Previously, 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. For those of you who read this before, what was once one post is now two: Framework and Characters.
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
I realized that my character building process is too in depth to add as a singe section so I expanded it and turned it into it’s own post here. The really short version, I let characters drive my plot which demands that I fully develop at least my primary cast before diving into the plot.
Step 4: The Arc
Step 4 is possibly the most critical step in framing a story because it sets the foundation upon which you build your plot. This is probably the biggest area in which I’ve improved the technical aspects of my writing as I transitioned from a panster fanfiction writer to a professional author.
I wrote briefly on the Arc in the index card post and showed most Western stories follow the same three act plot arc. While it feels very formulaic to lay out a story this way, I did find it helped me keep a tight, fast paced plot, and I wasted less time writing scenes that would inevitably get cut out. As a reader, it also feels more comfortable and keeps the pacing from feeling rushed or lagging.
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.
You can see a few green, yellow, and orange index cards in the mix, those indicate breaks between acts, high actions points, and “hey, make sure you set a hook in here for the next book/plot point” which should loosely translate to something on the arc spreadsheet above.
If this feels like a lot of work up front, I won’t lie, it is. However, I wrote Pantheon as a pantser and when I had to start splitting Pantheon 2 into three distinct POVs, with characters moving across time zones and with precise times for certain actions, I was glad I had transitioned to being a plotter. The clear framework with solid notes on what happens next, where in the arc a scene fell, and how many words I could devote to a scene saved me time while writing as well as time and sanity as I edited.
If you liked this piece you will probably also like my article about my index card method of scene building as well as my post on how I build my characters.
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