Tuesday, June 16, 2015

2 Solutions to Plotting and Chronology Problems

This week, I was stuck. Stuck in the quagmire of plotting my reeeeeediculously complicated work-in-progress Shadows and Light, with its double hero/villain narrators with all their plot points, which have to match up since their character arcs are necessarily entwined; and chronology, so that the narrators don't operate in different dimensions. Everything in this book affects something else, so it's been a bit of a nightmare to plot.
I'm sure some of you can relate. You get frustrated, you have no idea what you should do next, and wonder if the book is worth all the work and if you shouldn't just elope with a new plot-bunny love.
I have two things to say to you if you ever have had or ever will have (save the post for future reference, alright?) this problem. Every writer will eventually have this issue, so you can all bookmark this blog now.
First: yes, your novel is worth the work. Don't give up! No one accomplishes anything by giving up, so keep going. If you need to, take a break, but don't let yourself abandon the project for dead. You will get past this bump in the road and your novel will be infinitely better for it.
Second . . . I may have a few ideas to help you get past the aforementioned bump in the road. Today I got over my bump, so I'm going to share what helped me in my plotting with all of you. I love that word. It makes me sound like the world ruler I aspire to be.

Use sticky notes. I tried this plotting method for the first time this week, and I swear it solved half of my problems. Up until now I just used plain ole' word document outlines and even the Scrivener cork board, which worked fine until I hit snags in my character arc/plot point progression. Scrivener was great but it only lets you see a limited amount of your plot at any one time. So anyway, sticky notes are amazing. Here is what to do:

  1. Find a wall large enough and empty enough to be plastered with paper squares. If there is no such wall, take down some art work. Okay, no, but seriously you can also use something like a tri-fold board or the back of a door.
  2. I got three different colors of sticky notes, one color for Ace and one for Mara - my two narrators - and one for multi-arc events and ideas. You can use as few or as many as you want.
  3. I set up my laptop near my appropriately empty wall and pulled up the plot points I had for Ace and Mara on the screen.
  4. I wrote down just a sentence or two for each plot point, starting at what I figured came first and progressing through both point of views chronologically (my chronology wasn't necessarily accurate - it was just estimation). As soon as you write the first plot point on a note, stick it to the wall. Each successive plot point goes to the right of the one before. Don't forget to use the different colors for the different POVs.
  5. DO NOT STOP IF YOU GET TO A PLOT POINT SECTION YOU HAVE TO FIX. Make a note of it and any ideas that come to you and keep pasting the plot to the wall.
  6. Keep going until you've gotten all your plot points onto sticky notes and they're all lined up on the wall.
I used blue for Ace, pink for Mara, and purple for multi-arc events and for my ideas.. Notes go left to right and top to bottom.
Something about handwriting each successive point helped me think things through easily. Whenever an idea hit me that solved a snag I spotted, I wrote it down but didn't stop to correct it on the wall. Once I'd reached the end, I had a few notes with my ideas on it. So for an hour or so I took advantage of the sticky notes and moved them around, occasionally adding new ones, until I had my plot all smoothed out. 
You can also stick the notes to each other, letting you combine points into a single one or decide on what goes into each chapter.
A great thing about using the different colors is that you can see how much of each narrator you've got. You can see if any area is very heavy on one narrator and light in another, and it just helps you to visualize your entire plot. 
I have fallen in love with this plotting method and shall use it forevermore.

As far as chronology snags - and believe me, I have quite a few since I can't fit six weeks' worth of events in between Halloween and Thanksgiving - I just used a simple pen and notebook. I thought about using my timeline program but I didn't feel like getting bogged down with all the extras and technological frills.
I started at day one of my plot, which was all nicely smoothed out thanks to the sticky notes. In my notebook I wrote "day 1: day of the week" and then my first plot point. Then I looked at my next plot point and decided whether or not it was in the same day as the previous one. It was, so I wrote it directly under the first one, indented away from the "day 1" label so that it looked nice and neat. I kept going until I decided it was time for a new day, at which point I skipped a line and wrote "day 2: next day of the week" and assessed the next plot point. I used the holiday of Halloween to create a date anchor for my plot points, but didn't actually write the dates out.
I figured out that my plot has to begin on a Friday, since the events of Day 2 are better if they take place on a weekend - but on Day 1 they HAVE to be at school.
It looks something like this:

DAY 1 FRI: Mara argues with Victoire in the cafeteria.
                    Mara defends Ace in the hallway.
                    Ace ignores good advice from someone with a bland Destiny in mock combat session
                    Ace notices Victoire for the first time
                    Mara meets Gabriel in the park
                    Ace picks up, sets up, and plays a keyboard in secret
                    Mara gets home late and argues with her parents

