Six impossible things

Messing Around with Post-Its

As I mentioned last post, I’m three chapters into the WIP with a not-too-urgent but nonetheless looming deadline and have discovered a need for some more development before I continue. There are two sorts of work I need to do: macro-level and micro-level.

The macro-level stuff is the sort of thing I was talking about last week – looking at what I’ve written to see what’s there and what isn’t and where it’s all leading, and then projecting it out to see what I still need to make up or figure out for the overall story and plot arc. In this case, I had three overlapping plotlines: an emotional/character-growth plotline, a comedic plotline, and a more serious central-problem plotline. Unfortunately, the first and last were seriously under-developed, and that’s what I’ve been working on. I didn’t have a villain, or even a good candidate for one, and a good hard look at the much-too-fuzzy idea for the plot revealed that I had far too much ground to cover – I was trying to get my characters from A to Q, when one book would cover A to C, maybe D or E if I could condense things enough.

So the plot needed major surgery and revamping at the macro level. That meant redefining the end point for this book, so that my main character wasn’t trying to sort out her personal life, straighten out the immediate mess she’d been handed, build an Empire, deal with diplomatic overtures and/or war, and Save The World, all at the same time and in the same book. Straightening out the immediate mess and Saving The Village is probably quite enough for her to be going on with.

Having pared the main plot down to something more achievable in 100,000 words, I am still left looking at Chapter 3. Knowing where my heroine is going to get to eventually does not actually tell me what she is going to do tomorrow morning.

I do, however, have a pile of things that need to happen early on, like introducing a boatload more characters and setting up some more background. I also have a number of different ways those things can happen. So I start a shorthand list of the scenes/incidents/events I have in my head:

  • -find “How to be a Dark Lord” book in library
  • -meet castle maids
  • -realize everyone expects to follow Tradition
  • -decide not to follow Tradition
  • -first challenger arrives
  • -defeat first challenger
  • -discover secret passage
  • -meet half-sister, librarian, steward, cousin
  • -hold first council meeting
  • -consult with family about next step
  • -tour of castle

I put each of those on a Post-It Note, and I sort them. First I look at which things must happen before something else. Right now, there are really only two: She has to realize that everyone expects her to follow Tradition first, and then decide not to (because if she doesn’t know, it’s not a decision worth mentioning), and the first challenger has to arrive before she can defeat him. I stick those pairs of Post-Its together in the order they have to happen and continue.

Next, I look at where things happen, or could happen. If I start with the heroine waking up in her bedroom, I’ve got Bedroom, Library, Council Room, and Castle Courtyard (for the challenger) for sure, plus a variety of possible locations around the castle (the tour). Some things are obvious: “Find how-to book in library” happens in the library…or maybe not. She could find it in the bedroom, or a storage room somewhere during her castle tour. I cross out “in library” on that Post-It note. “Meet maids” could go under Bedroom, or happen in Other Random Castle Locations as she takes the tour. “Realize expectations” could happen over breakfast, or at the council meeting, or while reading the how-to-book in the Library. I add a Post-it for “have breakfast?” and put “Dining Room” on my list of possible locations.

Then I start looking at the order things could happen, kind of walking my main character through her day. She wakes up in a strange room and has her first encounter with one of the maids; that makes sense. She sends the maid to find the rest of the family; they have a consultation about next step. They go to breakfast where she meets the cousin and half-sister, then start the castle tour, meet the librarian and more maids, find the book in the library, meet the steward who mentions the council meeting. They go to the council meeting and she realizes they expect Tradition, but she tells them no. The challenger arrives and she defeats him. There’s no room for “discover secret passage,” so I put that Post-It aside for now.

I find this order deeply unsatisfying. Yes, it covers the bases and gets everything in, but it’s too straightforward and boring. It has no general tension building. How do I move things around to fix that?

