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4 Steps for Organizing Plot Ideas Into a Novel

Friday, July 9, 2010

In the last post, we talked about where to find plot ideas. Once we’ve dug deep for all those treasures, how do we begin to organize all the information into a full length novel?

Obviously, everyone will have a different process for how they plan out their novels, and there’s no wrong or right way of doing it. With that said, I’ll share what I do with the hope that maybe you can glean something, even if only inspiration!

1. Establish Set Pieces.

The term set piece is a screenwriting term that means, “The big, audience pleasing scenes that deliver on the genre elements of the movie” (according to screenwriter Doug Eboch in his post Set Pieces Sell Scripts).

In fiction writing, set pieces are the unforgettable, major turning-points or events that happen in our book. So after I finish brainstorming plot ideas and developing my characters (see the free Character Worksheet above), I make a list of set pieces—the biggest and most critical events I want to include in my book.

I usually try to put them in the general order in which they’ll appear in the book—particularly into a basic 3-Act structure: a beginning with an inciting incident that pushes my character out of ordinary life; a middle crisis that works toward the black moment; then the final climax that eventually leads to resolution.

2. Develop a Three-Strand Conflict.

I give my stories three distinct strands of conflict. First, I look for an over-arching external conflict—a problem or obstacle that my character must face during the entire length of the novel, and it usually involves an antagonist of some kind.

Second, I give my characters internal conflicts—character weaknesses, flaws they must work through as the story progresses. Of course they won’t become perfect, but they need to grow in self-awareness.

And third, I develop relationship conflicts—tension and problems that will keep my main characters emotionally apart for the entire book (which is especially critical in a romance).

My goal is to have all three of my conflict strands relate to each other. The more intertwined they are, the better. It’s my job as the story unfolds to braid all of the strands together as smoothly as possible, until by the end, the reader can’t easily distinguish where one starts and one stops.

3. Jot Down a Short Chapter-by-Chapter Outline.

Once I have my set pieces organized and my three levels of conflicts outlined, then it’s easier for me to think of the overall frame work of where I need to go with the book. I generally determine approximately how many chapters I want and how many words per chapter. (Very roughly, mind you! It’s just a guide to help me stay somewhat on track!)

Then in my spiral notebook, I use my set pieces and three-strand conflict outline to make a few notes about what I hope to accomplish in each chapter—no more than a couple sentences.

4. Plan Scenes.

Over the years of writing, I’ve come to rely more and more upon the technique of writing by scenes. In fact, with the book I most recently finished, the majority of the book cuts from one scene to the next with very few transitional links.

As I’ve pondered why I like writing this way, I’ve realized that ultimately writing by scenes is one of the best ways to SHOW our story. We place our characters on the stage, have them act things out. When it’s over, we drop the curtain and open it again with the next scene. We’re continually showing the action of our story without having an intrusive narrator come out between acts and fill us in on what happens between times—as if we need to know every detail to be entertained.

Before I start the actual writing of each scene, I make notes on the scene including: Time/Date, Setting, POV (looking back to make sure I’m varying these well enough). Then I ask myself these questions: What is the goal of the scene? What am I trying to accomplish? How am I moving the plot forward?

Once I finish the outline of a scene, I write it (on my laptop). I try to end the scene with a Read-On-Prompt. After I’m done, I jot down my outline for my next scene in my notebook, write it, and repeat the process until the book is done. (Incidentally, the scene-by-scene outline later serves as a great tool for organizing rewrites.)

There you have it. That’s a quick overview of my process for organizing a novel.

What’s your process? Do you follow any of my steps? Is there anything listed above that’s new to you? What else helps you in organizing all your plot ideas? Please share! We’d all love to hear!

51 comments:

  1. Great list and very helpful! Thanks for sharing it so clearly. :O)

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  2. Your organized approach is inspiring. I struggle with outlining...it's an old pain associated with writing term papers...but in my head, I know where I want to go...and scene by scene, I find myself getting there.
    Another helpful post Jody...Thank you.

