Isolating Plot Arcs for the Win

People often ask if I’m a plotter or a pantser, and the truth is I plot like crazy in advance, but also am always rethinking and editing my outline as I go. As I’m working on Book 3 there are a couple of tricks I’ve found really useful for refining my outline in mid-draft, and I thought I’d share them with you.

Today’s technique: separately plotting individual arcs! This has been SO HELPFUL for me in identifying places where the story is weak and needs a bit more.

I was plunging into the second half of Book 3, and wanted to figure out what exact senes needed to occur to resolve the remaining plot. I had an outline, and I could tell something was wrong with pacing or stakes (or possibly both) in one large section of it. But I couldn’t figure out what.

So I pulled out each of the four major plot threads and made lists of the remaining scenes or moments in each thread, separate from the rest of the outline. This showed me the structure of each thread standing on its own, without all the other stuff cluttering it up.

And here’s what I found for one of them, generalized to avoid spoilers (each bullet point is a scene):

  • BAD THING HAPPENS! OH NO!!!
  • Yup, still bad.
  • That bad thing? STILL SO BAD.
  • Hey, that bad thing is still out there, in case you were wondering. Being bad and all.
  • AHHHHH BAD THING COMES TO A CRISIS AND SUPER DRAMATIC RESOLUTION!!!!

I hadn’t noticed when it was all mixed in with other plot points and scenes, but I had this big dramatic plotline that just didn’t move at all for a long stretch despite having a feeling of urgency and a lot of emotional importance. I had scenes planned that would punch the sore spot, as it were, but they didn’t change anything or move the plot forward.

(As a side note, I think this particular structural pitfall is a REALLY common and seductive one for writers. We have a great idea for dramatically kicking off conflict and another great idea for dramatically resolving the conflict, but we are way more vague on what happens in between these two points.)

Once I spotted this problem, it wasn’t too hard to fix—I just had to think of what could change and what could be at stake in those middle scenes. But I couldn’t see it until I pulled it out from the rest of the outline and looked at it on its own.

This trick was also really useful for checking the through line of each separate plot, making sure that each action naturally set up the next one and that there was a compelling flow from beginning to end. It made it easier to make sure that the relevant characters for each thread were changing and having an inner or emotional arc that paralleled the plot arc. And it made it super easy to spot redundant scenes.

Once I’d cleaned up each separate arc, I could weave them back together into the outline, paying careful attention to the overall through line to make sure I had a coherent, smoothly flowing story and not a patchwork of unconnected pieces. I’m sure it still needs work, because this is an early draft, but wow, it’s a lot better than it was!

I’ve also sometimes done this for major characters, pulling out the scenes or moments that are important touchstones for them in their personal arc through the story, and I think it can be very helpful in making sure your characters have compelling and coherent personal arcs. It’s especially useful when you want to strengthen an important non-POV character like a BFF or love interest who you might otherwise wind up seeing only through the lens of how they fit into the main character’s story.

I think this can also be a really useful thing to do between drafts, when you’ve got the basic story down and are trying to figure out how to hone it into its sleekest, deadliest form! (Uh, well, maybe not deadly if you’re writing, say, a cozy romance? I dunno, I like stories with murder in them, what can I say.)

I hope that’s helpful if you’re struggling with structure! GO YE FORTH AND MAKE BULLET POINTS!

About Melissa Caruso

I'm the author of the Swords & Fire trilogy from Orbit Books, including THE TETHERED MAGE and THE DEFIANT HEIR. Book 3 coming in 2019! I write fantasy novels. I love tea, adventure, and the great outdoors. I live in Massachusetts with my husband, two amazing daughters, three cats, and a Labrador. Represented by Naomi Davis of BookEnds. View all posts by Melissa Caruso

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