Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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June 27, 2011

Writing The Big Picture - Don't Trash The Roadmap

By Sharla Rae

In our WITS crit group, we all have our individual critiquing talents: grammar, tight writing, action scenes, male point of view, description  etc. And when one of us starts a new project, we verbalize or write an outline of the story so that our partners can critique the individual story elements as well as the Big Picture. That’s where my own critiquing talent pays off – I’m the big picture gal in our group.

The big picture is everything that happens from page one to “The End,” in other words, the story as a whole. While story structure is involved, I'll leave that discussion to David Morrell in his book, Lessons From a Lifetime of Writing. I’m discussing how to stay focused on the story's roadmap to the big picture.

I ask these questions:

  • Do the characters stay true themselves and thus the plot’s roadmap?
  • Do all the events serve a purpose toward the resolution of the story?
  • Do both characters and events support the themes?

Note: To varying degrees, I’ve seen these very same questions on contest judging forms. So I’d say these questions are “very” relevant.

From the above questions the three “basic” elements of the big picture are evident:

  • Character
  • Plot
  • Theme

I’ll touch on plot and theme first and since plot and theme are notoriously confused, here’s an easy clarification to keep in mind:


Theme is what the author is trying to convey. It’s woven throughout the entire story and connects to the reader on an emotional level. Short stories usually have only one theme but a novel can have several.

Sometimes writers aren’t aware of the theme(s) until they start writing. Think about the emotions evoked in your book, and you’ll realize the themes. If a story is about a woman who has lost her husband and then years later finds love again, perhaps the theme is grief, acceptance, and learning to love again.

Theme Examples:

  • Trust
  • Grief
  • Fate
  • Revenge
  • Love
  • Coming of age
  • Convention and rebellion.

See more: 101 Common Themes.


Plot is what happens in the story -- the why and order of events. No matter the twists and turns in a book, all events/scenes need to move the story toward its resolution.

Basic Plot Events:

  • Opening information
  • Complication/Conflict – Catalyst that starts the complication
  • Climax – turning point that occurs when characters resolve complication
  • Resolution – event that bring story to an end


Everything characters feel, say and do should logically fit into the big picture. Even if the characters decide to hijack the bus, the writer still holds the road map and thus controls their direction.

If an event or a character’s actions do not support the big picture, the result is a disruptive, gratuitous scene. It’s disruptive because it detours the reader right off the story's map and either changes the big picture or at the least makes it confusing.

Surprisingly, it’s very easy to write a gratutitous scene – usually because it satisfies something within the author. We’ll be writing along when wham, this crazy idea pops into our heads - what if this or that happened? Hmm, I think I like it! And we just have to write it into the story because the idea is too good not to use. On rare occasions the new event might work but often it's like taking a scenic route on a trip and then getting lost.

Other times, a gratuitous scene might occur because of a need to convey an idea or the desire to follow a commonly accepted genre format -- whether it’s right for our particular big picture or not. I could have easily made this mistake in one of my books.

Most long historicals have a love scene at least a third of the way through a book.
Looking at the big picture, I couldn’t make that happen in my latest book. My heroine
had trust issues and the plot’s roadmap called for events in which the hero earned her
trust before intimacy took place. Since the hero had played unfairly to begin with, he        needed time to prove himself worthy of her.

I worried about disappointing readers, but throwing in a love scene too early would’ve
been nothing more than gratuitous sex. The reader would’ve lost respect for my heroine and the book!

I couldn’t allow that to happen. Instead, I built the sexual tension to a boiling point so
that when my characters finally hopped into bed, the sheets caught fire. The integrity
of the big picture remained in tack and the readers’ expectations were satisfied.

Another mistake writers make is adding gratuitous humor. I love writing funny scenes but writing one merely for the sake of a laugh will drive the big picture into a ditch of the ridiculous. Humor needs to be a natural occurrence. The same holds true with a blood & guts scene or even an action scene like a car chase.

