Carving Up Plot

Plotting is like eating a zebra.  No, wait.  Most of you haven’t eaten zebra.  Plotting is like eating…um…a zebra.

Regardless of your stance on eating meat, that I’m really talking about here is how difficult it might be if you go plotting your story tackling all the intricate details first, all your little character changes and whatnot.  I suppose I must have missed this because it took me most of the week to remember it while I began plotting my novel.

So here’s the mistake that I made.  After I got everything for my plot chart set up on my cork board – I was very pleased by how that turned out, by the way – I began wondering how each of the three main characters would change from chapter to chapter.  Makes sense because we’d be following those three guys, right?  But nothing popped into my head.  My brain didn’t shit gold nuggets of creativity, so I thought I’d procrastinate in a productive way by switching to the pink cards on the board, the ones reserved for theme and main action per chapter.  Before long, I said to myself, “Okay, I’ll figure out the main action of each chapter and then try to connect each character to it.”  Because, since this is a war story, most of the events driving the plot are external and we see how the characters cope and adapt to them.

But even so, some chapters came to me naturally, while I drew a blank on others.  And that was when I realized, “Hey, I’ve got these strips running up and down the sides of the board showing me the main sections of the story.”

So here’s a recommendation if you’re having trouble plotting your own work, and this might help or it might not.  I’ll leave it up to you to experiment.  Imagine your novel is a fresh zebra carcass.  Or better yet, a turkey, if you’re not into zebra.

There’s no way you’re going to devour it in one bite.  I don’t care if you can expand your jaws like a snake.  So you take it and cut it up into large chunks.  The legs.  The thighs.  The wings.  These large portions are the main arcs of the story.  You identify what each section is about, distill it to a sentence or maybe even just a quick phrase.

Now you go further.  You break the wing, snapping it along the joints.  This is you breaking each arc into individual chapters, and as you do, think of each arc as it’s own self-contained story with a beginning, middle, and end, each one building upon the arc before it.  For example, you have an introductory arc that establishes characters and sets up the story universe.  Then the next arc takes those characters and gives them tension.  Give them one even spanning a few chapters, and devote those chapters to raising the stakes for them.  Dig it?

Once you’ve set up the chapter-by-chapter sequence – once you’ve taken those larger cuts of turkey and broken them up into smaller pieces – you pick up each chapter and bite into it, each bite devloping your characters little by little reflecting subtle changes as the story progresses, giving them decision and action based on what’s going on in the chapter.

Before you know it, you’ll have worked (or eaten) your way through your novel’s basic structure.  You can sit back and marvel at it, pat yourself on the back, and have some dessert.

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