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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

How to Plot (or Revise) Your Book

Are you just starting out writing a book and not sure if you should outline? Or perhaps you’re neck-deep in revisions and in need of guidance.

This nine-step method of unknown origin is perfect for those not-so-good at organizing, or for those who thrive on being neat and tidy. I read about this trick on Cynthia Jaynes Omololu’s blog. (Cynthia is the author of the newly-released Dirty Little Secrets, published by Walker Books. Congrats, Cynthia!) Word has it that this method first appeared on the Verla Kay Message Boards. (I would love to know who invented it!)

9 Steps for Plotting Fiction

Start with a piece of paper. It should be large enough to write on. I used 11x14 just to give me a little more room, but 8x11 is fine. Draw two parallel lines both vertically and horizontally across the page, creating 9 comparable boxes, as if you were starting a game of tic-tac-toe. These boxes represent chapters, scenes, or sections, depending upon your book's intended length.

Number the boxes, starting from the upper left: 1, 2, 3.
Next row, starting from the left: 4, 5, 6.
Last row: 7, 8, 9.
Title each box…

1. Triggering Event

First things first. What happens? Why have you bothered to write a book, and more importantly, why should a reader invest time flipping through its pages? Your triggering event is the answer to these questions, so make it a good one. Also, don't make the reader wait very long for it. First page, first paragraph, first sentence. These are good spots for a triggering event.

2. Characterization

Generally, books succeed or fail on the strength of their characters, more so than on the strength of their plots. Box 2 is where you explore what makes your protagonist tick. No, this isn't an excuse for drawn out exposition, history, or back story. If your triggering event is captivating, the reader will discover enough about the protagonist in Box 2 simply by reading how he or she reacts to the event.

3. First Major Turning Point

By now, your plot is picking up steam, and because of Box 2, the reader is invested in the ride. Time to throw a curve ball. This turning point can be either a positive event for your protagonist, or a negative one, but it should lay the groundwork for the negative turning point in Box 6. There is a reason these boxes are touching one another; they interrelate. For example, Box 3 may introduce the motivation of the antagonist, which then justifies the events in Box 6.

4. Exposition

You've earned some time to fill the reader in on important data. Since this box touches Box 1, here's where you shed some light on that triggering event. Since it also touches Box 7, you get to foreshadow your pro-tagonist's darkest hour. Box 4 often reveals a relationship, character flaw, or personal history that contributes to the dark times ahead.

5. Connect the Dots

Here is where many plots fall apart. Box 5 represents the trickiest part of fiction, and since it is the center of the diagram (and book) it must connect to all the boxres around it. (2, 4, 6, & 8.) Kind of like the nucleus at the center of a bomb, Box 5 should tick systematically upon elements introduced in Boxes 2 and 4. And like the calm before the storm, Box 5 should give the false impression of resolution before heading like a freight train to Box 6. Most importantly, it needs to provide foreshadowing for the protagonist's revelation in Box 8. That's a lot for a little box to do, but focus on efficient prose to get it right. Your plot depends upon it.

6. Negative Turning Point

Here's where that bomb explodes and all (word censored) breaks loose. Good thing you laid the groundwork in Box 3. Good thing, too, that Box 9 will deliver some just desserts.

7. Antagonist Wins

The protagonist is defeated here, and the antagonist apparently wins. How the protagonist deals with the darkest hour of defeat depends upon the traits and/or story developed in Box 4, which leads to his or her revelation in the next square.

8. Revelation

Of course! The protagonist's revelation turns the tide. Here is where the protagonist connects the dots and overcomes the obstacles of Boxes 6 and 7 via the device introduced in Box 5.

9. Protagonist Wins

The negative turning point in Box 6 is rectified while the character's resolve from Box 8 is brought into full bloom. Congratulations! Another great tale told greatly.

This method has worked very well for me. I taped two 8x11 sheets together, folded it into nine squares, then printed the above text and cut each step out, taping it into the squares. Instant poster. Next I taped two more 8x11 sheets together, made 9 squares, and IN PENCIL wrote down my plot points. Voila! Instant plot map, easy as pie.

What about you - have you used this method before? Or is there another method that you depend on?

*Special thanks to Plot This, Katie Anderson's and Sarah Frances Hardy’s blog, for pointing me in the right direction.

Suzette Saxton writes books for tots, teens, and in-betweens. She is represented by Suzie Townsend of FinePrint Literary.


Stina said...

Great suggestions for those who are new to preplanning and outlining.

This definitely way more organized than I am in the beginning. I start with an idea for a story and jot down notes. Usually I'm working on another project at the time so it's not like I have to come up with an outline overnight. This also gives my ideas time to ferment and grow. As I work through the characerization (which I do first) I come up with even more ideas, and some of my old ideas may get cut. Since I loooove worksheets, I fill in some of those for fun. Then I work on my outline.

Sherry Dale Rogers said...