So before you write that wonderful scene in your head, make sure it fits the story’s big picture. If it doesn’t, give yourself permission to write the scene, but file it in your “x-files” to use in another story where it fits perfectly.

Web sites:

Have you ever had “big picture” problems or caught a few in a book or movie? How do you keep true to your big picture?

0 comments on “Writing The Big Picture - Don't Trash The Roadmap”

  1. In response to the last paragraph in your post: "THWACK!"

    That's the sound produced when my laptop met my noggin. No worries. I have Geek Squad insurance on my laptop. My noggin? Those brain cells needed shock therapy.

    My "big picture" problem--evidenced by a scene I've wrestled with (and tip-toed around) for nearly a week--surfaced during my May through July career as a Contest Slut.

    "End the submission with a strong hook," they advise. And, so I did. One contest required one chapter. Another permitted two. All had different requirements for number of words or pages or chapters.

    My myopic view surfaced when I chose to use the new "chapter" framework created for contest submissions (oh, come on, we all know we do it) as the chapter framework for my ms. The result? Chapters that required reorienting the reader to a scene in progress.

    THANK YOU! I can now return to my WIP, remove all chapter breaks (for now) and get on with this story.

    I am SO tempted to post this under an assumed name (Penelope Poindexter perhaps?) just in case a contest judge reads this and (gasp!) discovers I used a backloaded paragraph instead of a chapter break to end my submission.

    LOVE the WITS blog (and Jenny Hanson's). I created a folder to retain them for future reference. It was either that or "Stop The Writing! New Site to Explore!"

  2. LOL Gloria. So glad you enjoy our blog. And no need to change your name. We have all changed things up for a contest! We enter because there may a chance for an editor or agent to see our stuff but to do that, our entries must make finals so-o-o we do what the contest says to do even it means changing things up a tad. 9 times out of 10 the tad doesn't work so well, no more than it does in the actual book. 🙂

    You aren't alone out there, believe me. If you send more than one chapter, I'd just end the entry at a hook even though the contest might "allow" you a few more pages. Works much better. Good luck!

  3. Interesting post. 🙂 My strength is also critiquing for big picture elements in a story and seeing it more as a whole than its individual parts and how those parts add up in the end.

    I'm not sure i agree with you in regard to new ideas striking the author in the middle of writing the book. For me, those are gold mines. That's what makes the cream rise to the top because at that point, I'm so familiar with the characters and their world that new and amazing ideas strike me all the time and naturally fit in with the plot, enriching it and adding layers that weren't there before. It's true that if the idea derails the story goal, it won't work. But if it's a plot point that helps strengthen the story, go for it.

    I sold my latest book on just the proposal, and the editor knows and encourages writers to explore their stories as they write them for the very reasons I mentioned. And I did make some significant changes to that book, the finished version of which is now in my editor's hands. So don't ignore those great ideas if you think they'll will improve the story. I advise against restricting your creative compulsions because you've roped yourself into a roadmap you created before starting the book.

    1. Karen, You're right. Some of those last minute ideas are gems but usually those ideas do follow the map. We just come up with a "better" road, so to speak. Brand new writers, however, often go off on wild tangents and perhaps I should have made that more clear. Thanks for commenting because it's important everyone realize that absolutely nothing, not even how-to blogs are end-all, be-all.

  4. I've become a plotter even though I never thought I would. I confess that plotting saves a lot of time and trial. And I still feel free to follow the story where it needs to go. 😀

    1. Sonia,
      I'm sort of half half. I write about 5 or 6 chapters first. By then I know my characters well and that's when I sit down and do a chapter outline. I never adhere to it entirely but I know what has to happen to get to the resolution. I used to be a complete panster but I wrote myself into a tight spot once and I knew then, I had to have at least a vague plan. Turns out, once I started the chapter outlines, I really did know more of what was going to happen than I'd at first thought. Who knew?!

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