Build Your Plot – What Happens Before the Index Cards


Last week I wrote about plotting out your story via index cards. Whether you’re a Plotter or Pantser, there’s a lot of goodness in that method. Today I want to show you some of what I do before the index cards come out.

I know I was all excited on Twitter and here recently because I had finished making cards for my “Hades and Persephone” project, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that it’s really the first step in crafting a story. Every author is different, but I have several steps I have to get through before I can even think of putting scene cards together. I’ll break it down into the steps, but I plan on only focusing on a few of them today. I’ll add additional posts later to add more detail to some of the steps.

Step 1: The Idea

Here’s the toughest part of writing. You can be taught grammar, spelling, style, how to structure a story, and how to edit. But if you don’t have the idea, that creative spark for a story so compelling readers can’t put it down, then you have nothing. You can be taught how to draw out that world that exists only in your own head, but I can’t teach you what doesn’t exist.
But when you have the idea — whew, friends — we’re in for a ride!
This step can take me anywhere from two seconds or years as I let a story percolate in my mind. In all honestly, I sometimes complete Steps Two and Three while gnawing on Step One.

Step 2: A Single Sentence

Later in the process, I tend to refer to this sentence as my elevator speech. But at the beginning, it’s your plot captured in one sentence. It should be the answer to “Oh, you’re writing a book, what’s it about?” when asked by a stranger and have only the span of an elevator ride to explain.
For example, when I have to give the one sentence, short version of Pantheon’s plot, I typically say: “Loggies who can teleport are superheroes.” Six words, that’s it. But it hooks you and it’s the foundation for everything else.

Step 3: Characters

Whether you write plot/action driven stories or character driven plot, you still need compelling characters to fuel your story. I spend a good measure of time developing characters before writing the plot. After all, it’s tough to write character interaction and that fabulous conflict if you don’t know how a character would react. For Pantheon, I have meticulously kept files on all my characters.

Never delete a character, throw them in an “Unused” folder. Maybe that character will have use later.

Seriously, even characters who don’t exist in the universe yet had sheets and backstories that inform their actions and choices.

The full Pantheon. So many, many characters.

The outline is fairly basic, with only a few questions, but the more I learn who these characters are, the more detail and depth I can add. Currently, most of my notes go into one of my precious notebooks. The basic details go on the front, but as I learn a character, I fill in more details and where I want their plot to go gets filled in on the back of the page.

A note about the “aesthetic” section: this is an odd one to explain. To me, each of my characters has an aesthetic, a vibe, if you will. I use this section to fill in sensory information reflective of each character. While I never directly write this vibe, that would be weird, I use the sensory information to add subtle layers of depth to scenes. Certain characters have certain description tags that are either consistent throughout or their changes to indicate the character is undergoing a personal change. No more on that… I’d hate to spoil something accidentally.

I have the aesthetic block, but I also utilize Pinterest as a visual reference and each character’s “mood board” is often up on a background tab while I write them. The reminders help me both in the initial writing and later as I edit in depth.

Val’s board makes a good example. Her character has a lot of rage and for good reasons! I represent her with reds, fire, and the natural, chaotic energy present in a thunderstorm.

Val is an elemental force of nature.

Step 4: The Arc

I wrote briefly on the Arc in the index card post and showed most Western stories follow the same three act plot arc.

Act 1 – sets your world, introduces your characters, and hooks them into the action. Many authors use this to introduce their characters in their natural habitat, with things existing in a state of harmony or stability before they have the inciting incident. Me? I’m a sucker for the cold open and typically punch readers in the face with a big fat plot hook right away. Readers will catch on to what “normal” used to be later and you know damn well I’ll use the friction between “normal” and “now” to drive that plot.

Act 2 – I think of Act 2 as an ever escalating set of obstacles. It should set the stakes and drive the characters toward the climax of Act 3. I also like adding in a good disaster/crisis to align all my characters against their Big Bad.

Act 3 – I use Act 3 to finalize any powers a character may have, letting them finally get a grip on them. The other option is to allow them to resolve one subplot point so they can head into the climax with one step forward and two steps back. This is your story’s climax and where the charters should be fighting the big fight. It should resolve your main conflict and set the characters on their future path. Of course, I’m a jerk, so if I know that the book is part of a series, I leave enough unresolved points to fuel the next book.

As you can see in the picture above, I use percentages (by word count) to describe when an action point should occur to keep the plot moving. There’s something to be said for having a quick lull in the action for readers to catch their breath but, I don’t want them to languish through unnecessary plot. I use the high points to expand on my single sentence plot description. Knowing what types of action should happen in each act, I can add more detail and specificity.

And NOW you can start writing those scene cards! Once you have the act framework, it’s easy to break into the associated plot points. I don’t hold rigidly to a “this is my inciting incident” and “this is obstacle number one,” but those parts are sometimes reflected in the color scheme I use.

I really hate to burst the bubble of anyone who thinks I just sit down and write or that the story goes from inspiration straight to plot on paper (or a Word Doc).


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