What Comes Next?

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?”


Carly Carson said...

This sounds like a good, disciplined approach. I might have to try it. I find I never know what's going to happen until I start the actual writing. But your method might improve my efficiency.


Kristin Daniels said...

I love your idea here. I tried to do something similar once, but I ended up going a totally different direction about half-way through my story. I did go back and adjust my template, which worked out okay for me. All in all, it's a good way to get out your plan. Great post!

Nicole North said...

Fantastic post, Carol!! I took a workshop on this once and it looks like a great method! I'm not quite this organized but I wish I was! :) My problem with using this is that I like to write the rough draft out in one big file with only a space between scenes, so I have no idea during the creative process which scenes will be in which chapters. So I save placing the chapter labels on until one of the later things I do. I know from experience if I don't, that I end up shifting things from chapter to chapter as I realize I need another scene there, or oops that chapter just got too long. What I do instead is a story map which looks like a scene list of things in the order they happen.

Beppie Harrison said...

Having discovered that plotting is my weak point (and howsoever charming your characters, agents and editors are not likely to buy into a full-length novel full of charm and little else), I am paying attention to what you say with particular interest. At the moment I write an outline with particular attention to What Happens (hopefully) -- I remember once making a great big chart, influenced by a workshop by Jenny Cruisie, and found once I'd done that I had no interest in writing the book! But your method sounds tempting.

Thanks for sharing it!

Vanessa Kelly said...

Great post, Carol! I do something similar, but your technique will help me to refine it.

Sandy said...

Interesting post, Carol. My books are longer than Harlequin's, but this could work for me.


Carol Ericson said...

Carly, My tendency is to start writing before I know where the story is going - and I do this. I can usually whip out the first three chapters this way, but at some point I have to give my editor a synopsis and come to terms with what's actually going to happen in the book to get the H/H to HEA!

Carol Ericson said...

Kristin, Yeah, I'm not sayin' the story doesn't change from what's on my "calendar," but at least when I sit down to write I have an idea of where the dialog and action are going to lead.

Carol Ericson said...

Nicole, I don't think could ever write a draft out in one big file! The ends of the chapters give me something to aim for and a feeling of completion. This method could work for scenes as well as chapters, although you'd have a whole lot more of those! I'm not all that organized - would love to give it a try on a white board some time with different colored markers.

Carol Ericson said...

Beppie, this is a more graphic version of an outline, but it's not meant to be exhausting! LOL I usually manage a few sentences per box to jumpstart my writing.

Vanessa, lots of ways to use this method. I really want to try colors next!

Sandy, I think this method works especially well for single titles - it's a graphic way to weave your sub-plots and secondary characters into the story and keep track of them.

Cameo Brown said...

Interesting concept!

Terry Spear said...

No outlines for me. If I try to do that, I'm totally stymied. :)

Chiron said...

This is an intriguing approach, one I'd like to utilize. My approach has been pretty slap-dash in the past, but I'm slowly getting more organized as time goes on. Whew!

Thanks for a great post!!

Chiron O'Keefe

Julie Robinson said...

I LOVE your calendar method, Carol! I have been trying to figure out how to structure it, and this sectioning off is great. This post is being printed off so I can remember it.