The Art of Agile Plotting

Story Idea cardOne of the oldest tools in the arsenal of writers is the modest and unassuming index card. It's used for jotting notes, sharing phone numbers, creating bibliographies, capturing ideas, making lists, and --heck-- even making indices. (Who would have thought?) But one of its primary uses, especially for people structuring stories, is in creating a plot outline. A pen, a table top, and a small stack of cards are all that's needed to turn a mish-mash of incongruent or half-baked ideas into a plot that's tight, logical and well-developed.

Have you ever come up with a concept for a story, video or presentation, but didn't know how to begin? Read on....

The Plot Pack

For this article, I'm going to make reference to cards available in the D*I*Y Planner Hipster PDA Edition v3 --mainly the Story Idea, Plot Point, Character and Item cards-- but you can just use regular old blank index cards if you don't have these handy. The chief benefit of the hPDA cards is that they include a series of prompts to keep the brain in gear (and, well, they do look right purdy), but they're not absolutely essential. I actually keep what I call my "Plot Pack" close at hand when I'm feeling particularly inspired. It consists of:

  • a dozen or two Plot Point cards, backed with Notes templates
  • three Story Idea cards, backed with Story templates
  • four or five Character cards, backed with Notes
  • three Item cards, usually blank on the flip side
  • a Checklist, double-sided
  • a dozen blank cards

I sometimes supplement these with a number of Story Board cards if I need to think visually (for multimedia or video pieces, for example).

The Story Idea

Many writers usually begin a story with two things: a plot concept (often no more than a "what if?") and one or more characters; if you're serious about writing a story, you should try to come up with both of these.

The plot concept --for which you can use the Story Idea card-- is often the best place to start. The "summary" area is where you should distill your plot into a few succinct sentences. Just a few sentences? But I have lots of great ideas! I need more than a few sentences! Sure, it's wonderful to have lots of ideas (you did bring your journal or notebook, didn't you?), but the idea here is to bring focus to the task. Too many stories wander off in a dozen different directions with no coherent plot or theme, and the writer often becomes so frustrated with attempting to say so many things that he or she will often drop the whole endeavour. So, right now, your primary duty at this early stage is to tie all your little vague threads together into a unified whole. The easiest way to do that is to summarise it in a sentence or three. An example:

City-slicker Julian returns from his father's funeral in the country and becomes stranded. A lonely farmer gets him to do chores for his board, and Julian in turn tries to convince him to sell him his farm for a "getaway". Julian is casting the farmer as his father.

The "people" section is to note your main characters. Jot names, occupations, motivation, and any tidbits absolutely necessary to the story. Remember, this is just for vague ideas, and everything is subject to change. Don't be intimidated by the notion that everything should be final. Follow this up with the "time/place" section for noting where and when the story takes place, as well as anything especially important to the setting.

No doubt other ideas are coming to you at this point. Note them on the back of the card, a blank one, or in your notebook or journal.

The Characters

Character cardOnce you have your plot concept, go ahead and flesh out your characters a little more using a Character card. The "role" section, like the summary section of the story card, is rather important in that it forces your to focus. Yes, you no doubt have plenty of little inspirations which could breathe life into this character, but for now, let's stick to the main reason for his or her existence: a role in the story. For example, let's look at poor old Farmer McCain:

Alva McCain is 70-year-old farmer who implicitly takes on the role of Julian's departed father, whom he hadn't been visited in years. Julian tries to make McCain aware of the benefits of city life, to convince him to move. In the end, McCain proves stubborn, and demonstates a connection to the land. In this, Julian understands his own father.

Remember, these can be bullet points or rough phrases. This is just to get you focussed and rolling ahead. Follow up the role section with other notes about the character, including brief outlines of their physical, mental, social and spiritual attributes.

Keying the Plot

Plot Point cardBy now, you should have a pretty good idea about the story you want to tell, and the people involved. It's time to flesh out the plot. For this, break out your Plot Point cards. Note the structure of the card: a big box up above, and a space for details below. Spread your cards out, and write a "plot point" in each of the big boxes, a quick summary of the point in one sentence or phrase. Don't worry about the details for now, and don't worry about their order: write down the basics however they come to mind. Some examples:

  • J. attends funeral to find he knows no one besides his father
  • J. is forced to wash and peel potatoes while M. fetches milk
  • J. makes phone call, discovers high property value to farm
  • J.'s car breaks down - engine parts will take two days

...and so on. You may wish to start with the major points (such as the car breaking down) and write the minor points (peeling potatoes) as they occur to you.

