Creating a roadmap for scene arcs

I’ve done this before – and didn’t realize it actually needs to be a ‘thing,’ a part of my regular writing ‘process.’

Most of the time, my plotting assigns all kinds of details to scenes, leaving the actual writing to when I get that far in the list of scenes, as I work one at a time until it’s finished.

So I can concentrate on writing one scene, one little visual polished bit, at a time, knowing that the scene will fit into the story like a jewel into a necklace.

But a scene can be too small an entity to work with when the story arc needs several scenes to tell a part of the story, during which point of view will shift in each scene (I stick religiously to a single pov per scene), but the story will continue, and, if I’m skillful enough, the reader won’t notice the patchwork quilt squares, but only the whole.

IF my plotting is good enough initially, and thought out in enough detail, I can trundle along, scene by scene, and the bits will connect.

But when the plotting was changed in the great 2007 reorganization?

Then I was forced to make some large decisions and some fine grained decisions about what would go where of all the bits in the story, and some of those details were tentatively assigned to a scene, or a point of view character, and I knew I would have to rearrange some of the bits when I got there.

I’ve done the several-scene roadmap idea more than once before. The first three chapters of Purgatory, for example, are all about the Night Talk show where two of the main characters meet in New York, while the third main character watches the show from Los Angeles.

So I’ve worked with the concept before, that plotting can have arcs even within the larger story, but I never stopped to formalize that for myself.

It’s a lot of work

I think of it as fractal in nature: pick a scope – sentence, paragraph, beat, scene,… and plot first, then write – and the dialogue will happen, the interior monologues will support it, because we all know where we’re going, together.

Sometimes a film director will allow actors to improvise – but it is always within the director’s (and the script’s) larger vision of the whole. Within that whole, individual pieces can be executed in many ways, but all have to serve the story. Or they will have to be expunged (kill your darlings) from the final product, which will otherwise be a mess.

But for extreme plotters like I am, breaking up the process, and doing the structure solidly FIRST, allows me to just write when I get there, to listen to the characters in my mind, and write down what they say, because I’ve given them the setup – and the writing part of my brain seems to have a mind of its own.

Back to my skyscraper analogy

Get the plumbing and the elevators and the water lines and the steel structure right first – or the sewage from the 29th floor won’t proceed to the treatment plant, and the first time someone flushes up there won’t be pretty for those on the 28th floor.

But after that, interior walls may have some variation (as long as they aren’t load-bearing), so that one floor can have a large open conference room where the floor directly above has offices or apartments. That is my roadmap idea. Within the plan for a whole building, there can be individual floor designs – followed by the decorating (writing) of the individual rooms which is the ultimate purpose of the skyscraper – interior spaces of all kinds and sizes within the plan.

Sometimes I can plan a whole building at a time, others a floor at a go, sometimes just one room, and sometimes a perfect grouping of furniture before the fireplace where we will sit and talk.

And the roadmap part?

Think of the roadmap as linear, while the floorplan of a skyscraper’s floor is 2D, and the building itself is 3D.

The ROADMAP allows you to visit every room on each floor – in a particular order, the one chosen by the storyteller.

Think of it: the last time you let a Real Estate Agent show you a dwelling, did they arrange your tour so you ended up in the perfect room? The one the agent knew would close the deal?

The ROADMAP is how I get you where I want you, the Reader, to go.

I work and plan and think and manipulate – so you will say wow.

The whole idea is to tell the story for YOUR pleasure – and for that you have to let me be dramatic, and show you everything in an order I hope you will like.

Just when you think your writing process is a lock – there’s something more to write ABOUT it. For me, it’s one more thing nailed down that I won’t forget to do because my brain isn’t working.

It’s an interesting way to work, with a limited brain as my tool.



21 thoughts on “Creating a roadmap for scene arcs

  1. acflory

    -grin- I knew you were a plotter, but I had no idea how intricately you map out your stories. That’s the kind of thing I’d do for tech writing, yet Purgatory did not feel either predictable or ‘on rails’. Sadly, if I tried to do the same, I’d end up with a scifi how-to. I literally have to switch off the logical side of my brain using music. And then I try very hard not to know how the story will end. 😀
    That said, I only play chicken with myself for the first draft. Because it’s only for me. After that it’s time to tell the story to a reader, in a way that flows without any ‘what the?’ moments. Like you, I cannot fudge the plot.

