One way to think about plotting is to think about complications. What worries your main character? How can you make the situation worse, so that the character has the opportunity to change and grow? As Nabokov said, “The writer’s job is to get the main character up a tree, and then once they are up there, throw rocks at them.”
When I was writing Pandemic, I made a list of things that could go wrong for my character, Lilianna – rocks I could throw. I wanted to choose situations that escalated in terms of importance, but that also related to my theme.
Once I had a decent draft written, I needed a simple way to analyze what I’d created at that point. One problem with a novel is that it’s sometimes hard to see the big picture of what you’ve written. A table with columns and rows provides an easy visual and enables you to focus on certain elements of the story. Here is a simple, messy version of the first “table” I did early on. I listed the chapter and the main events for that chapter. The bluish/purple notes are about the pandemic disease and its consequences. The green notes were some ideas for revision. (I whited out some spoilers.)
In my next round of revisions, I realized my scribbled pages weren’t going to cut it. So I created a more formal table in Word, focusing on the various plot components in the story and how they added to the tension (or not). For example, because my story is about a deadly contagious disease, I was interested in tracking when the flu is mentioned in the news and how the disease progresses geographically and in terms of severity. I also wanted to analyze another source of fear for Lilianna, her interactions with Mr. B. In what chapters does he appear? How is their relationship revealed? Here is what the table looked like for the opening chapters of Pandemic:
So how can this type of chart help?
Creating something that fits on a few pages helps to show the bigger picture and potential plot flaws. For example, I tend to “drop” subplots for multiple chapters in early drafts. Sometimes a subplot stalls, adding nothing to the tension of the story. This chart, which I filled in for the entire novel, helped me to identify these types of plot problems. (Fixing them is another matter!)
If your story takes place over a compressed period of time, this type of tool can also be used to track your timing. Instead of looking at events by chapter number, change the rows to the days of the week (or time of day to break it down further). This helps to ensure that Friday doesn’t happen twice in a row or that characters don’t go to school on Sundays. You can also use this format to analyze scenes within a chapter.
Helpful hint: make sure the rocks you choose are meaningful to your character and your overall theme. During a chapter in Pandemic, I needed “something bad” to happen. While brainstorming, one of my (least helpful) ideas was that a character’s house burns down. That was indeed “something bad,” but it didn’t tie very well to Lilianna’s fears and lack of trust. A better complication was that looters steal her much-needed supplies and make her fear for her personal safety, which was a running concern throughout the novel. So don’t use random rocks — choose them wisely!
Disclaimer: No characters were harmed by real rocks during the writing of Yvonne’s novel.
Yvonne Ventresca is the author of Pandemic (Sky Pony Press, 2014), winner of the 2015 Crystal Kite Award from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (Atlantic region). Pandemic is a young adult novel about an emotionally traumatized teenager struggling to survive a deadly bird flu outbreak. School Library Journal called Pandemic “an engrossing apocalyptic story” and Kirkus Reviews said “this realistic page-turner will keep most readers enthralled.” Yvonne’s other writing credits include a short story in the YA dystopian anthology Prep for Doom (2015), two nonfiction books for teens, Avril Lavigne (a biography of the singer) and Publishing (about careers in the field), and various articles for teens and adults. You can visit her online at YvonneVentresca.com where she blogs for writers and book lovers.
Yvonne is giving away a free copy of Pandemic. If you are a registered Summer School student and would like a chance to win her book, please leave a comment on this post to be entered into the drawing. Good luck!
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