Gather scene plot points before writing


I have no idea how pantsers (those who write ‘by the seat of their pants’) decide what goes where in their books, or scenes, so if you’re a writer of that persuasion this post isn’t for you!

Even plotters have many variants

Some plotters are outliners: they construct a detailed outline for their novels, listing events in each scene, and, when they have a clear enough picture, follow their characters along and write down how they talk to each other as the events unfold.

There are writers who plot part of the time, as necessary, when they get stuck or when a section has to have a chronology to make sense.

And then there are people like me (I hope I’m not unique!): decisions are made in advance for every little thing that could happen in the whole story – an interaction between two characters about their Motivation; the introduction of a theme; the next step in a plot sequence that spans the whole trilogy…

I don’t know if I would have been this controlled had my brain still functioned the normal way – I didn’t write novels ‘before.’ But it helps me function when the amount of work I can keep in my head at a time is about one scene’s worth. At times, one beat – a section of a scene. My problem when I don’t do this it that the same ‘good idea’ will end up, in slightly different words, in more than one place in the novel!

So, necessity or temperament:

I call us Extreme Plotters

All this goes into the scenes in the list. Each scene has its little laundry list.

And then the improvisation can begin – everything is ready but the words.

And that little bit of ‘business’ will occur in only one place in the novel – and I know where and why.

From January 2013 (but I still use it every writing session):

Appreciations: Stuff that has to go somewhere

There are marks that a story has to hit to be considered complete.

For example, Blake Snyder, in his Save the Cat series on screenwriting, lists what he calls beats (on his ‘beat sheet’), things such as Opening Image, Theme Stated, Catalyst, and Dark Night of the Soul.

James N. Frey, in The Key: How to write damn good fiction using the power of myth, has a similar set which he calls a stepsheet that includes marks to hit such as the Call to Adventure, the Confrontation with the Evil One, or Obtaining the Prize; and a set of mythological characters to encounter such as The Armorer, The Evil One’s Sidekick, or the God with Clay Feet.

Other theorists have their own sets of points to hit for a novel or screenplay, and other structural systems such as Dramatica have their own collections of ‘pieces’ to include somehow in the finished product.

Finding a home for the pieces in the list of scenes

The last part of my Scene template is the section where all these systems have space to assign their points to particular scenes. I call these appreciations, or apps, from the original Dramatica version terminology.

Many of these systems have points in common, and are different ways of interpreting features that stories need. Odds are that people evaluating a novel or screenplay for acquisition will have their favorite system- and there is no reason why different systems can’t be accommodated within the same story and story structure.

The appreciations remind me that somewhere within THIS scene, I have elected to show, say, my protagonist preparing for the quest ahead by consulting The Wise Woman, or that this scene is the place to illustrate what Snyder calls the ‘All is Lost’ moment.

The illustration (‘encoding’) of the appreciation could be a bit of description or setting, a phone call and one or both sides of the ensuing dialogue, or a character’s thought expressing the theme for the reader. My choice – and where the writing and the artistry happen.

There are an infinite number of ways to illustrate any appreciation.

When done, a list of the appreciations showing the required points, scene by scene, could show an editor or studio exec that the story follows his favorite system* – and ‘validate’ the story’s structure. The point is that if the story needs to have a ‘consultation with a Wise Woman’ in it, I need to know which scene I’ve chosen to put that into. When I’m writing/I’ve written the scene, I can check the beat/story point/mark off my list once it is illustrated somehow. It is bookkeeping – that’s what templates are useful for.

The remaining few lines at the beginning and end of the Scene template situate that scene within its Chapter, and keep track of the action on a larger scale.

It looks like a lot of work to create and maintain this much structure. I think of it as preparation before going into battle. I know that when I reach the end, each of my scenes has done its job, and I haven’t left things out.

And it frees me up to do what I really want, which is to write the scenes: the stage is set, the actors are costumed and ready, and we get to Action!

*This is not an original idea – that you somehow include different ‘systems’ into the same book or screenplay – but I can’t remember where I ran across it. It makes sense – many systems are different ways to accommodate the same structure, and are not necessarily incompatible.



6 thoughts on “Gather scene plot points before writing

  1. joey

    Notecards. I’m a pantser, but some of it has got to be planned. Otherwise rewriting and reformatting is very messy. What an inconvenient lesson to learn the hard way. Oy.


  2. Janna G. Noelle

    I’m enjoying these replayed posts of yours. I’m definitely not an extreme plotter. I’m not entirely certain that I’m a plotter at all. My outlines (if you can even call them that) are very long and very messy, more so like pantsed zero drafts. The is a bit of horseshoe theory that starts to apply once you get to the extremes of both methods. My WIP’s outline was a decent fraction of the entire story’s length, and yet another decent fraction of this never got used.

    I definitely need to know how the story ends when I start, and what the major turning points are. But these days I’ve given myself permission to be more experimental in the moment while drafting, to follow new ideas that come to me. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. I’m often not able to judge until I see how it performs on the page, or until I get a few chapters beyond it. I do a lot more writing and rewriting these days. Words are free and I don’t have word count goals so I don’t mind burning through lots of them. One advantage I have (at least for now) is that once I’ve written something, it sticks firmly in my head so I’m not in danger of repeating ideas or action beats if I’m a bit disorderly in my process.


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      I’m glad you don’t mind repeats, even though I find myself updating some of the contents in the introductions – many of the old posts won’t make the cut for various reasons, but I think there is enough meat there to turn what’s left of the roast turkey into croquettes.

      I am really hampered by not being able to hold everything in my mind. I spend time making sure I haven’t used an idea before up to this point – and if there is repetition, it’s deliberate (and much shorter) because the reader needs to ‘remember’ something I planted long before so the new piece will advance the story.

      I actually had a rough draft of the whole, years ago, and it’s full of good stuff, but the tone of the entire trilogy got more sophisticated when I redid the whole plot around 2007 (the Great Reorganization), and I’m using less and less of the Old Text. I just didn’t have the craft yet, in plotting OR in writing.

      I’m focused right now on keeping the tone even from the first page of PURGATORY to the last page (not sure if the volume will be PARADISO or LIMBO, or a combination such as LIMBO et PARADISO or something else entirely). It can’t read as if it were written over the long period my brain required, because the story happens between Feb. 2005 and a time toward the end of 2006.

      I’m glad you can keep your story in-house, as it were – much simpler that way.

      I actually do more writing in the surrounding research documents than before, and a lot less in the actual scenes.


  3. Widdershins

    I tried plotting but every time I came up to a plotted point I found the story haring off in a completely different direction, so I gave up and went with the flow. 😀
    I tend to have a generalized idea of where I want the story to end up and pootle off in that general direction, I do take notes along the way as reference points, and keep a running page of ideas and where they might fit in, but that’s about it. 😀


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Some people can’t or choose not to plot, and practically no one is as extreme as I am (or they keep that to themselves). We are such different kinds of writer, are’t we?

      In my defense, there is a trigger warning of sorts on this post and the original one – but even I like to read outside my own methods.

      Yours works for you – I wouldn’t meddle with it. It’s when writers get a sneaking suspicion their methods aren’t up to their current writing that they look around. I was hopeless at being a pantser.

      Liked by 1 person


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