Equipping Writers for Success
The Writing Life
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by Marg McAlister
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Quick answer: the best way to plot is whatever works best for you. After all, we're all different. Interview any group of a dozen writers and you'll find they all have different times of the day when they're alert; different belief systems about the world; different preferences in food and films. So why on earth would we all agree on the best way to plot a story?
To find out the best way of plotting for you, first (a) think about your usual approach to problems then (b) try a few different methods. It's not certain that the 'best' way for you will dovetail with your personality type, but it's likely. If we work on the four basic 'types', we find that people tend to gravitate to being:
Is this set in stone? No, of course not. We all function across the entire spectrum -- but you're likely to find that you have a natural preference. If you can identify your personality type, you can work with your strengths - and thus find the method of plotting your stories that works best for you.
If you tend more towards being introverted, intuitive, feeling and perceiving, then you are likely to prefer a more flexible form of plotting. You would probably feel comfortable with cluster diagrams, branching, and scribbled notes with lots of arrows and extra little boxes.
You can use these for the basic plot, for characters, and for settings. Draw a circle in the middle of the page. Write the name of the story in this circle. (Any working title will do.) Around it draw more circles - as many as you need for things like catalyst for change, character's initial problem or goal, obstacles to be overcome, final challenge for the main character, darkest moment, secondary characters, ending. There's no point in my prescribing how many circles you need - after all, this is your plot. You're the intuitive, feeling type - you don't want me to say 'you have to put this here and that over there'. Watch your plot grow in front of your eyes.
Branching is very similar to the cluster diagram. You begin with the story, then draw 'branches' (lines) out from the box in the centre. These branches will represent the main ingredients of your story: the same basic 'ingredients' as used above in the cluster diagram: characters, problems, obstacles, and so on. Off each of these main branches you draw smaller lines or branches -- and along those lines write the specific problems encountered, the various characters in the story, and so on.
Both cluster diagrams and branching will let you see the shape of your story in a pictorial way. Many writers find they can get an overall sense of where their story is going much better when they can see it all as a diagram, rather than as a list of points.
Perhaps you feel much more at home in a structured environment. You are extraverted, and tend to think about things and make judgements. In this case, you could feel much happier with a detailed plot outline, with each step carefully planned. You may need to 'write out' the plot so you feel you know where you're going.
There are many basic plots you can use, but one of the best I've seen is the one advocated by the late Gary Provost. His plot outline, in the form of a checklist, is as follows:
Answer these questions and you have a story. The value of this checklist is that you can use it both to formulate a plot and to check that you have all the plot 'ingredients' in place if you use a different method.
This article first appeared in Writing For Success.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.
Marg McAlister writes across genres and age groups, and has published over 45 books for children and six ghostwritten books for business professionals. as well as articles for national magazines, promotional material and lessons for home learning courses in writing. She has also launched a popular newsletter for writers, Writing For Success.