Writing Mini-Lessons: Plotting with Tools, Part 1
As readers, we generally see only an author’s finished product, so it is easy not to be mindful of the time, hard work, planning, making of multiple drafts, revision, and copy-editing done before any successful idea finds fruition on the page as a rich, engaging work of fiction.
Writers use prewriting brainstorming and planning tools to envision the backbone, or key elements, of fictional narratives. Frequently, writers generate multiple plans before settling on the one to implement. These same prewriting planning tools may often guide revision, too, helping to re-envision how else a story might unfold.
Writers generally choose planning tools that best suit their individual needs and thinking styles. Typical plotting tools include, but are not limited to the following: timelines, lists, webs or maps, and story arcs—also sometimes called story mountains.
Once a character has been brought to life and a central problem/conflict established, it is your job as a writer to use an understanding of the character’s wants and struggles to develop possible plotlines. What is the character’s motivation?
Most fictional narratives follow a predictable pattern, one in which a character wants or needs something and faces increasingly challenging obstacles in the process of working to attain those wants or needs. Tensions rise and fall as characters move along this trajectory, or story arc, and this is what builds suspense for readers.
Rather than planning a series of equally-weighted events, ask yourself these questions as you develop the plot:
- How will my character reach for her desire?
- What obstacles will she face, and how will those obstacles increase in intensity and challenge as my story progresses?
- When and how might my character overcome those obstacles or experience a shift in perspective that yields new clarity?
- How will my character grow and change over the course of the story?
- Is this event or scene central to my character’s course of wants, needs, struggles, and/or successes? If the answer is no, the event or scene is cut. Purposeful scenes are what you are aiming to create; more is not better.
Many writers rely on story arcs to think through the plots of their stories, and there is never just one way a story can go. Kurt Vonnegut, a famous writer, once laid out five common story arcs. Vonnegut believed that each arc could be graphed on a plane, where the vertical axis is the G-I axis: Good fortune-Ill fortune, and the horizontal axis is the B-E axis: Beginning-End. On the G-I axis, death and terrible poverty, sickness, and the like are down below the midway point—great prosperity, wonderful health, and such are up above. The average state of affairs is the midpoint of the G-I axis.
Before using story arcs or other plot tools to plan your fictional narrative, let’s see how Vonnegut described each of the five story arcs. He believed every work of fiction falls into one of these five categories.
Here are Vonnegut’s five story arcs.
As Vonnegut demonstrated in the five story arcs and examples, story arcs can help a writer figure out the rises and falls of a fictional narrative plot. Story arcs serve to remind you, the writer, that the story isn’t just one equally-weighted event after another. Rather, there is transformation—upward or downward movement and growth—helping the narrative’s tension and suspense build to a climax and then gradually move toward a resolution.
Note: For the purposes of your writing, until you are convinced you are Shakespeare’s equal, please avoid the Hamlet story arc/straight line.