This is awsome and so much more fun than the way I was outlining.

Elana Johnson said...

Dude, most of you know how much I abhor outlining in any form. But I totally think I could do this! In fact, I'm going to try it for my next novel. Maybe it'll be a success story! Thanks Suz!

Portia said...

I love this! I've read lots of tips on plotting and outlining, but this seems like a much more logical and concise starting point. This actually seems ... fun!

Anne Gallagher said...

What a fantastic idea!!! I wish I'd thought of it. I will use this and post this as a link, it's fabulous.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, this is GREAT!!! I'm printing it out now! Thanks! :)

Brooklyn Ann said...

Thanks for this! I'm stuck on my current project. I think I'll try this!

Melanie Hooyenga said...

I never ever do exercises but I've already filled in my boxes (or started to.) GREAT post!

Angie said...

Looks like a great tool! Thanks for sharing.

Stephanie McGee said...

Bookmarking. If I can muster the courage I'll try it sometime.

Suzette Saxton said...

Thanks so much, everyone! I'm glad you like it. I was surprised myself by how easy and fun it is.


Edward G. Talbot said...

This seems like a great tool, but I can't resist saying that I prefer if the protagonist doesn't win. He/she doesn't have to lose, but I tend to like the protagonist have to sacrifice so much that it doesn't feel like a victory.

C. Michelle Jefferies said...

While I am loyal to the "Story Structure" by Larry Brooks on Storyfix.com, this method sounds like a good way to double check my plot. I love how the squares are interconnected and I definately need to try this. Great post and thanks for the heads up on the method.

Katie Anderson said...

I LOVE this method! Am in the midst of using it myself

Alli Sinclair said...

This post couldn't have come at a better time - I'm starting on a new WIP and I PROMISED myself I would plot more thoroughly - now I have the tools to do it. So... thanks heaps!

Jessica Shope said...

Excelent bit of advice. =] I mentally mapped out my own book within the nine boxes while reading through this post, and I think I was on the right track with mine. I'll remember this next time I start a story.

Great post!

Jemi Fraser said...

Great information here - thanks! :)


I first saw this on SF and Katie's blog as well. What a great method--definitely going to try it out, b/c I've reached a "What the heck am I writing about again?" moment. Not good. I need direction.

Pamela said...

I'm typically not that organized in the beginning. I have tried several different techniques when starting something, including profile sheets, notecards, and outlines. This one certainly sounds like one I might want to try out sometime! Hopefully I'll figure out what works best for me soon. Although, it may just be a matter of what works best for each thing I work on.

Carolyn V. said...

I have a confession, I am a plotting nerd. I love plotting, I love classes on plotting, and posts on plotting! Thanks - this is awesome. =)

Suzette Saxton said...

Great comments, everyone. You know, I was surprised by how well this method works for existing manuscripts that just need tightening, etc. You will have to let me know how this works out for you.

Kimberly Job said...

I love this idea. I'm stuck in my WIP, so I'm going to try this today. Thanks for sharing.

Unknown said...

Fun post. For those interested in structure and plot, an amazing resource out there is a book called SAVE THE CAT! (This is not an advertisement - it's not a WD book ;-)

The book is in regards to plotting a screenplay, but the beats and three-act analysis in the book transcends screenwriting and can be used for any kind of fiction or memoir (which is probably why it's sold like 35,000 copies - a TON for a writing book). It's probably the best book on writing I've read in years.

Chuck Sambuchino

Anne R. Allen said...

Simple and useful. I think it can help a novelist at any point in the writing process.

Christine Danek said...

Thank you for this. I am starting to revise and this will help.

Silke said...

Great Stuff.
I see you found my blog, Suzette. :)

I have fixed the mention of the originator of this, thank you for correcting me! Much appreciated. :)

Those who are interested, I've laid out a grid in Word and uploaded it with the points already in it, ready for printing. :)
It's on my blog.
(http://www.evilauthor.com) Sorry for posting the addy, but I'm not sure it's linked with my google account.

Suzette Saxton said...

Thanks, Chuck, can't wait to read SAVE THE CAT!

Thanks for the link to your blog, Silke. The downloads are an awesome tool!

Erin Kuhns said...

I am definitely going to try this out. It might give me that missing piece I'm lacking when it comes to organizing my novel.

Thank you!!!!

Suzette Saxton said...

I'm glad you found this helpful, Erin!

Angela Ackerman said...

Oh thanks for this. I'm experimenting with outlining, trying to see what method works best for me. Looking forward to giving this a try. :)

Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

Unknown said...

This is a great post! I'm definitely going to be trying this while editing my WIP and then plotting my 2nd book.
Hope you don't mind if I reblog it! With full credit of course (let me know if you don't want me to)Thanks!

LaurenLouise57 said...

Just discovered this in my Pinterest feed and it arrived at a great time. I have the first draft of a novel done; this will help me in editing/revising it. Thank you.