Monday, July 28, 2014

Organizing Your Novel's Plot

AKA: Creating a Murder Board is Extremely Helpful When Plotting (or Replotting) Your Novel

The summer before my senior year in high school I took a Creative Writing course at the local community college ("local" meaning forty-five minutes away, but that's another story). During this course, we focused not only on writing short stories, but methods in which you can revise them.

One of my favorite included printing out the manuscript, and taking a pair of scissors to it. Literally. You physically cut the manuscript into different scenes/paragraphs/sentences, so instead of x pages you've got countless little snippets of the short story. Then you get to put the puzzle together, not in the way it came but in an entirely new way.

I'm sure I'm not the only one who's ever heard of this method. It's a great way to reorganize scenes, pieces of dialogue, etc, so that you can see how your MS would be different had you simply ordered things a different way (for example, Bob going to the store after he runs somebody over with his car, instead of before).

The thing is, this method is a whole lot harder when you have a full-length novel on your hands. if you tried taking scissors to it, you'd have a miniature mountain of snippets, instead of a small anthill that would come from a short story.

Luckily, I devised my own fool-proof way to turn my novels into puzzles, which enables me to reorganize the order of my scenes without actually cutting the pages (either on the computer or with a physical pair of scissors).

What You Need:
-Index Cards
-A Flat Surface (I enjoy using a bulletin board, in which case you'll also need some fun push pins)
-One Colorful Sharpie (choose a color that makes you happy; I enjoy pink and orange, personally)

What You Do:
-Write every scene of your novel onto an index card, one scene per card
-If your novel is finished, put those cards in the order the scenes happen in your book (I like choosing a grid-like formation, but you can also put them in one straight line like a timeline, or any other design that makes sense to you)
-Play. Take one card and slip it before a different one. Think critically about how that move would affect your novel, and whether that change would be positive or negative. Heck, maybe it opens some new doors?

It's that easy, really. Want to know something cool? This trick is also extremely handy when your novel is unfinished, as well.

When I write, I try to write in order. Occasionally, however, I get ideas for scenes that won't happen for another 10-20 k, sometimes further on. And, sometimes, I get a whole jumble of these, which means I have more scenes than an actual, coherent, plot.

Take those scenes and write them on index cards. Then start playing with the order until you come up with something you like. Perk? It's like a visual outline, and all you really have to worry about is filling in the blanks with fluff ("fluff" used in a very endearing way).

I use this method because it's an easy way to take a step back from your novel and look at it differently. Instead of paragraphs and sentences, you have maybe a phrase on a card. Those cards are then way easier to move around each other than trying to maneuver huge blocks of text on a screen (or on a piece of paper, if you've printed your MS out). This is the big picture you're looking at; instead of the details, it allows you to work with the main idea/plot point of each scene within your novel, and look at how that point interacts with all of those around it.

This means that it's extremely useful for both revisions and when you're in the beginning phases of writing a new novel.

Here's an example (yes, this board is virtual, but my excuse is that I accidentally left my own bulletin board at home. Thus, it's currently 350 miles away from me at this moment in time *cries*):

Original Board:

Revised Board:

Alright, these "scenes" are based off a rough sketch of one of my earliest manuscripts (which, unfortunately, will never see the light of day despite it always being close to my heart). Firstly, notice that there's not much description; this is pure, basic scenes. Lots of room for filler that would include emotions, descriptions, dialogue, etc. This will enable you to imagine new reactions your characters might have to certain stimuli.

Take Sam (short for Samantha; the MC). In the original version, she has a normal day. Then she overhears things between two family members that isn't good news for her. Then she bakes a cake (which, in all actuality is just weird to see placed there). In the revised version, the order of those things are switched around, and placed after nightmares. Therefore, in the revised version Sam would be on edge from page one. The baking makes more sense, as a gesture of goodwill, but after she overhears the conversation I can imagine her leaving the cake to burn (or maybe she drops it).

This way, when she meets a new character, she's even more on edge and distrustful of people than usual.

But do you kind of see where I'm going with this? This way, you can step back, look at the bigger picture that your novel offers instead of bogging your brain down with the details. And, trust me, a physical board and index cards is a lot easier to work with than a virtual copy than I made with photoshop (just saying).

**In case ya'll are wondering about the title of "Murder Board," it's actually a funny story. The first time I created one of these, I was making a character map: each character had an index card, and there was string connecting them so I could see who knew who and how. My mother walked in, saw it, and compared it to those boards you always see on crime shows. Thus, the Murder Board was born.**

Tweet It:

@Rae_Slater has an easy method for re-ordering the scenes of your novel (Click to Tweet)

Editing? Step back and look at the big picture. @Rae_Slater talks plot points and how to pack the biggest punch (Click to Tweet)

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