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  3. This is very good Jody. I'm taking a course from Tamy Cang now and she is teaching us almost this same thing although from the reverse as self-editing. But I plan to approach my next novel this way know that I understand better the components I need to work in. So much more to this than I ever thought!

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  4. I've worked off of 1&3 in the past. That's of course after I've spent enough time w/ my characters to know whether I'll be able to stand them for the next few years.

    I'm printing this.
    ~ Wendy

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  5. I write he third draft as it comes. I sit and write. And the next day I sit and write and so on and so forth. I enjoy playing with my words. Once the book is finished I go back and map the book. It is a similar process to yours. I then edited based on that. Even memoir is written according to the three act structure. All stories are stories after all. :) The freeing thing about the novel I am working on at the moment is that events can be changed to suit the needs of my book. not so with memoir.

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  6. Love it! I start with characters. I have this elaborate spread sheet that's all about hero/heroine's GMC and inner beliefs and flaws and all that. Then I start weaving the story, trying to think of major turning point scenes and fill in the middle. I'm a fan of post it notes, because I can move those around. Once I have the story organized, I type the outline out in a separate document and start writing!

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  7. Oh, this is good. Really good. Does anyone still use old-fashioned index cards?

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  8. I plot very similarly to you. And I agree that it's best to start the scene as late as possible and end it as early as possible!

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  9. This is great, Jody, just what I needed. I am a structured writer and this is sorta kinda what I had in mind, but you have laid it out for me.

    thanks.
    Teresa

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  10. You have a very simular style to me. Though, I start with the characters.
    This is a great post, it has made me feel as though I am on the right track. Thank you.

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  11. When I get home, I am printing this post. Thanks for the great tips!

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  12. It's interesting to see the different approaches writers take. The idea of using those audience-pleasing scenes is one I'd never heard before. Thanks for providing us with terrific tips!

    Marissa

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  13. So many great ideas! Even though I write fiction short stories, all these apply.

    Going to print this out for reference and use. Thanks!

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  14. The first two are what I have to have in order to start a book. Without those first two parts, I won't have any need to finish, either. I haven't yet begun to organize chapters. I generally know what the next scene is going to be every time I sit down to write and keep a map in my head. I'm very averse to writing everything down, but I know I need to discipline myself that way.

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  15. Jody, thanks for sharing this absolutely wonderful post. Its really very informative, its like attending an online writing class on the craft of writing a book.
    I start my book by writing a short synopsis of just one paragraph. Then I write the longer synopsis of one or two pages. A chapter by chapter outline is a must for me.
    Then I start writing the book and rewriting it many times.
    And I am definitely going to print this out for reference.

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  16. Oooh! I appreciate this opportunity to get inside your brain, Jody...even if I don't write fiction. How interesting! You are such a wealth of information.

    (But all this makes me glad I write nonfiction.) LOL

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  17. Oh, I needed this! I wasn't very structured with my last book, but I want to be the next go around. I'm bookmarking this post!

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  18. This is an excellent post! VERY HELPFUL! I am having so many difficult in my first novel. It is not jiving. I feel like it is all WRONG. I think that I approached it wrong. I did not do enough planning. I am going to start over and use this technique. I am only 4 chapters in and don't mind starting over. If I had a printer I would print this off. Thanks so much again for a wonderful post!
    God Bless
    Heather

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  19. Definitely some great stuff I can incorporate here!

    The gap between plot and first draft for me is usually filled with an outline on spreadsheet. (Much easier to keep updating for one.) It's usually not filled in my the time I start writing, though I've entertained thoughts of going to a structured chapter scene based outline (I. A. B. II. A. 1. 2. B. III., etc)

    Usually I mark intended then actual word count (helps with pacing) and the timeline. This novel is 1st person, but I've used POV columns before too.

