Body hunched and head bowed, hammering the keys, breaking the stream of words only long enough to grab the mug and gulp down coffee that’s been cold for hours: the writer at work, delving into territories unknown.
We’ve romanticized the art of fiction to almost spiritual levels. To hear some people talk about it, you’d think simply sitting down to a day of work was a vision quest. Writing can be cathartic, but the destination is not the journey. Like anything else of quality, the good stuff can be broken down into quantitative data – and I’m not talking about word count, either. I’m talking about using the following 4 steps to visually track plots and character arcs in fiction.
1. Define “It”
What is “It”, exactly? Personally, when I write, It comes to mean, roughly, “everything the story is, and nothing that it isn’t.”
2. Arrange It
Once you’ve defined “It”, it’s time to do something with it. Fiction may be abstract, even ethereal at times, but it’s still data. And all data can be represented digitally by being reduced to its parts.
Create a list of every plot, subplot, character arc and otherwise within your story, and arrange them in a spreadsheet, or however you see fit.
SIDE NOTE: If mapping out everything going on in your story feels too ambitious for you, then just imagine what a reader is going to feel like trying to digest it all. If you don’t even know what’s going on inside your head, don’t ask it of a reader.
3. Track It
Here’s where it gets fun (is that the right word?). Determine whether your plots/subplots/arcs adhere to the classic pyramid of Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action and Resolution, and then determine exactly where and when each step takes place.
Granted, not every plot may fall within/upon the neat and orderly distribution of Freytag’s pyramid of dramatic structure. Maybe you defy such constraints, or you might even have more of an anti-plot in the works. Regardless, the forced focus required of you to bend your story to fit the pyramid may yield unexpected results.
Each column in the photo below represents the 5 elements of Freytag’s pyramid (with an additional “Intro” column thrown in for good measure). Each row is a different plot, subplot or character arc within the story, with numbers to represent the location where/when the event(s) take place.
4. Weed It
Tracking a story as I’ve done above can lead to several conclusions. You may realize you need to spend more time fleshing out the rising action of one of your subplots. Or, you may find that a character arc you thought was solid turned out utterly anticlimactic. Even more distressing: you might realize a subplot you spent thousands of words detailing ultimately fizzles out, unfulfilled.
Now is your chance to remedy it! Add and subtract accordingly. If this is your first draft, it likely contained a lot of extraneous material, and it can be heartbreaking to chop out thousands of words – words you thought were important at the time. There’s a reason they call it “murdering your darlings”.
Chop mercilessly. Trim the fat. Weed the garden. You are guaranteed to find a leaner and stronger product beneath. Write long and prosper.
The data and images in this article come from my personal notes for the novel The Fallen Odyssey by C.B. McCullough.
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