We’ve received a ton of good advice so far about how to make things happen in your manuscripts! By now, you must be thinking about your character’s motivations and what they have at stake.
So today I want to concentrate on the WHEN of plotting — the passage of time.
If things happen out of order in a plot – at the wrong time – the plot won’t work. The hero can’t vanquish the villain on the first page, we all know that. But it’s important that other events happen in the right order too.
You’re probably all familiar with this very basic plot chart. The one where the plot is like a mountain your character has to struggle to climb (only to topple from the pinnacle later).
You’ll notice the main character’s climb – the rising action – takes up the most space on the chart. This will happen in your book too. And it’s often where plots start to unravel. So let’s talk about rising action.
Rising action in a novel is like rising dough in bread baking. It takes time. If you don’t allow enough time for your dough to rise, it will fall flat. The same is true of your plot.
I had this issue with my current work in progress (WIP). For this book, I wanted the action to occur within thirty days. I wrote it that way, revised it, and sent it out to my critique partners. I was thrilled to find they really liked it!
But then they suggested we have a Skype conversation to talk about some “plotting issues.” Whaaaaaaat?
Some of the action was happening too fast. The plot also had a few holes. Hmmmm. It seems I’d let a major character AND a major event fall through the cracks. In other words, I had been so excited about helping my character climb the plot mountain, that I hadn’t given my rising action enough time to rise. At that point the plot chart for my WIP was looking something like this:
I immediately knew which plotting tool I’d use to fix the problem: a blank calendar. I used blank calendars to help plot both The Boy Problem and The Boy Project. It was extremely helpful to be able to see at a glance how my main characters, Tabbi and Kara, were moving through those novels. Using calendars made it easy to ensure that weekend events, due dates for science projects, and interactions with other characters happened in the right order and at the right times.
I had also used this tool to plot my WIP to begin with, the one I was having trouble with now. But at first I’d started with a thirty day calendar. After the critique process, it was clear that I needed to stretch out the rising action. I needed to add more time to my plot.
For a project like this, a large desk calendar is indispensable. The larger sized squares make them a perfect canvas for post-it notes. When I was re-ordering pieces of my plot, I could easily mix around the sequence of events with post-it notes. Some events had to take place on certain days. These couldn’t be moved. I had more flexibility with others. So I moved the conclusion further down the calendar, then stretched out the existing events, while adding a few more in order to fill in those holes my critique group pointed out. Below you can see the before and after calendars used for this project. I don’t know how I could have written, or revised, the manuscript without them!
When we start writing our books, we usually have a good idea of how to begin. And not long after that, we are able to see how our stories might end. But the rising action…. that’s the tough part. It’s hard to make our characters take all of the time they need when they could be reveling in the glories of our fantastic conclusions! Still, it’s important to give them time. Using a calendar as a plotting device is one one way to make sure you do that.
- You can employ this technique whether your story spans a year, a month, a week, or just a few hours. Using the table making function in Microsoft Word, create a calendar-scaled table, or a chart to accommodate any other unit of time.
- Use different colored markers to indicate subplots so that you can see at a glance. This will make it easy to realize when you drop a thread.
- Mark your calendar with symbols or initials to represent secondary characters. This way, you can keep track of how often your main character interacts with them.
Kami Kinard is the author of The Boy Problem (Scholastic, 2014) and The Boy Project (Scholastic, 2012). Her poetry, stories, articles, and essays have appeared in numerous periodicals for children and adults. A former public educator, Kami remains dedicated to teaching and often leads writing workshops at conferences and in schools. You can visit her at www.kamikinard.com or atwww.NerdyChicksRule.com where she blogs with Sudipta.
Kami is giving away a TWENTY PAGE manuscript critique with a follow-up phone call or Skype session. If you are a registered Summer School student and would like a chance to win this prize, please leave a comment on this post to be entered into the drawing. Good luck!
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