DAY 2 SAT: Mara makes peace with her mother
                    Mara and Ace confirm guest list for birthday party

DAY 4 MON: Ace is promoted to Field Apprentice

Note: write the day number even if there are no events to put under it. Keeping the gaps lets you easily count how many days have passed, and also gives you room to draw a few arrows if you need to shift something backwards or forwards a day or two.
I kept going until I came across my first problem: I had six weeks of events after Halloween, and the last even was supposed to happen on Thanksgiving. I can move the plot point that originally happened on Halloween, but my Thanksgiving plot point has to stay on Thanksgiving. So for now, I've stopped, and now I'm going to get digital. I'll go into my timeline program (check out my post on making timelines here) and enter in all my plot points, working backwards from my fixed Thanksgiving point and spacing the points according to the gaps I've figured out in my notebook. The nice thing about working with Aeon, my timeline program, is that I can shift a group of events to a different time frame while preserving their relation in time to each other. So I'll use Aeon to sort out the kinks with my Halloween/Thanksgiving problem, then I'll go back to the notebook and continue until I hit another snag.
Why bother with the different formats? Writing everything out in a simple list format helps me visualize the passing time. It is easy to understand and simple to do, which makes it easy to spot problems you've got. It is really easy to figure out how much time has passed since all you have to do is count - no adding and subtracting dates. But once you have to shift the time frame of an entire group of plot points, it is easier to work in digital so that you can just click and drag things around instead of writing and rewriting dozens of dates.

By the end of all this I will have not only all my plot discrepancies sorted out, but also my chronology. I'll have a timeline set up and I'll be ready to sort everything into an outline - but I'm not thinking about that yet because there is already enough work to do. Besides that, though, these two things have really enabled me to think through my plotting/chronology problems and figure things out without getting overwhelmed.

What do you do to help you get over problems you find in your plot? Have you ever done something similar to what I did? Are you having problems now? Tell me about them!
Also, don't forget that this Friday is when I'll be posting Tempe's interview! If you haven't yet, please hop over to this post and ask a question or two! I need all the questions I can get!


  1. These are really good points! I absolutely love the sticky note idea- I am definitely going to try that with my WIP (it needs some help). For some reason I usually have a really well thought out beginning and ending, but I always end up having a hard time plotting the middle. Also, I like how you handled the chronology problems.
    Awesome post, Annika!

    1. Ah, that always seems to be the problem, doesn't it? Pesky middles.
      Thank you!

  2. This is awesome! I did something recently with stick notes. Except mine is not neat and organized. . . uh, at all. I put the five major plot points/ physical destinations in the book, then under each destination I put stick notes that summarized what would take place. If I ran into a hole, I just put another stick note with question marks and asterisks beside it. I also put an extra stick note beside each destination that just numbered their chronological order (because I wasn't smart enough to properly place them from the beginning).

    I've done the Day 1, Day 2 thing also! That one works really well for me. Just grabbing a note book and writing it out, really keeps in my head and sometimes I don't even have to look back at my notes. Usually I don't write the whole thing out at once though. I'll have the first week or so in my head and then as I write more will come to me. More recently though I haven't be keeping track of it in days, but more in scenes. I know this scene needs to happen before this one, etc.

    Awesome post!

    1. Haha! Well I never thought I needed to try using sticky notes before but now that I have I'm pretty sure I'll use it forever now. XD That sounds like a really interesting way to do it! Though, it does sound a bit disorganized. XD Maybe I'm just hyper-organizational.
      I'm glad you enjoyed it! Thanks for reading.

  3. Oh my goodness, Annika, thank you, thank you, THANK YOU!!! I have but little doubt that this will help with my plotting issues. I've already mentioned them to you before, but now they've taken on whole new oodles of problems! Potentially integrating a couple of characters earlier on into the novel, throwing an entirely new disease/curse things HALF-WAY INTO THE BOOK!!! Really, it's smack-dab in the middle! /Why/??? *Releases a shuddering sigh.* Haha... I think that I might have to temporarily remove a massive Thomas Kinkade from the largest wall in my bedroom. Yes, yes, I'm definitely going to need to remove some artwork! :P

    Once again, THANK YOUUUUU!!!!!!!!! :D :D :D

    1. Wow. O.O That was a passionate reaction. XD I hope you get past your problems soon...haha, don't forget to have LOTS os sticky notes. XD
      YOU'RE WELCOME. :D :D :D

  4. I've often been a pantser more than a person who does a lot of planning, but I see this as being super helpful with working some things out in plots that are longer than a short stories. I'll have to try this!

    1. Oh yes, the flexibility afforded by the sticky notes is glorious. :)