The first thing I do is move finding the book from the library to the bedroom. So she finds the book and gets a chance to look at it a little before her family arrives; that will give them more to discuss. The only thing that happens at breakfast is meeting the cousin and half-sister; that can happen later. I take those Post-Its out. The castle tour is also not that important; I move that Post-It aside, too. Now I have finding the book, consulting the family, council meeting where she has the realization about Tradition and rejects it, challenger’s arrival and defeat.

That’s better, but still not what I want. I stare for a while and realize part of the problem: defeating a challenger is part of the Tradition that she just said she wasn’t going to follow. I swap the Post-It pairs. Now I’m going from action to council scene explaining the action. That’s backwards…but if I split the council scene…that works much better. Now I have “Realize expectations during first half of council scene,” “Arrival of Challenger interrupts Council,” followed by “defeat of Challenger” and then “Resumes Council and tells them No More Tradition.” Much better.

Now events are developing so that by the end of this sequence, my heroine is rejecting the Tradition. So I want to build that up even more. How? It’ll have to be in the early part of the day, between getting up and holding the council meeting. I can put a little into the family consultation, but they’re really going to be focused on other things. I look over at my discarded Post-Its and spot two possibilities: Breakfast, where they can meet the cousin and half-sister and get more hints about what is expected (before it really becomes clear at the council meeting), or the library, where they could head after breakfast in order to find out more about the book. I probably don’t need both; that will slow things down too much.

After thinking for a while, I decide that I can’t pick one or the other until I’ve written the early scene with the family, but that’s OK – I have a series of definite events that are leading up to a clear decision point for my heroine, and a definite place to start next. Which is all I need to do the next couple of chapters.

  1. I like the sound of this book! Is this the same one that started with a scene at the MN State Fair?

  2. ‘Knowing where my heroine is going to get to eventually does not actually tell me what she is going to do tomorrow morning.’

    Sigh. That’s my problem. But this system looks intriguing, so I’ll give it a try.

    Also, I need this book of yours now! Sounds great 🙂

    • That’s my problem, too. I don’t usually think of myself as that plan-y a writer, but maybe I should get out some Post-Its….

  3. By coincidence I’m at a point where I need to do that post-it note thing, or something similar. Not at the beginning of my WIP, but at the beginning of the end. I took a wrong turn for a couple of chapters, stalled out, and now I’ve got to go back and sort out the path to and through the critical scene where my protagonist investigates and comes back with the final puzzle piece that lets him put together what the bad guys are doing. (And then I’m off to the chase scene…)

  4. Thank you so much for sharing the details of how you are working with this story. I learn so much better from examples than I do from general principles. I think I’m going to re-read this post and then do some deep thinking about it. I want to adjust my own writing process, and this feels like an important nugget that will help me do so.

  5. “Having pared the main plot down to something more achievable in 100,000 words…”

    A lot of writers I follow blithely spout how this story is going to run 70 thousand words, or 100 or 120, as if they can somehow see the eventual number of pages laid out before them in a crystal ball or something. Me, I have no idea how long a given work is going to be until I’ve finished the last edit. (For that matter, I don’t know at the beginning whether I’m writing flash fiction, a short-short, novella, or multi-book series.)

    I’d like to see a post addressing how one decides–if that’s the right word–how long a piece is going to be—other than having a contract that specifies length.

    • I can generally figure out how long the first draft is going to be when I’m a bit into my outline. For some reason the expansion rate is constant — about one tenth into my outline, one tenth into the story length.

  6. I’ve always eschewed the post-it note thing because I didn’t understand it. Now it makes sense.
    I’m also at an eerily similar point in my WIP: aiming for 100,000 words but having to pair down the content to fit, struggling a few chapters in to wrangle the order of events, and I have three similar plot-lines (though its the comedic one that’s sagging for me). This was a very timely post. Thank you!

Questions regarding foreign rights, film/tv subrights, and other business matters should be directed to Pat’s agent Ginger Clark, Curtis-Brown, Ltd., 10 Astor Place, 3rd Floor New York, NY 10003,