You have a killer hook, you’ve written your fabulous beginning, and you’ve crafted a hero to die for. Now what? Now you have to fill in those pages between “hello, gorgeous” and “happily-ever-after.” C’mon, even you pantsers need some framework for your plot. Don’t you?
I can have a great idea for a story and the characters to go with it without knowing specifically what’s going to happen in the book. But I can’t send my editor a synopsis that starts with the hook, the characters, and the premise and then write: “...and then a bunch of stuff happens before the hero and heroine vanquish the villain, reaffirm their love, and live happily-ever-after.” So how do you plot your story?
One method I use to plot my books is something I refer to as the “calendar method.” Others may refer to it as “storyboarding,” although a typical storyboard for animation or a screenplay often has pictures and shots (i.e. close-up of a small farmhouse). The method I use relies on words only.
Here's how I fashion mine. I set up the number of squares based on the number of chapters in the book. For HQ Intrigues this is easy, since I usually write a 15-chapter book. But you can use page number to get a rough estimate of your chapter count; i.e. a 380-page manuscript with 20 chapters of approximately 19 pages. And nothing is carved in stone here. Then I divide the chapters into an even number of rows. So I will set up a 15-chapter book into five rows of three boxes each (a box represents a chapter). So the end product sort of looks like a calendar.
The heading in each box is the chapter number. Then you can get as detailed as you like in each box. You can indicate the POV for the chapter. You can indicate the setting. You can indicate the characters. But the most important part of this system is to get the plot down with a sequence of events that occur in the story.
To lay out your plot, write a short phrase or two in each box, indicating what is going to happen in that chapter. For example, “Bob and Carol discover one of the victims was pregnant” and “Bob and Carol share their first kiss.” So in this example, there is an element that advances the mystery part of the plot and one that advances the romance part of the plot. This way of setting up chapters gives you a roadmap of “what comes next.”
Another aspect of this plot-development method is the turning point. All novels need turning points to keep the reader interested and to push the story forward. These turning points can be character-driven (the hero discovers the heroine has been married before and has a child) or story-driven (the hero and heroine agree to work together to find the jewels). The turning points should be set up on the far-right column of your calendar or grid. So for my Intrigue setup of five rows of three chapters, there is a turning point at the end of every three chapters for a total of four turning points and the black moment, which is the final turning point of the book. The black moment appears in the last row of the calendar, but not necessarily in the last box. (Intrigues are fast-paced romantic suspense, so we need lots of turning points; other genres will have fewer turning points.)
I usually set up my calendar in a Word file, but I know others who use a white board with this method. There are some who use colors and post-its to further track their characters, the details of their plots, or the sub-plots. In fact, you can tweak it any way that works for you. There’s no plotting law that forces you to follow what you thought was a good direction for your story when you started working on it. Sometimes my stories will take off in a completely different direction than I had planned. Do I go back to my calendar and make the changes? No.
I use this method so I can complete a coherent synopsis and to give me guidance when I sit down to write. It provides an answer when I’m sitting in front of the computer asking, “What next?”