Pencil to Paper

The Daily Life of a Compulsive Writer

Anatomy of My Plotting Board August 2, 2012

Filed under: Writing — katblogger @ 10:56 AM
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A while ago, I bought a bulletin board for plotting purposes. Now I’ve dragged it out from its prison under my bed for a little more use before I go to college. (I doubt my roommate would be pleased if I brought it along.) I’ve had a few people ask me if having a board is useful – and what to do with it – so here’s a look at what I do with mine.

On the far left, off the board, I have a printed hard copy of my manuscript. You can’t really see it, but it’s absolutely covered in annotations. I’ve been advised to avoid red for psychological reasons, so I used one of those color-changing pens instead. It started out purple and then switched to orange without much hassle. After that, things went downhill. The green bled into the orange, and then the pink bled into that, creating a lovely brown color that covers half my notes. Finally, the blue bled into what was left of the pink, returning me to a sickly purple color. Someone needs to rethink their manufacturing. Anyway. Moving on.

On the right I have a book cover made by another Inkpop user, half covered in post its. The post its are everywhere. They remind me of edits I need to do, words I need to replace, scenes I need to write, etc. Post its are my friends.

Below the book cover is a map of the setting. This is useful if you have a large or complicated setting – the typical high school novel probably doesn’t need one.

Below that is a calendar. This saved my life on so many occasions. My project is set in college, which means scenes in certain classes can only happen on certain days. I marked down what happened when, which chapters fell on what day, etc. Trust me – you don’t want to fall into the trap of writing a six day week!

The loose-leaf papers are an outline and character arcing notes. (I mentioned arcs in an earlier post.) I noted what actions main characters took in each scene and how that contributed/detracted from their arcs. I also answered three random questions (favorite food, color, activity) to try to see them as people and not words on a page. Since I had no clue about any of this, I made up random crap. I now have a character addicted to breath mints and another who enjoys full-contact board gaming. What is that? I have no idea.

My main use for the plotting board fills up most of the top half. They’re index cards – one for each scene. (This does not mean chapter – I usually have three or four scenes per chapter.) I write down where the scene happens, which characters are involved, and what happens. They’re color coded based on plot threads. This allows me to look at the book’s progression and see who needs more screen time, which subplots got lost along the way, where I should slip in extra scenes, what bits aren’t necessary, etc. I only have the cards up to chapter 17 in this drawing, but they’re helpful even when not completed. You can also shuffle the cards and see what would happen if you moved scenes around. Would it break the plot or make everything come untangled?

Overall, bulletin boards can be a really helpful plotting tool if you’re a visual learner. If you think it might help you out, buy one and try it. It won’t set you back much financially, and seeing your story laid out can make everything so much clearer.


Fun With Arcs July 13, 2012

Filed under: Writing — katblogger @ 10:42 AM
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As I mentioned earlier, I like analyzing things. One aspect of stories I enjoy picking apart is the character arc. I’ll ponder what a character’s unconscious or unconscious goal and path of growth is. I’ll look at how their actions and the actions of those around them contribute and/or detract from that arc. Then I’ll use their progress to predict their eventual fate. I’ve gotten quite good at guessing the actions and demises of fictional characters, although I’m not 100% reliable.

Anyone with an eye for detail can track these arcs in contemporary fiction and utilize them in their own work.

What are character arcs?

In a nutshell, a character’s arc is his/her path through the story, typically achieving some shift in characterization. Actions done by or to them affect the way the arc progresses. The characterization shift can be positive or negative. Also, the hinted transformation may go to completion or fail to finish.

A classic example – and one that envelops almost all stories – is the hero’s journey. Someone must leave the life s/he knows behind, mature, and succeed in the face of adversity. Challenges will befall him/her, but s/he will continue.

A more specific example is Tony Stark in Iron Man. His experiences make him shift from a narcissist to (occasional) altruist. A failed example might be a boy who’s constantly encouraged to step up and take a leading role, who instead allows others to order him around and dies for it. However, these ‘failures’ are usually foreshadowed earlier and may contribute to the success of other characters’ arcs. It all becomes a tangled web of interactions.

Tracking arcs

Working out a character’s arc isn’t hard. It just requires paying attention. I look at his/her mannerisms, what s/he says and doesn’t say, back story, how s/he reacts to certain things… I guessed Harry Potter would die (albeit only temporarily) by noting his history of self-sacrifice, lack of foresight/self-preservation, and various comments made about him throughout the series. His eventual fate has a certain poetic quality and displays a character shift toward maturity and clear-headedness (relatively speaking). In previous books, he charged into danger because he wasn’t paying attention or he didn’t care. Every time, he hoped to come out alive. It’s only fitting that in the last book he knowingly walks to his death, planning not to defend himself.

Why does this matter?

After gleefully dissecting arcs from a comic (and slightly less gleefully learning most of my favorite characters will die) I realized something depressing. I might spend hours working out arcs for other stories, but I have no clue what mine are. I couldn’t summarize my MCs’ arcs if I tried. My characters don’t follow a clear shift or line of development. That’s perfectly normal in real life, but in stories you ought to put some effort into it. My next project is to start painstakingly mapping out arcs – for my main characters at least. It’s going to be great.

Why include arcs?

Arcs are important because your characters ought to go somewhere. The story is a journey. At journey’s end they should have changed somehow. A clear arc gives readers something to invest in and root for. It gives them an idea of what to expect. (Contrarily, you can play with an expected or traditional arc. In Star Wars, everyone in-universe expects Annakin Skywalker to be the hero they need. Instead he falls to the dark side. Later, the key to his downfall – caring too much about his loved ones and family – prove an asset.)

Overall, arcs help shape the story as much as the plot does. People who don’t change are boring. Don’t be boring. Take a look at arcs in works around you, and start mapping!