Even the best writers get tangled up in plot sometimes. Finding the right balance between classic story structure and cliché or melodramatic plot developments can be difficult. Many writers find that they rush through the important parts, or feel their story drags during development. Taking time to think about plotting and pacing before you start writing can keep you on course, and help you get unstuck when writer’s block threatens.
This is part 4 of a 6-part blog series based on writing workshops called Chasing Your Tale: Building Your Writer’s Toolkit offered through the SheHive. “The SheHive exists to facilitate connection and growth for women seeking to live a life on the other side of should.” You can find out more about the workshop and sign up to attend here.
“Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.”Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing
The M.I.C.E. Quotient
Finding the start and end of your plot depend on where your focus lies. Stories can be about people, places, ideas, or events. Once you are clear about the main (and supporting) focuses of the story you are telling, the bookends of your tale will become clearer:
Milieu (Setting) – Journey to the Center of the Earth, Jules Verne
This is a story about a place or culture unknown to the reader and, usually, to the protagonist. It is common in gothic adventure and sci-fi genres. Here, an observer finds herself in a strange place, sees all the things there are to see there, is transformed by what she sees, and then returns the known world changed by what she saw.
Idea – Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie
This is a story about discovery or secret knowledge. It is common in mystery, memoir, and self-improvement genres. Here, a question is raised, and the characters discover bits of information along the way until ultimately the question is answered.
Character – Interview with the Vampire, Anne Rice
This is a story about people and personal growth. It is common in romance, historical fiction, and memoir genres. Here, the protagonist is dissatisfied with her present role in life, follows a process of change, and either settles into a new role or gives up the struggle and remains in the old role.
Event – Avengers: End Game, Marvel Comics
This is a story about something happening. This is common in action/adventure, sci-fi, fantasy, and historical fiction genres. The protagonist recognizes that there is something wrong with the fabric of the universe – the world is out of order. It is up to her to make things right. The story ends when the new order is established, or the old order is restored.
Common Story Arcs for Plotting Your Tale
Joseph Campbell, an American literary professor in the 1920s, had a theory: every mythic narrative is a variation on the same great story – the Monomyth. This Monomyth has come to be called the “Hero’s Journey” and it is true that many of our greatest stories follow this same structure:
- Call to Adventure – The hero receives an invitation into something new.
- Assistance – He gets help comes from a mentor.
- Departure – The hero crosses the threshold into the unknown.
- Trials – He faces and overcomes small adversities along the way.
- Approach – The hero faces the biggest ordeal, his worst fear.
- Crisis – The dark night of the soul, the hero faces death or defeat, and is reborn.
- Treasure – The hero overcomes the crisis and receives some reward or treasure.
- Result – The monsters either accept the hero or chase him out of the unknown world.
- Return – The hero returns to ordinary world.
- New life – The quest has changed the hero.
- Resolution – The loose ends of plotlines get tied up.
- Status Quo – The hero returns to life as normal, upgraded.
It is true that many of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters follow this structure, telling the story of a hero’s struggle against an external foe or antagonist. However, it is not the only story to be told.
The Heroine’s Journey: The Inner Struggle
Sometimes, the protagonist fights against something within herself, rather than an external opponent. Victoria Schmidt calls this the Heroine’s Journey. It follows a similar cyclical pattern, but breaks from Campbell’s Monomyth in important ways. Here’s what that story looks like:
- Perfect World – The heroine has coping strategies she believes will work.
- Betrayal / Realization – Her coping strategies fall apart.
- Preparing for the Journey – The heroine decides to do something by finding tools outside herself.
- Descent Past the Gates of Judgment – Giving up the old way exposes the heroine to feelings of guilt or shame.
- Eye of the Storm – The heroine gets a taste of success, which brings a false sense of security.
- Death / All is lost – The new tools are unsustainable 100% of the time; eventually the heroine fails and must accept defeat.
- Support – The heroine accepts she cannot be completely self-sufficient and accepts support from those around her.
- Rebirth / Moment of Truth – The heroine finds new resolve and “awakens” to see the world differently, choosing to face her fears
- Perfect World – She returns to her life with a spiritual or internal reward of passing on what she has learned to others or positively affecting those around her.
The Healing Journey
There are other, more situational story structures that may apply as well. For example, a memoir may follow the Healing Journey. This journey focuses on a physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual paradigm shift caused by a life-changing event. It shows how the main character learns to accept her new reality and circumstances with compassion for herself and those around her.
Framing Your Story: The Empirical Story Structure
Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to figure out how your story ends. In Writing for Story, a book about non-fiction narrative writing, John Franklin teaches a 5-part structure that helps to frame his stories. Each part culminates in a “focus” that sums up what has happened in the preceding section of the story, similar to the 5 acts of a Shakespearean play:
- Complicating Focus (the inciting incident or narrative hook)
- 1st Developmental Focus (often a flashback or failed first attempt)
- 2nd Developmental Focus (often a subplot, misstep, or new obstacle)
- Final Developmental Focus (often a moment of insight or training montage)
- Resolving Focus (the solution to the Complicating Focus is implemented)
Fiction and longer stories can follow this same structure, interconnecting complications and resolutions like the links of a chain. The most important thing to remember is whatever problem you set out in the Complicating Focus must be the problem that is solved in the Resolving Focus.
Planning the Plot: Storyboarding and Outlining
Once you know what your story is about and the form it is going to take, you can start to plan its steps or scenes. Storyboarding is a tool for visual thinkers that allows you to set the main beats of your story in order and quickly describe the important information that will be included in each scene. Storyboards don’t have to be works of art. Their visuals can be stick figures or even stock images, as long as they remind you where the story needs to go.
If you aren’t as visual, you can do the same thing with an outline. Use the plot structure you’ve chosen and then come up with one-line descriptions of scenes that could go at different points along the way. You could break your story up into acts or into the different steps along the Hero’s Journey or Heroine’s Journey. Try to come up with more scenes than you could ever need. Then, if your characters have different ideas as you are writing, let them follow their instincts and adjust the outline appropriately. It isn’t a rigid structure. Instead it is a tool to lead you on when you get stuck writing your first draft.
100 Scene Shuffle
- Brainstorm 5-10 scenes every day for 10 days
- Write each scene on a slip of paper
- Throw scene confetti or shuffle the slips – create disorder
- Sort the slips into Beginning, Middle, End, & “Maybe Not” piles
- Put the Beginning, Middle & End piles in order based on your story’s structure
- Add in connector / missing scenes
- Make an outline from your master list
There’s no question, plotting is hard work. But if you don’t do it before you start writing, you may hit a wall you aren’t equipped to climb on the way to your finished first draft. By taking the time to map out where your story is going, you can put together a completed story that answers all the questions and ties up all the loose plotlines you created along the way.
Lisa J. Schmidt is a writer, owner of Your Law Geek, and facilitator of Chasing Your Tale: Building Your Writer’s Toolkit hosted by the SheHive in Ferndale, Michigan. If you need help developing your next idea, sign up for her next workshop or contact Lisa directly here.