Writerly Wednesdays–The Plot Wall

Plotting doesn’t come naturally to me. I mean, yes, I’m an evil genius, but plotting a (good) story isn’t as easy as it seems. That’s the beauty of writing, isn’t it? You’re not supposed to see how hard it is.

Temperamentally, I’m a conflict-avoider and very easy-going. I don’t get very worked up about things, and if I do, I hide it. Well, let me tell you, that makes it hard to write a good story. It doesn’t affect the mechanics, but it does affect the structure–and even the

The plot wall.

The plot wall.

soul–of the story. A good story needs to have a well-constructed beginning, middle, and end. There has to be something purposeful pulling the reader through the events. That thing is conflict. But when you’re like me, it’s hard to conjure that. It just isn’t necessarily in me to imagine and realize riveting conflict.

That’s one half of my problem. The other half is the mental task of forming a coherent plot once you have the outlines of the beginning, middle, and end. I tend to have a whole bunch of ideas scattered all over the place. The hard part is to pick up those threads, which individually mean nothing, and putt them together into something coherent. It’s almost impossible to do this in my head. It won’t fit itself together properly because I don’t see all the pieces. I have to write it down. But just writing down events in a list doesn’t help. I want to rearrange, add, and delete. That’s hard to do when all these various pieces are just written on a piece of paper,or even when they’re on a computer screen.

So the solution was sticky notes: scribble down an idea, slap it on the wall. Rearrange, add, and delete as necessary. Repeat.

This method proved invaluable with my latest project. I won’t say it was effective–no one else has had a chance to weigh in on whether the finished product is any good. But I will say it was helpful. I was having absolute fits piecing together the back half of the novel. I had a ton of ideas, most of them extremely compelling to me. They popped into my head as vivid as a waking dream. But these visions–these ideas–weren’t much use individually. I needed to bridge the gap from one to another, make them all fit. Hence, I wrote down all

Chapter summaries.

Chapter summaries.

the ideas I had (for instance, “Hannah and Elijah disappear–Harry shooting his gun”) and the places I wanted to go (for instance, the “showdown” at the end). Then I started filling in the spaces in between (for instance, “Augustine arrives”).

My job was made harder by the fact that I planned to switch perspectives back and forth between my two main characters. I had to balance out which scenes were seen from whose perspective. I didn’t want to add fluff to one perspective just for the sake of alternating chapters. I wanted to make it all count. To make the task easier, I placed Caroline’s chapters on the left and Everett’s on the right.

The end result, I think, actually works amazingly well, considering all the trouble I had. I even went back to this method when reworking the front half of the book, to good effect.

Also, if you notice, there’s more on my plot wall than just the white stickies with chapter summaries. There are also yellow stickies. These are ideas that were jotted down while I was at work or on the bus. If I didn’t have a yellow sticky on hand, I wrote the idea on my hand or another piece of paper, then transferred it. I didn’t want to clutter my plot wall with a million different types of sticky note.

There are also quotes written out in my own hand in marker. They’re colorful and bold because I like colorful and bold. I wanted some quotes that aren’t necessarily inspirational but aide-memoires and reminiscent of the time period I’m writing about. In this case, that’s

Quotes.

Quotes.

the early 19th century. I have several Lincoln quotes, an Emily Dickinson quote, and a Thomas Jefferson quote. Most of them are about the slavery question, which is central to the plot of my current project and was of course the most important question in American history.

I will be very sad the day that my plot wall has to come down. Even though I’m not actively using it any more, it still makes me happy. Maybe this method will help writers elsewhere. I hope so. As for the other half of my problem–creating compelling conflict–well, I’m still working on that. But when I have that figured, I know just how to make sense of it all: a plot wall.

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