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  20. Amazing! Just what I needed right now. I'm going to use it to edit my current novel so that it's tighter and flows faster. Thank you so much! I'd never thought much about word count per chapter (actually I never thought ANY THING about word count before writing), but I think that might help me in future books and to keep it brief. Thank you so much!

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  21. Great post - this was really helpful!
    #2 had occurred to me, but never so clearly. I'm DEFINITELY going to be using it in writing. Thanks!

    I've actually made scene outlines and jotted down Time/Date, Setting, and POV (and I've looked back to make sure they're varied, too!). So I've got something halfway right, and that's encouraging.

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  22. Love your process. Mine is similar.
    I'd never heard of set pieces, but it makes sense. I'm going to have to check the book out!

    Have a great weekend!

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  23. Hi Jody - Great post. I'm following almost the exact same method while writing my current novel. The only differences are, I did not intentionally develop a three-strand conflict and I'm switching the last two steps.

    I had the overall conflict for the story, but the internal and relational conflicts sort of worked themselves in without much effort.

    I'm currently in the last stage of creating a scene list in which I'm utilizing a spreadsheet to outline my scenes. After the list is complete, I plan to go back through and figure out where the best places are to fit chapter breaks and plan to write a narrative outline chapter by chapter.

    Finally, you asked what other things do we use to help organize our ideas; my one, must-have tool - a whiteboard. I'm lost without it. :)

    Again, great post.

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  24. Great tips. I do a lot of these things too. I like the idea of starting with the set pieces - I do this at a later stage, when I spend a lot of time asking myself what's missing. I plan by scenes too, always asking myself what the purpose is and how it is keeping the engine of the story ticking over.
    I use any tool I can to examine my story's structure and effectiveness, then I can sit back and really enjoy the telling. And @Sandra, I also use index cards!

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  25. I've been doing a little bit of writing lately, though not much because I have pain when sitting (and doing everything else really), thanks to sciatica problems. Anyway, this is a great help and I'll try these ideas! Thanks for sharing!

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  26. Thanks so much for this, Jody! Like so many others, I'm printing your tips out to draw inspiration from. With all this help, the second book that is now begging for my attention should go, hopefully, a bit faster than my first one did :-)

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  27. I think I might try this for this one novel I'm trying to revise, since it's main problem is it has no plot (I know, ouch!). Thanks for the insight!

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  28. This post is another wonderful resource, Jody! You are so good at organizing the exact information that we need. I'd like to share this column with my writers' group, if that's okay. I think most of them are seat-of-the-pants writers and would find your steps very helpful.

    My system uses your steps #1 and 2, followed by making a very short list of potential key scenes that will carry the story forward. I write from scene to scene, but like to be free to create them as I go. My imagination gets squelched if I'm too tied into a formal outline for the whole book.

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  29. I get so excited that my strategies get thrown out the window, but I’m determined to keep on track on my new WIP to keep the revision process down.

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  30. Hi Jody -

    You make it sound so easy, but my SOTP brain freezes when I try to plot. I do know the beginning, end, and major characters before I start. I guess that's a start. :)

    Blessings,
    Susan

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  31. Jody, this is a great launching pad for me. I quickly discovered I am indeed a plotter and the more thoroughly I understand my story, the more I enjoy the writing. Thanks so much for the great tips.

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  32. Thanks so much Jody! I often struggle with plot-- ratcheting up doesn't come naturally to my conflict-averse self, so this is really useful

    Great blog!
    Perri

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  33. Hello Jody,

    #2 is especially good as I'm pondering over the different types of conflict in my main WIP currently. I have given my main character 3 conflicts.

    Thanks so much for posting great information for aspiring writers, I always find your posts particularly helpful! - almost like having a mentor along the way! ;)

    Have a lovely weekend! ;)

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  34. Thanks, Jody, very timely for me. I'm using chapter and scene outline for my revision.

    What sort of goals do you write down for your scenes? Are they like, lower tension before death scene, move romance along...?

