksheet
Martha Alderson, aka The Plot Whisperer, has a 27-part series about plotting on her YouTube channel.
Janice Hardy's Tips for Plotting Your Novel on Chris Eboch's blog

Share in the comments your favorite ways to plot! Even those of us who don't like to plot can benefit from doing just enough to keep us from getting distracted from what's important.


  1. This is what some people use Scrivener for. Since I don't understand Scrivener, I'd rather use your post-it method. But, for the tech-inclined, it looks like this:

  2. I actually do have Scrivener! I love the corkboard and index cards, just haven't gotten into using the program much. I also like having a having the hard copy in front of me with the Post-its to move around.

  3. Hey Lynne! I am a notorious plotaphobe -- I've done post-its before, but not like you've shown. Love that. Loved hearing about your brainstorming session too -- letting yourself list several possibilities for the story to go seems so liberating. Gives you a roadmap to go by, with the possiblity for detours if the road gets monotonous. Thanks for sharing this great info!