Friday, March 22, 2013

My New Favorite Plotting Tool

When it comes to plotting a WIP, I don't fit squarely in any particular group. I usually have an opening scene in mind and know where I want the story to end up, but that's it. I usually try to outline the major events, but much of my inspiration comes as I write, and I'll confess: outlining bores me. I can't stay focused on it, the action rarely feels organic, and it just doesn't have the same magic as writing a scene. But I've tried just plotting as I go, and while that's more fun, it causes problems in the long run. Underdeveloped subplots, insufficient character motivation, and yet again, action that's not organic to the story crop up and require major revisions. I've tried several different things, hoping to find something that gives me that perfect balance between structure and creative inspiration.

And I've found it.

No, really. This thing is magical. It cures underdeveloped subplots, inactive characters, low stakes plots, global warming, Mondays, headache, fever, achy muscles, and women's complaints.

What is this writer's wonder tonic, you ask? None other than the Writing the Breakout Novel workbook by author and literary agent Donald Maass. (The workbook can be used on its own; you don't need to buy Writing the Breakout Novel too, but of course they compliment each other.)

The workbook is broken up into three parts: plot, character, and general story techniques. Each part has about 12 sections. For example, part 1 has sections on making the protagonist heroic, developing multidimensional characters, creating inner conflict, developing larger-than-life character qualities, heightening those same qualities, character turnabouts and surprises, raising personal stakes and public stakes, deepening exposition, creating memorable secondary characters, developing the antagonist's arc, and telescoping characters to enrich your cast. Each of these sections has a few pages of fantastic discussion on what makes up that specific element and gives superb examples from breakout novels. Exercises at the end of each section ask questions and give work space for you to brainstorm, try the techniques, and jot down ideas and paragraphs for your own novel. The questions are challenging, unusual, and insightful. They're pushing me to develop my characters and conflicts on levels I hadn't even considered. I read a lot of writing craft books (I'm a nerd that way), and this one goes deeper than most of the ones I've read.

The depth of the questions and thoroughness of the book as a whole are why I love this book as a plotting tool. I get to play around with my characters and play in the world of the story just a bit at a time, figuring out plot and character, revising my notes, starting over, fleshing out... all without having to rewrite scenes OR slog through an outline. If I don't yet know what role Johnny's brothers and his mother play in my WIP, I can skip the secondary characters section and move on to the plot. Something in the subplot or conflict sections might give me an idea for how they can deepen the conflict and add another obstacle for the protagonist, so I can go back and sketch out my notes for that. Then in the next exercise, I might discover the things Johnny's brothers have to do could easily be done by one brother, cutting an unnecessary character and making one have two roles. And if a random idea takes me by surprise, I can scribble away. Tuesday during one of the "turning point" exercises, I had an idea and wrote almost 800 words from one of my favorite planned scenes into the extra space on the exercise. (Whether or not it's any good, we'll see.)

This workbook has solved my plotting problems because it lets me develop all aspects of my WIP at once. The character exercises help me to decide on plot issues. Plot twists help me develop the characters. World building exercises help me with both plot and character. I'm no longer jumping between partially written chapters, my outline, and my character sheets, revising everything as inspiration hits me. Everything is being developed as I go, with room for me to both write and plan. I can easily go back and jot down extra notes or cross out previous ones. And here's the best part: I'm being thorough, because the book is thorough. When I'm done with it's 230 pages, I'll have notes on just about everything from my antagonist's heroic qualities to how I'm going to use bridging conflict to keep tension going in between major events.

In case you're not convinced, here's a few more pros of this workbook:
  • It's paper. For someone who spends her life staring at a computer screen, paper is a blessed relief.
  • It's portable. Car trips, waiting rooms, what have you, I can take it along and be productive.
  • The exercises are short. Even in ten or fifteen minutes, I can accomplish something and have the notes to prove it. 
  • It's one book. I don't have multiple different files or notebooks. Everything is in one place, nicely locatable because the table of contents, of course, means all my notes are labeled.
  • The exercises are fun. Many of the questions are unexpected and thought-provoking, so it's a lot of fun to tackle them and see what happens. 
  • It's $13 at Barnes and Noble. You can hardly order dinner out for that price, so it's a wicked steal. 
If it helps me this much, it might help you! I definitely recommend giving it a try.

Have you used this workbook before? Do you have any great plot/character development tools? 


  1. This sounds fantastic! I've been looking for a book like this, which puts everything into one place, for a while, and I'll definitely be checking it out. Thank you for the recommendation! :)

  2. Wonderful! I really hope you like it. :)

  3. Interesting, I'll have to check it out. This is the third time this week that Donald Maass's book has crossed my radar, but I had no idea there was a workbook. Great idea!

  4. Sounds like a fantastic book! Like you, I'm a nerd and love to read my writing craft books. This one sounds especially helpful.

  5. Think I'll have to track this book down, sounds brilliant! Thank you for recommending it :)

  6. I'll have to look this book up. Right now I'm trying First Draft In 30 Days and so far it's working for me.

  7. It sounds like we write in a similar manner. I've tried different plotting strategies (and read many a craft book on the subject), but nothing (besides intense revising), has worked for me.

    Thank you for the recommendation. Off to buy:D