    I have to disagree with you about one thing though, a good pantster and a good plotter have one thing in common, they do whatever it takes to make the /story/ as perfect as possible. And that’s the real test. If the story captures the reader’s imagination and keeps it, right till the end, then it doesn’t matter what process was used.

    Just for the record, I’m a hybrid like Lloyd. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Most people ARE hybrids – at some scale.

      Few people plot as I do, and even fewer do it with Dramatica.

      But the whole point is that the reader should not be able to tell – should not be confused – should not be bored.

      However you achieve that, that’s your process.

      Mine DELIBERATELY alternates between left and right brain functions – I’ve written several posts about the LBR method (left brain right) that I use. I think of it as taking turns. When one ‘side’ is starting to flag, we switch to the other, which has been raring to go, and with fresh energy, dig in again.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. acflory

        You’re absolutely right about the reader. I also like the left brain, right brain process. I wish I could swap backwards and forwards easily. It just doesn’t work for me. 😦


        1. acflory

          Yes. 😦 I swore I’d have two so they wouldn’t be lonely but…life is the road we follow while we make other plans? I have a feeling I’ve pinched and mangled that last bit. Ah well. Old age? lol


        2. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          Don’t worry. Think of a time when you supervised your darling playing with someone else’s darling. Got it? And there was only one X.

          Now get out your timer. Pick one kid to start. Let that one have X for 5 minutes (adjust depending on toy). Tell other one they will have the next 5 minute turn, and that each of them will get as many turns as they want.

          Pick the side of your brain which feels it hasn’t been getting its fair share, not the one who currently has the floor, and is flagging it. Switch (with timer. Really).

          It jiggles things loose. For me. But the beginning is always awkward – so you do it in short time intervals, like many things you don’t want to do/can’t do. KNOWING I’ll stop after a short while (assuming I’m not in the groove) seems to help.

          If not, you’ve lost a short period of time.

          Liked by 1 person

        3. acflory

          I’ve been in ‘technical’ mode for much too long now. Sometimes I fear I’ll never get back into creative mode again. I’m glad you are steaming along. Been looking forward to book 2 for a while. No pressure. 😀


        4. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          The first time is always hard.

          When I abandoned pantsing, which I had been trying to do, it was a long time before I felt comfortable.

          That was because I went to the other end of the pendulum’s swing: I learned to plot with Dramatica (usually a screenwriter’s tool), and that comes with its own mythology.

          All I can say is that it pulls the most amazing things out of ME – so I stick with it. Of course, I’ve invested many years in it, and know what I’m doing, and do things deliberately.

          My favorite is knowing how to make a book that appeals to men AND women. I love the reviews I’ve gotten from older men who don’t read the kind of novel I write.

          Liked by 1 person

        5. acflory

          I suspect the trick to that is to write believable men. 😀 Writing believable characters of the opposite sex is…hard. Usually what happens is that men write fantasy women, and women write fantasy men. We’re not quite aliens to each other, but some stories make you wonder.


  2. Lynda Dietz

    This is a fascinating way to look at the whole structure! As much as I despise plotting out every step of certain things (whether it’s a task or a blog post), I find that I do a much better job of it if I have at least some idea of where I’m going from step to step, rather than trying to organize a larger thought into smaller parts without direction.


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Some of my plotting would drive you crazy, then: literally minute by minute.

      To get the beginning of PURGATORY to work – I’m having a live TV interview on a Night Talk in NYC in the evening (two of the main characters) interspersed with the third main character – watching from LA three hours EARLIER (in her time).

      There was a lot of critical character information and story information that needed to be slipped in there, and I do NOT do character description or info dumps – I had to make sure the timelines braided properly and were even possible.

      All this with the supreme caveat: do not confuse the reader.

      It was like figuring out a jigsaw puzzle that is all one color and has a circular edge – and so satisfying once all the pieces locked in.

      But, yeah – major plotting ensures the possibility – and then it was so much fun to write, from behind the characters’ eyeballs.

