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Monday, August 5, 2013

The Organized Writer: Using a Chapter Framework to Manage Plots and Subplots

I should start by saying, first, I am not an organized writer. And that's part of the reason I'm writing this post. Until I started writing mysteries, I was a proud pantser who sorta/kinda organized plot events as she went along. But no more.

For one thing, mysteries need to be tightly plotted. For another, I'm contracted to turn in an outline many months in advance of a manuscript. And though the outline was helpful, it wasn't enough for me in terms of structuring my story. I needed an extra layer of organization that would help me flesh out and manage the main mystery plot, as well as the subplots. So I tried each of the following, sometimes in isolation, sometimes all together:

  • sticky notes
  • colored sticky notes
  • index cards
  • colored index cards
  • writers' software 
  • highlighting text in Word
  • changing the color of my text in Word
  • using an Excel spread sheet
  • using the table function in Word
  • using a large whiteboard with different color dry erase markers
  • using a blotter-size desk calendar for the timeline
  • making a flow chart of plot events
As you can imagine, my office is a pretty messy place. The index cards kept getting lost and the sticky notes wouldn't stay stuck. Excel, it turns out, will screw with you even more than Word, and I would end up getting confused by my own flow charts. (And I know that one of the QT bloggers uses writing software with great success, but her name is not Rosie.)

 So now I'm down to three main tools: the white board, which is invaluable in terms of scribbling ideas, re-ordering them, or just writing little notes to myself. The blotter size desk calendar serves well for a timeline; the blocks are large enough to write in, and personally, I need big visuals. But the board and the calendar, like my editorial outline, aid me in macro-plotting: where the story is going and how it's getting there. I think of those things as a map. It's the micro-plotting--exploring motivation and showing cause and effect, planting clues and red herrings, both to the mystery and to the personal life of my protagonist, and delineating the interior life of my main character--that I tend to get lost. So my third tool is the table function in Word, which I use to create a compass to go with the map:  

The table function in Word helps me track my main plot and subplots.
While working with Word can be less than rewarding for a writer, I do like the nifty table function. It's easy to use and manipulate. I set up a fairly simple chart for myself; the one pictured here is the one I'm using for my WIP, The Wedding Soup Murder. It uses a chapter breakdown in which I indicate place, time, date, and characters. I use red text for the main mystery plot, and other colors for the subplots. As I draft each chapter, I go back and fill in the chart. The chart, or my story compass, helps me stay on course in a number of ways.

For example, cozy mysteries move at a fairly quick pace. If I look back over my chart and see that the green, purple, and blue text is taking up more space than the red, I go back to the ms and ensure that the subplots aren't bogging down the main story. I can read straight down the red text and isolate the main plot from the subplots, to make sure the mystery arc is swift, tight, and logical without the distraction of my main character's love life. On the other side of things, I can choose a color and follow that subplot, but I can also see how it is threaded into the main story, chapter by chapter. The chart also helps me identify a missing element. My main character has two love interests; I indicate one in green text and the other in blue. When I looked over my chart I realized that the blue ink didn't show up until Chapter Six. Her second guy had gotten short shrift in the story, so now I am working on ways to introduce him sooner. One last reason to love the chart: it makes a nice break from composing. Filling in another chapter is rewarding, and provides evidence of my progress.

Whether we use sticky notes or fancy software, we all need to find our own way through our stories. What about you? What serves as your map? Your compass?

A Jersey girl born and bred, Rosie Genova left her heart at the shore, which serves as the setting for much of her work. Her new series, the Italian Kitchen Mysteries, is informed by her deep appreciation for good food, her pride in her heritage, and her love of classic mysteries, from Nancy Drew to Miss Marple. Her debut novel, Murder and Marinara, will be released October 1. An English teacher by day and novelist by night, Rosie also writes women’s fiction as Rosemary DiBattista. She lives fifty miles from the nearest ocean  in central New Jersey, with her husband, two of her three sons, and an ill-behaved fox terrier.


Shawn Oueinsteen said...

I love your system. It is similar to my own, but I will take value from yours and add it to mine. Mine is described best on my blog. http://www.f1reth0rns.blogspot.com/2009/07/long-before-i-started-writing-my-novel_9982.html and http://www.f1reth0rns.blogspot.com/2009/01/novel-writing-methodology_28.html. I will summarize here:

Long before I started writing my novel, I created an outline of chapters, with a synopsis of each chapter. That was the first version of this spreadsheet. As I wrote the novel, I modified the spreadsheet to match the actual novel. Occasionally, I added fields for issues I wanted to make sure not to forget. Those fields became my checklist for each chapter. So for the second draft of the novel, I read each chapter and compared it to my checklist. The checklist includes columns for "What makes the chapter?" "What are the chapter's purposes?" "Is it poignant?" "Is it a page turner?" "Are the characters strong?" "Are they consistent with the rest of the book?" There are quite a few other columns. See my blog for the complete list.

I also have a long list of thoughts on what a book needs. That is the second "methodology" entry on my blog, shown above.

In any event, I appreciate seeing your chapter framework.

Anonymous said...

I'm happy to have clicked on this terrific post, Rosie. I'm getting ready to begin outlining my first MG novel and don't have the slightest idea as to how to go about it. Your ideas might help, thank you.

Jai said...

This is very helpful. I'm going to begin editing my first draft in a couple of weeks and I like your approach very much.

Rosie said...

Thanks, guys. Very glad to help. It's really a matter of what works for you. (And Shawn, you work much harder at this than I do!)

Mart Ramirez said...

I will def have to try the TABLE function in Word!Thank you for sharing!!

Mart Ramirez said...

Thank you again for sharing this!!! Years ago I'd draw my own text boxes and was looking for an easy way to add boxes and nobody was bale to help. Finally!!!!

LJ Moz said...

Thank you, Rosie for the share! A compass is just what I needed :D

Rosie said...

It's taken me a while to learn my way around Word, but I find tables pretty user-friendly. Good luck with your writing!

Now I need one to help me get characters in and out of rooms!

Linda Maye Adams said...

I'm a pantser, so I don't use a map before I start writing. However, after I finish a scene, I do record information in a story bible. It's in Evernote. I list the setting(s), which may include the weather, moon phase, or high tide; the names of the characters in the scene along with any related information (i.e., what they're wearing); characters mentioned and any related information; and then four bullets I always answer -- Connection to last scene, escalation, setback, and unexpected. There might also be a few miscellaneous notes.