Plotting Simplified

Okay, I admit it. Plotting is really challenging for me. I’ve read countless articles and books on the subject, attended so many sessions at conferences, I couldn’t possibly remember them all, and sought advice from the expert plotters in my critique group.

I’ve tried using index cards—even made a template for them so I wouldn’t have to hand-write them all—for each separate scene in a book. While writing Kissing Shakespeare, they were spread out on the floor of my den for days at a time. I was constantly rearranging them. Then there was all that slipping on them, knocking them askew, and leaping across them to get to out-of-reach parts of the room. Obviously, this system wasn’t working for me.

It wasn’t until I read a short piece by Ridley Pearson, “The 3-Act Structure,” in The New Writer’s Handbook 2007 that I took a great leap forward.  At the time I read this piece, I already owned a copy of Christopher Vogler’s book, The Writer’s Journey, had read it, highlighted it, and often turned to it for direction. What Ridley Pearson’s article does is distill Vogler’s ideas about structure into seven pages, making it a quick, handy reference.

Using the piece by Pearson in combination with The Writer’s Journey, I created a diagram of 3-act structure on a large piece of tag board. It’s not pretty, but it suits my purposes. It consists of the rising action, indicated by lines moving upward, and divided into Act 1, Act 2, and Act 3. The line continues to rise until the climax, and then drops down, showing the falling action.

My diagram (click to enlarge)

For each act, I printed within the allotted space such things as “Internal and external conflicts” and “Conflict and complication” (Act I); “Stakes are raised,” Hero accepts the challenge,” “Action heats up” (Act 2); “Darkest moment,” “Everything goes to ruin,” “Protagonist prevails,” Reflective moments” (Act 3); and at the climax, “Emotional peak,” “Big twist,” “Final threat,” “Protagonist prevails one last time.” These are examples of what I included, but not everything. I also indicated each turning point, which gave me a visual representation of exactly what needs to occur at those crucial moments.

Last, I copied the whole thing onto a 5 x 8 index card, so I’d have a mobile version.

As we know from experience, no method is fool proof. But I’ve found this visual “aide” very useful when I’m at sixes and sevens with my plot. Some of the other books I’ve found very helpful in plotting over the years:

I’d love to know some of the tricks other writers use. What keeps you focused and moving in the right direction?

8 comments on “Plotting Simplified

  1. Ridley–Thanks for writing that piece, and for all your wonderful books! It must have been quite a task to figure out how to condense so much information into a seven-page article. And I know you put your own twist on it, too.

  2. Plotting is so tricky, so crucial. I like this discussion and your outline of the three acts. You’d think it’d be simple, but only writers know how hard it can be.


  3. Pam
    I’m a visual artist, working in collage media, but also love to write. Your visualization of how-to for the plot is very interesting. I relate.
    I’m reading Julia Cameron’s book The Right to Write. Do you know it? I am very inspired by her words, exercises and format.

  4. This is great! Thanks for the resource. I’ve used The Writer’s Journey but will check out Ridley’s piece.

    Loved seeing yours charted out! Thanks, Pam, and have fun writing.

  5. I’ve heard great things about The Right to Write, but for some reason I’ve never read it. Thanks for suggesting it.


  6. Thanks for your comment, Cynthia. Do take a look at Ridley Pearson’s piece–it will be worth your time! And thanks for all the help.


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