Story Plotting

To the reader curled up with your book, it may appear to be a random collection of thoughts, conversations, and experiences. In fact, stories are carefully-constructed works that usually follow a specific formula. It’s known as a plot/story arc, where the events rise and fall and are eventually brought together and explained or resolved (denouement). Pantsers might be scoffing at this point, but I think at some point, they wrangle their works into much the same structure.

For years, I’ve used the Plot Clock (created by my editor and me) illustrated here to construct my stories, develop their plots, and keep the word count within genre’ requirement ranges. Within that structure, there is freedom to create and explore what your characters are doing within that determined timeframe. Without explaining what is already illustrated, I’ll use The Wizard of Oz (by Lyman Frank Baum) as an example of how this system that I love works.

Act 1: Ordinary World
Dorothy Gale lives on a farm with her aunt, uncle, farmhands, and dog Toto. She feels ignored because everyone is so busy with farm chores and wishes she could go somewhere where there isn’t any trouble. They are visited by Miss Gulch who says Toto has been in her garden and she has an order allowing her to take Toto and have him destroyed.

Binding Point (which leads to Act II)
Fearing for Toto’s life, Dorothy takes Toto and runs away. She has left her “Ordinary World.”

Act II: Special World of the Story (FAILED challenges)
She meets up with Professor Marvel who tells her that Aunt Em is ill in an effort to get Dorothy to return home. Dorothy does, but a tornado knocks her unconscious, and she begins to dream. Her house has fallen on a witch, and her sister (Wicked Witch of the West) is angry with Dorothy. Good witch Glinda has put the dead witch’s ruby slippers on Dorothy and warns her not to take them off.

Dorothy sets off for Oz, hoping the wizard can help her get home. Along the way she meets friends, but at the same time the WWW is following her and trying to cause harm: scarecrow/fire, tin man/tossed into the air, lion/cowardice. They finally reach the outskirts of the Emerald City, but the WWW puts poppies in their way to put them to sleep. Glinda steps in with a snowfall, and the gang reaches the city gates.

Their first visit to the wizard is declined, but they are finally admitted. After hearing their request, the wizard says he will grant their wishes if they bring back the broom of the WWW. On the way, they are set upon by flying monkeys. Dorothy and Toto are captured, and her friends are left in disarray.

Low Point: Dorothy is captive in the castle and will die when the sand in the hourglass runs out.

Act III:
Dorothy is rescued, then cornered by the guards. In the chaos, Dorothy (braver and more assertive/determined) accidentally throws water on the WWW and melts her. She is allowed to take the broom back to the wizard. They present the broom to the wizard, but he tells them to come back tomorrow. Dorothy speaks up, gives him a piece of her mind, and discovers that he is a man (Professor Marvel), not a wizard. She chastises him, and insists that he reward her friends for what they have done to help her. There is nothing in the bag for Dorothy, so the wizard agrees to take her back to Kansas in his hot air balloon. They meet in a large, open-air place where the balloon is ready to launch.

Turning Point (I use this for an event that can unravel what the character has been working toward):
Toto sees a cat and escapes from Dorothy’s arms. She goes after him and Professor Marvel leaves in the balloon without her. She fears she will never get home until good witch Glinda appears and tells her she’s had the power all along. She didn’t tell her before because Dorothy wouldn’t have believed her. She says goodbye to her friends, taps her heels, and is transported home.

Act IV (denouement):
Dorothy is back home, in her room/bed with her family (and Toto) surrounding her. She sees the farmhands that resemble her friends in Oz, Professor Marvel, Aunt Em, and Uncle Henry. She tells them a bit about what happened, but decides it couldn’t really have happened. She tells them that if she wants to find her heart’s desire, she won’t look any further than her own back yard–because there’s no place like home.

I also note the total word count for my story and roughly calculate how much needs to be devoted to each part of the story. It helps me determine if I need more or less in each area as the story evolves.

Every writer’s journey is their own. This works for me; perhaps it will work for you.

Image credit: Anne K. Hawkinson

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