Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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November 25, 2011

4 Steps For Organizing Plot Ideas Into a Novel

by Jody Hedlund

We have a treat for you today. Thanks to Jenny Hansen at her More Cowbell blog, the amazing Jody Hedlund is stopping off here at Writers in the Storm during her blog tour for her new book, The Doctor’s Lady. She’s going to share some of her tricks for writing a riveting story.

Writers all have different methods for planning their novels. There’s no wrong or right way of doing it. With that said, I’ll share what I do with the hope that maybe you can glean something, even if only inspiration!

1. Establish Set Pieces.

The term set piece is a screenwriting term that means, “The big, audience pleasing scenes that deliver on the genre elements of the movie” (according to screenwriter Doug Eboch in his post Set Pieces Sell Scripts).

In fiction writing, set pieces are the unforgettable, major events that happen in our book. So after I finish brainstorming plot ideas and developing my characters (see my blog for my free Character Worksheet), I make a list of set pieces—the biggest and most critical events I want to include in my book.

I usually try to put them in the general order in which they’ll appear in the book—particularly into a basic 3-Act structure: a beginning with an inciting incident that pushes my character out of ordinary life; a middle crisis thatworks toward the black moment; then the final climax that eventually leads to resolution.

2. Develop a Three-Strand Conflict.

I give my stories three distinct strands of conflict. First, I look for an over-arching external conflict—a problem or obstacle that my character must face during the entire length of the novel, and it usually involves an antagonist of some kind.

Second, I give my characters internal conflicts—character weaknesses, flaws they must work through as the story progresses. Of course, they won’t become perfect, but they need to grow in self-awareness.

And third, I develop relationship conflicts—tension and problems that will keep my main characters emotionally apart for the entire book (which is especially critical in a romance).

My goal is to have all three of my conflict strands relate to each other. The more intertwined they are, the better. It’s my job as the story unfolds to braid all of the strands together as smoothly as possible, until by the end, the reader can’t easily distinguish where one starts and one stops.

3. Jot Down a Short Chapter-by-Chapter Outline.

Once I have my set pieces organized and my three levels of conflicts outlined, then it’s easier for me to think of the overall framework of where I need to go with the book. I generally determine approximately how many chapters I want and how many words per chapter. (Very roughly, mind you! It’s just a guide to help me stay somewhat on track!)

Then in my spiral notebook, I use my set pieces and three-strand conflict outline to make a few notes about what I hope to accomplish in each chapter—no more than a couple sentences.

4. Plan Scenes.

Over the years of writing, I’ve come to rely more and more upon the technique of writing by scenes. In fact, with the book I most recently finished, the majority of the book cuts from one scene to the next with very few transitional links.

As I’ve pondered why I like writing this way, I’ve realized that ultimately writing by scenes is one of the best ways to SHOW our story. We place our characters on the stage, have them act things out. When it’s over, we drop the curtain and open it again with the next scene. We’re continually showing the action of our story without having an intrusive narrator come out between acts and fill us in on what happens between times—as if we need to know every detail to be entertained.

Before I start the actual writing of each scene, I make notes on the scene including: Time/Date, Setting, POV (looking back to make sure I’m varying these well enough). Then I ask myself these questions: What is the goal of the scene? What am I trying to accomplish? How am I moving the plot forward?

Once I finish the outline of a scene, I write it (on my laptop). I try to end the scene with a Read-On-Prompt—something that will hook a reader into having to turn to the next page and keep reading.

There you have it. That’s a quick overview of my process for organizing a novel.

What’s your process? Do you follow any of my steps? Is there anything listed above that’s new to you? What else helps you in organizing all your plot ideas?

©Jody Hedlund, 2011

Jody Hedlund is an award-winning historical romance novelist and author of the best-selling book, The Preacher’s Bride. She received a bachelor’s degree from Taylor University and a master’s from the University of Wisconsin, both in Social Work. Currently she makes her home in Michigan with her husband and five busy children. Her second book, The Doctor’s Lady released in September 2011.

