Breaking a Story

There have been questions about how I plot and outline.  I learned this technique when I was working on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and it’s used on every television show.  I use it for the movies I write as well.  And then it occurred to me — this could work for novels too.  Not in as much detail, not every scene, but the big scenes, the “tent pole” moments could be laid out.

I’m going to actually put up a photo of the next Imperials novel, but please don’t study it too closely.  I’d hate to spoil the plot for people.  Just get the overall sense of how this works.  Because my cork board is in Los Angeles and I’m in New Mexico I used a white board for this plot break.

What you need:  A white board and colored dry erase or wet erase pens.  That’s how we did it on Trek and it’s a pain because you have to try to carefully erase a scene if you decide it’s in the wrong place.  On Profiler we used a cork board, pins, cards and colored pens.   If you use cards you just pull off the card and replace it.

Next step.  I write headings — Teaser, Act One, Act Two, Act Three.  If it’s a really big book you will need five acts.  The example I’m going to show you went to four acts which suggests this next book in the Imperials saga will be bigger than the one I just delivered.

I then assign a different colored pen to each view point character.  This is challenging if you are doing a huge fantasy with seven or eight view point characters.  Since I have never gone past four it hasn’t been an issue for me yet.  I sometimes will pick a new color to indicate a crowd scene where all of my characters will be present and no one person is dominate in that moment.

I then go to the end of the final act, and I write down the final scene of the book with the appropriate color depending on whose view point will carry the climax.

I then go set up the teaser.  Something interesting and exciting that will convince that person who is casually flipping through the book that they ought to buy this book.

Next I try to fill in the act outs for each of the other acts.  Once those finales are all in place it becomes relatively easy to figure out the scenes you will need to get to those various act outs and the final climax.  Sometimes you do go down dead ends and something that sounded good doesn’t look good when it’s laid out.  This saves me writing fifty or a hundred pages and then deciding that was the wrong direction.

The reason for the different colors is so I can see if I’m losing track of a particular character and need to up their profile.  Or conversely it might suggest that I don’t need that character and they need to be dropped as a POV character.

The other thing I’m studying as I lay out these scenes is how they flow.  I think of structure like relay race.  A character has to smoothly hand off the baton to the next character who is going to continue to carry the plot forward.

This makes each day’s work very easy.  I get up in the morning, eat breakfast, gather up a cup of tea or coffee, glance over at the board and know what is the task for that particular day.  I understand this doesn’t work for everybody, but in the high pressure of a TV show or when you have a lot of contracts with hard deadlines it’s invaluable.

And now here is the photo of what will be TIME AND CHANCE.

 

A final note.  You don’t have to do this alone.  Bringing in two or three other people who you trust and respect to brainstorm with you can also be very helpful.  That’s how it works in Hollywood.  The staff works together to lay out the season arc and then plot the individual episodes.

(And yes, I know I have terrible printing.)  😜

4 Responses to Breaking a Story

  • Marcie says:

    Melinda

    Any way to make the photo of the whiteboard bigger? I linked to this from your Facebook page, but it is too small to make anything out on it.

    • Melinda Snodgrass says:

      I’m actually not sure I want folks to be able to read all the beats of the upcoming story. A lot of people hate spoilers (I’m not one of them, but I try to be respectful), so I’d prefer not to have all the details laid out to be easily read. I posted the picture more a visual example of what a board will ultimately look like with the colors, acts, etc. I hope you understand and I appreciate your interest, but I’m hoping my descriptions make the technique pretty clear. If you have any process questions I’ll be happy to answer them I just don’t want to give away the plot.

  • Melinda Snodgrass says:

    I decided to take another shot of the white board that might be better then the first one. And you also get to see part of y beautiful Two Grey Hills Navajo rug for an added bonus. Hope this photo is clearer.

  • Melinda Snodgrass says:

    My. That should be “my beautiful” Ugh, sometimes my fingers…..

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