Sunday, 27 November 2011

The Plotboard - part two

Cards and drafts

I thought I’d mention a bit about how I use the cards and Post-Its on my plotboard before I get into detail about the different sections of the board.

First draft
The keyword for this stage is: messy.  This is the ideas stage, after all.  Flashes of inspiration.  Nothing neat about those.  In this stage I tend to scribble ideas down on any bit of paper I can find and pin them to the board where I think they’ll be most relevant.

Don’t care about what colour or what shape the ideas are written on, as long as they go on the board.  Some of them may be thrown away later and some of them may prove to be some kick-butt ideas to take my story forward.  No way to know which until I start to write, so everything stays until I’ve finished the first draft.  If I don’t use an idea, I keep the bit of paper anyway.  For the last book that came in very handy, because ideas that I’d discarded in the first draft helped me revise the book after my editor had seen it and asked for changes.

As I write, I use half an index card (cut vertically) and put the bare plot point of the element on the top of the card.  For example, some card headings from the previous book were: “Zoe and Damien dance” or “Zoe and Damien reach a truce” or “Zoe goes back home”. 

At the moment I’m using white cards.  I was using yellow, but I discovered I kept running out of yellow index cards and was drowning in the other colours from the multi-coloured packs you can buy.  At least I can get white index cards easily in one pack on their own.

As I complete a scene, I add an index card to the board.  For the previous book I also stuck a small Post-It to the card indicating the goal of the POV character for that scene.  Always good to remind yourself what your characters want (and what’s thwarting their progress).

In this part of the process, I find myself returning to my board constantly to remind myself of what good ideas I’ve forgotten and to remind myself of where I want to go.  It can be hard to hold all of that information in your head.  Sometimes, when I’m focussed on a particular part of the story, I forget all about the flashes of inspiration I’ve had about a different sections.  That’s where my board comes in handy.  It holds all that information for me until I’m ready for it.

The plotboard is also useful to remind myself of things I need to go back and change as I get further on in the writing process.  I added notes while writing my previous book to change the style of the bride’s wedding ring in the opening scenes and to set up my hero as being a little more stiff and structured. 

Subsequent drafts/revisions
Quite often, after you’ve finished a book, you’re far too close to it to see where the problems lie.  I often return to my plotboard, strip it bare of everything but the white cards and look at the story in a more tidy, analytical way.  First draft was where I let my creative right brain play.  Revisions and editing are much more about the logical left brain.

Last time round (after reading Dara Mark’s fabulous book Inside Story: The Power of the Transformational Arc) I decided to look at my book in three threads:

What Dara calls the A story – on other words the plot.  It’s very easy in a character-led book to slip into classifying internal decisions as plot, but I try and save that for the other threads.  The A story is all about the physical action: what are the characters doing?  What are the working towards? Where are they going?  I used yellow Post-Its.  For some reason yellow means plot to me.  Dunno why.  Sometimes, if the scene heading on the top of the card was enough description on its own, I highlighted that text yellow and didn't bother with the Post-It.

Then we have the B story: the character arc.  In a romance, you normally have two character arcs or journeys – one for the hero and one for the heroine.  I chose green from my pack of Post-Its for this (because green makes me think of growth).  On these stickers I noted my characters’ internal journeys – what they started out like, what their character flaws and fears were, what they need to learn.  Also, when they had moments of breakthrough and changed, how they faced challenges and either resorted on their armour to keep themselves safe or did something new and brave.  At the end of the board it's all about making sure those flaws and fears you mentioned at the beginning have been dealt with.  I read through each chapter, saw what I’d already brought out and then I crystalised it into a sentence or two on a Post-It and stuck it on the index card.  Quite often it helped me define the character’s growth at that point and I could start to see if I’d brought out the right things or if there was something missing.

Then there’s the C story.  Dara says there’s always a C story.  It’s the relationship that changes the protagonist.  Quite often it's through interaction with another person or thing that the protagonist discovers the error of their ways.  In a romance, this will be the developing love story.  I noted down on pink Post-Its (the only colour I had left - I’m really not anal about what colour goes where) how the hero and heroine were feeling about each other, what the romantic conflict was, and where the milestones were e.g first kiss, first meeting, declarations of love.  Again, it helped me check each scene was moving the relationship on in a believable and emotionally logical manner.

The odd thing is about this part of the process that I hardly ever look back to see what I’ve put on the board in great detail.  Unlike the first draft, when I need reminders, the second draft (or whatever) seems to be much more about the process of plotboarding.  As I write it all down it somehow solidifies the story in my head, keeps the threads woven tight together so I can see where things need changing or developing as I work.

More detail on each section of the board soon...


Charlotte Phillips said...

Hi Fiona! I am thoroughly enjoying these posts and am definitely going to give it a try. My head feels so muddled with all the threads of my story at times that I find it hard to think clearly where to go. Looking forward to next instalment and in the meantime off to WHSmith!

Melissa Lockhart said...

I think this is a great post. Very insightful.

Anonymous said...

Excellent Post. I will use this for my next novel. My non fiction sort of organizes itself, but fiction is a whole other story.
Thank you!
Jody B. Miller

Fiona Harper said...

Thanks so much! Glad it helped.