      Any time I’m not living in the scene, in the pov character’s mind, I find that it’s the plotting at fault: if things COULDN’T happen, my brain refuses to MAKE them happen for my convenience, because the thing I hate most about reading (and especially TV and movies) is when I have to suspend disbelief because the writers were lazy and tell me something happened instead of proving it happened by showing it.

      When you have my brain, both damaged and picky, picky, picky, you learn to do what I do.

      And if that structure is solid, EVERYTHING works.


  3. Lloyd Lofthouse

    I am a pantser, and I have no idea if that means the same amount of work you are describing, or less, or more.

    “Simply put, a plotter is someone who plans out their novel before they write it. A pantser is someone who, ‘flies by the seat of their pants,’ meaning they don’t plan out anything, or plan very little. Some people, like me, call themselves ‘plantsers,’ which means they’re in a little of both.”

    QUESTION: How many words do you have in each scene?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      A typical scene runs around 1.5-2.5K words. In a single pov. 800 is low.

      If a scene gets too long, I think about it, and break it up – readers shouldn’t have to handle massive ones just because I don’t need to change the pov for a set of linked scenes.

      I wasted a lot of years trying to write like Lawrence Block, a facile pantser who wrote a couple of books on writing that I liked.

      I can’t pants. I toss too much, end up with things I don’t like.

      It may be the hard scientist in me (Nuclear Engr. – Plasma Physics), or my personality type – who knows. I don’t like reading novels that were pantsed into existence – my brain doesn’t process the information correctly.

      When I put something in a story, it’s there for a reason. Preferably more than one reason.

      Each of us writes our own way; the divide between plotters and pantsers seems one of the most basic. I don’t think you end up at the same stories.

      Since I have a damaged brain, and have to work the way I work to get ANYTHING out, it may simply be a prejudice. My trunk novels were far less organized – and you can tell at the end: they need a lot of cleaning up, which they may never get.

      While it may be a continuum, I’ve heard pantsers say that they don’t want to know where they’re going, because then they’re bored. They want to ‘discover’ the story as they go.

      That would drive me up a wall. I had to plot the three volume PC mainstream trilogy from beginning to end before I was confident in the story I wanted to tell; the rough draft confirmed that I could get there.

      The rough draft is also horrible in many ways, the greatest of which is that since my mechanics have always been good (spelling, grammar, punctuation hold no terrors for me), the rough draft looks so PLAUSIBLE. As if it were good. It is NOT.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Lloyd Lofthouse

        In my current work, I included two scenes in one chapter and each scene had a different POV character.

        My critique group got confused and said I should stick to one character POV. I didn’t want to do that so I researched multiple POV stories and read a couple of advice pieces, one from R. R. Martin the author of Game of Thrones. All the advice said to give each POV character their own chapter instead of dividing up a chapter with more than one POV character.

        I kept my multiple POVs and divided them up each in their own chapter and the critique group didn’t complain about that. Most of my chapters run from 2,000 to 3,000 words.


        1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          If you want to see easily how I do it – for any reason – go to Amazon and look at the Look Inside feature. I believe it covers about 3 chapters – maybe 20 scenes total – and your critique partners, IMNVHO, don’t know what the heck they’re talking about.

          I use the close third-person pov, and each scene that changes pov is labeled with the character’s name, and, if it changes, with the time/date/location information.

          Some changes between scenes are seconds and others days or months and worlds apart. I stick to a chronological order, in general, with a couple of places where I am in one character’s pov, and then go back a bit and do it from the others’ – because I need that.

          Mainstream novels can do anything they like as long as they don’t confuse the reader. My readers have never said a word about being lost.

          I hate the dual time-line novels – won’t read them, don’t care – except for Louis Sachar’s Holes, which was for kids and didn’t get lost as adult novels which spend a bunch of time/words in one of the timelines before switching to the other seem to do. You could follow Sachar’s story.

          When The Great Santini spent a long chapter getting me all interested, and then switched timelines, I dumped it. When other novels have done the same – AFTER I identified with and liked a main character, ditto. I don’t do that. You know from beginning to end my characters will be entangled.

          Just don’t confuse the readers – and for me, changing to a complete other story was ‘confusing the reader.’


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