What’s the best way to plot?
Quick answer: the best way to plot is whatever works best for you. After all, we’re all different. Interview any group of a dozen writers and you’ll find they all have different times of the day when they’re alert; different belief systems about the world; different preferences in food and films. So why on earth would we all agree on the best way to plot a story?
To find out the best way of plotting for you, first (a) think about your usual approach to problems then (b) try a few different methods. It’s not certain that the ‘best’ way for you will dovetail with your personality type, but it’s likely. If we work on the four basic ‘types’, we find that people tend to gravitate to being:
- Extraverted or Introverted [this refers to how you receive stimulation – from within yourself (introverted) or from external sources (extraverted)]
- Sensing or Intuitive [your usual method of taking in information – via the five senses (sensing) or relying on instincts (intuitive)]
- Thinking or Feeling [whether you make decisions based on logic and objectivity (thinking) or on your personal, subjective value systems (feeling)]
- Judging or Perceiving [how you deal with the world on a day to day basis: organised and purposeful, with a liking for structured environments (judging) or flexible and comfortable with open, casual environments (perceiving)]
Is this set in stone? No, of course not. We all function across the entire spectrum – but you’re likely to find that you have a natural preference. If you can identify your personality type, you can work with your strengths – and thus find the method of plotting your stories that works best for you.
If you tend more towards being introverted, intuitive, feeling and perceiving, then you are likely to prefer a more flexible form of plotting. You would probably feel comfortable with cluster diagrams, branching, and scribbled notes with lots of arrows and extra little boxes.
You can use these for the basic plot, for characters, and for settings. Draw a circle in the middle of the page. Write the name of the story in this circle. (Any working title will do.) Around it draw more circles- as many as you need for things such as the catalyst for change, the character’s initial problem or goal, obstacles to be faced, final challenge for the main character, darkest moment, secondary characters, ending.
There’s no point in my prescribing how many circles you need- after all, this is your plot. You’re the intuitive, feeling type – you don’t want me to say ‘you have to put this here and that over there’. Watch your plot grow in front of your eyes.
Branching is very similar to the cluster diagram. You begin with the story, then draw ‘branches’ (lines) out from the box in the centre. These branches will represent the main thrust of your story: the same basic ‘ingredients’ as used above in the cluster diagram: characters, problems, obstacles, and so on. Off each of these main branches you draw smaller lines or branches – and along those lines write the specific problems encountered, the various characters in the story, and so on.
Both cluster diagrams and branching will let you see the shape of your story in a pictorial way. Many writers find they can get a much better overall sense of where their story is going when they can see it all as a diagram, rather than as a list of points.
Perhaps you feel much more at home in a structured environment. You are extraverted, and tend to think about things and make judgements. In this case, you could feel much happier with a detailed plot outline, with each step carefully planned. You may need to ‘write out’ the plot so you feel you know where you’re going.
The Gary Provost Plot Checklist
There are many basic plots you can use, but one of the best I’ve seen is the one advocated by the late Gary Provost. His plot outline, in the form of a checklist, is as follows:
- Inciting incident (what event sets the plot into motion?)
- The prize (what is it your character wants?)
- The strategy (what does your character decide to do in order to get what he/she wants?)
- The conflict (who are some of the people who are working against your character?)
- The stakes (what will be the consequence if the plan does not work?)
- The bleakest moment (what happens to make things look hopeless?)
- The lesson (what does your character learn about himself/herself, others or life?)
- The decision (what does your character do because of what he/she has learned?)
- The hole (In what way does your character need to grow emotionally (although probably unknown to him/her)
- The back story (what is it that is haunting your character as the story begins?)
Answer these questions and you have a story. The value of this checklist is that you can use it either to formulate a plot OR as a backup, to check that you have all the plot ‘ingredients’ in place if you use a different method.