Arranging the Cards

This is where things get interesting. At this point, you probably have a dozen or so cards scattered in no apparent order. There are three major ways to order your cards.

Chronologically forward: First, place them in the order they're likely to occur in real life. Something happens at one o'clock. Something else happens at two o'clock and so forth. Pretty boring, isn't it?

Chronologically backward: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (whose birthday is today, incidentally) used a fairly innovative technique at the time to contruct his plots for Sherlock Holmes stories. He started with the end in mind (that is, the solved mystery), and worked backwards, developing clues as he went along that Holmes could latch upon and unravel. Of course, this is a pretty common technique nowadays, especially with mystery writers. To this end, place your final card first, and lay other cards in front of it, coming up with a better feel for how the events lead up to the end. Make new plot points if you get inspired.

Random: Now, let's do a shuffle. Yes, shuffle the cards, just like you would if you were playing poker, then draw each one and put it in a line. This is the method that author William S. Burroughs often used: a completely ramdomised way of generating plot. (Many other writers, artists and musicians have done the same, including David Bowie during the mid-seventies.) Does this trigger any ideas? This method may sound silly at first, but pause for a moment and reflect upon those stories, shows and films with innovative flashback treatment, such as Lost, Momento and Jacob's Ladder. Perhaps, while Julian is watching McCain stirring some soup, a flashback might bring to mind the last conversation he had with his father? Or, could the photographs atop McCain's fireplace trigger the thought of all the pictures of unknown people placed alongside his father's coffin? Use the random order to stimulate new ideas --write new plot points as necessary-- and keep adjusting the cards on the table until you have something you're happy with.

Done? Good. Now, this is the skeleton of your story, but it's time to put meat on those bones: take each card in turn and write down any details that occur to you. For example, the memory of the dozen photographs alongside his father's coffin might be fleshed out with some images from those pictures, or the last conversation with Julian's father might bring to mind a few key phrases. You're in brainstorming mode here, so don't restrict yourself: anything goes.

Finally, weed out those points that don't belong. Remember, we tend to write far more detail than is absolutely necessary (this article being a prime example), and it doesn't hurt to let the reader's mind join some of the dots. Creativity often lies in the gaps. Let people ponder.

Next Steps

At this point, you have a story concept, characters, and a workable plot. What are you waiting for? Break out the notebook or word processor and start your "sh*tty first draft" (as Anne Lamott calls it in Bird By Bird). Just plow through it, and don't stop. There will be plenty of time for editing and honing later.

Of course, one isn't restricted to using paper for plotting. For those people wanting to use software, there is quite a number of options, including Tinderbox (Mac, curently), Visio (Windows), OmniGraffle (Mac), and Powerpoint (Mac/Windows). I can also heartily recommend the cross-platform Writer's Café (Mac, Windows and Linux), which comes with a StoryLines application for shuffling cards for plots and subplots, almost exactly like the above.

Of course, this is just one way of fleshing out a story, and a quite procedural one at that, but it's based upon the tried-and-true methods of countless writers over the years. Don't be afraid to experiment with other cards or methods, though. Use the Item card to detail a "prop" or place (e.g., farmstead, funeral home, car, etc), sticky notes for vertical layouts, the Story Board cards to create visual depictions of action, or perhaps even a set of Tarot cards to come up with ideas for plot points, characters, motivations or history.

Likewise, one can use similar techniques for structuring essays, multimedia projects, presentations, and more. Any time you have to come up with a logical order for ideas, you can use this method to produce something creative, coherent and well-developed. The possibilities are nearly endless.

cover of Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and LifeBird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
author: Anne Lamott
asin: 0385480016
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Story Idea, Character and Plot Point templates?

I was not able to find these specfic templates in version 3. Can you tell me where they are or how I can download them?



Not Losing the Plot...

1/ Download the package you wish to use.

2/ unpack the archive.

3/ Find the file marked: diyp3hcore1up.pdf or diyp3hcore4up.pdf (Note the graphic package is self-evident).

4/ Print the following pages:

Story Idea - 1 up, page 63; 4 up, 37.

Story - 1 up, page 64; 4 up, 38.

Story Board (two versions) - 1 up, page 65 and 66; 4 up, 39 and 40.

Plot Point - 1 up, page 67; 4 up, 41.

Character - 1 up, page 68; 4 up, 42.

Item - 1 up, page 69; 4 up, 43.

Checklist - 1 up, page 73; 4 up, 47.

Notes (four versions) - 1 up, pages 74 to 77; 4 up, 48 to 51.