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Next week D.A. Watt will give us Part Two of her "What I've Learned from Horses" series.  And Fae Rowen will follow up Laura Drake's list with her list of ten books to be marooned with on a desert island.

0 comments on “4 Steps For Organizing Plot Ideas Into a Novel”

  1. Jody, I have loved meeting you on different parts of your tour, love your "voice" and consider you a great new friend. That being said, I think in the beginning I was under the mistaken idea that stories just "come" like lightening bolts from heaven. Now I have learned the painstaking and deliberate process we must all eventually learn. I love your process and although I have fallen on the "character" side of the WITS debate, I agree that without strong plotting and careful planning my characters dangle off the edge of the page for dear life. Great meeting you here today 🙂

  2. Jody - I have wandered the internet and writer's classes for years, looking for the perfect plotting tool for me . . .I think I've just found it. I admire the Snowflake, Outlining, etc, but it always seemed just too dry and planned for me.

    Your method gives me freedom, but makes sure I have enough bones to hang an entire novel on.
    I can't thank you enough for this! Wow, this is going to save me SO much time in starting a novel!

  3. I really enjoyed reading your post, Jody. For the first time I wrote a synopsis and general chapter outlines for my fourth novel and it truly helped me stay on task. I like the way you work and you've given me some great ideas for writing a good book.
    Thank you so much.

  4. Thanks for this post. I've realized that I do pretty much each of these things except for the three-strand conflict. I've never seen it put quite to succinctly before and it was a bit of an "Ah-HA!" moment for me. #handsclapping

  5. Great ideas in this post, Jody. Some I stumbled upon after MUCH trial and error (key operative word there is error). I spent innumerable hours in what I call HAZ (ardous) MAT (erial) control.

    Your post resurfaced something I haven't practiced in a while-- the power of the pen over keyboard. The delete key is right there (it's calling to me now...ACK!). My right pinky finger need only skip up there and edit the creativity right out of me.

    I recently blew the dust off a note card binder purchased a year ago, and now use it to organize hand-written scene notes. Congratulations on the best-selling status of The Preacher's Bride and recent release of The Doctor's Lady.

  6. Jody,

    I really like your simple yet thorough approach to plotting. I also liked the "set pieces" info, no more than 5 set pieces/novel lest you dissipate impact and weaken these pieces. Something to take note of, and work on in my WIP. Thank you.

  7. Hello everyone! So glad that the post is resonating! I love getting those ah-ha moments myself! So I love when I can do that for others too!

    Wishing you all the very best as you plot and plan and write! 🙂

  8. Jody, this is a wonderful post! Something that I was glad you mentioned also was the character worksheets. These go a long way in showing us who our characters are. Bravo! 🙂

  9. Sorry to be late on this, but I wanted to say thanks for sharing your process. This is similar to what I'm doing on my new book, but you've given me a couple of new ideas.

  10. Okay, I'll bite. What is the WITS debate? How can I know which side I'm on if I don't even know what it is? :] Great post, BTW. I've been running around the internet for a while looking for such process pieces and haven't come across many of these. I also like your character worksheet you linked to.

    1. Tim, I don't think I can put links in a reply, but about a month ago, here at WITS, we had what we call a "throwdown" - one of us takes one side of a debate, someone else argues the opposite view. The one Florence was referring to was about Character Driven vs. Plot Driven.

      I think if you look back through the posts, you'll find it. Thanks for stopping by -- hope you find lots of posts you like!

  11. I've found myself adding a 4th set piece more deliberately: the false victory. I always "kind of" did it naturally, but not until a friend pointed it out in movies did I realize the power it has.

    On a mechanical note, I find myself writing almost entirely in Scrivener (Mac) now, and using Evernote across all my devices to gather notes, ideas, and pics.

    Thanks for the great post! ch:

  12. Fantastic post and I love the flow your process will create. As someone just starting out, I'll be putting this post to very good and practical use! Thanks again! 🙂

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