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  35. Jody, this is excellent. I can see some similarities to your favorite book, Plot & Structure (which I'm reading now). But I also see that you've added so much more to the process, along with detailed organization tips. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

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  36. bibliotraveler asked: "What sort of goals do you write down for your scenes? Are they like, lower tension before death scene, move romance along...?"

    My answer: I get really specific with what I want to do in each scene, things I want my characters to accomplish, the conflict and tension I want to show, specific sensory details I want to try to include, sub plots I need to weave in, minor characters that need to make an appearance.

    In other words, the notes I make for each scene are the brainstorm for what I COULD include within the scene. After I write the scene, I go back and circle the things I don't end up using because then maybe I can use them in a later scene.

    Hope that helps! :-)

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  37. You have listed some great advice here. Plotting is a real problem area for me. I tend to dive in and quickly find myself out of depth. Thanks so much for sharing your clearly written process.

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  38. This is fantastic-ly helpful to me. I have 3 x 5 cards lined up on the floor in a semi circle in my office. It's the timeline of events, but not the timeline.. or not the sequence of the story itself. I was trying to explain that to my husband and he didn't get it. He kept saying (or asking).. but I thot your opening scene was based in the year 1864? ..and your first card is 1770? Arggh. I couldn't explain it. But the thing is, I have to get it all lined up first, then move to the next phase.

    oh well.

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  39. Jody I love this explanation of writing your book as a compilation of scenes. Sometimes I get lost in those in between chapters! I am going to put your advice to use:)

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  40. I used to wing it when I wrote, but now I'm finding I have to preplot ahead, following many of the steps you've mentioned. It might be because I'm writing a lot faster than I used to so I don't have time as a luxury. Preplotting keeps me focussed. Or maybe it's just an age thing? ;)

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  41. Wonderful post, Jody. You always have such great advice here, but I so rarely have time to leave a comment. Today, I'm making time!

    I'm so glad to hear you write in scenes, because that's exactly what I do. I find it gives me more freedom to write the most important parts of the story. Any necessary transitions can be added later, but I think some styles of writing don't require them all the time.

    Thank you!

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  42. Yeah, I kinda do this, but more a la the snowflake method.

    Fun!

    Then I throw in a flurry of seat of pants stuff!!

    Is your blog picture new?
    Love it!

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  43. I love the organized and concise way you've put this together. I think it's going to be a huge help on my next project. Thank you.

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  44. I have printed this off for future reference. I made a decision to plot my next book, properly. I am sure I will find it easier, and not so much of a mountain to climb.

    Thanks for the information. :)

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  45. Thank you for this, Jody! I'm printing it out to keep on hand.

    I hope all is well,
    Jen

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  46. Thanks so much for this and the character worksheet, Jody! It's been so long since I've been at the beginning stage of novel-writing, I'd forgotten how much work it was. (The last book took fifteen years to perfect.) This was a great wake up call. ;D

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  47. Great advice! I am writing my first novel and I am struggling right now. This post has inspired me to try something new and I like the idea of writing by scenes. Thanks for sharing!

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  48. Thank you very much for this great post. Can I ask a question?

    You say 'I try to end the scene with a Read-On-Prompt.'

    Do you mean the prompt is for yourself to help with the next scene? Or do you mean the prompt is a 'hook' in the fiction to encourage your reader to keep reading?

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  49. Hi Ruth,

    I try to keep readers wanting to turn the page. Ends of scenes or chapters are natural stopping places for readers. So, I try hard to hook them into not being able to put the book down at that natural ending place. Hope that makes sense!

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  50. Thank you Jody :)
    This is a fabulously easy-to-understand approach to planning that I'm just itching to try. I particularly love the idea of plotting out your scene first and then writing it BEFORE heading on to the next one. So often I get bogged down in the planning of future scenes that nothing actually gets written!

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    Replies
    1. Hi Melanie!

      Glad you liked the post! Hope this format will help with your planning! :-)

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