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PLOT—Part Three:
Making Plans and
Consulting the Maps

by Lori L. Lake

For the first two entries about this topic, I’ve talked mainly about theoretical aspects of Plot. For this final segment, I have a little more theory to impart, and then I’ll examine some practical tools to use while plotting your story or novel. The majority of writers who have emailed me in response to the May and June articles have been writing Romance plots with sub-plots of Mystery, Adventure, or Family Drama. Because of that, I’m going to focus on ways to develop plot using examples relevant to the Romance realm.

In discussing writing with other authors, I’ve learned they fall into two major—and opposite—groups in the way they tend to compose their stories, with a third, smaller group falling somewhere in the middle. On one end of the continuum, there are those who get the first inklings of a story and/or characters, sit down, start writing, and spend little time planning. On the other end are those who, long before they ever begin composing, take time to plan meticulously, using outlines, storyboards, index cards, flow charts, or other tools to keep the characters, plot, and timeline in order. The third group of writers falls somewhere in the middle, sometimes outlining, sometimes planning, sometimes just writing and not knowing how it will all fit together.

Regardless of your writing style, keeping track of your plot and characters is always a good idea, especially if you see yourself writing a series. For instance, Patricia Cornwell, one of my favorite mystery/thriller writers, ran into some timeline problems. Her first novel, POSTMORTEM, takes place in 1989, and her niece Lucy is age 10. The third book, ALL THAT REMAINS, starts on the last day of August 1992. By this time, Lucy is 16 and a high school sophomore. Even more amusing, by the time of the fifth book, THE BODY FARM, set in 1993, Lucy is 21 and about to graduate from college. I use this amazing metamorphosis as an example of discrepancies to avoid in your fiction. Even if you write an entire novel without ever outlining or fact checking, when you go back to edit and revise, all the facts really should be squared up. Also, if you intend to write a series, planning ahead is a good idea.

Let’s try some practical application by plotting a Romance. The bare bones plot of Romance looks like this: boy/girl meets boy/girl; conflicts arise; something or someone is lost; conflicts are dealt with; boy/girl finally gets either the object of his/her affection or someone better. Within that plot construct, there are at least a dozen scenarios such as the following.


  • Amnesia – One character helps (or takes advantage of) the other who has lost his or her memory.
  • Beauty and the Beast – One of the characters is marred or scarred—usually physically, but sometimes emotionally.
  • Cinderella – A classic plot where the protagonist (male or female) goes from rags-to-riches and wins a Prince/Princess after experiencing deprivation and want.
  • Class Differences – One is in a different class or world than the other. Doesn’t have to be monetary—could be due to education, lifestyle, or work. 
  • Family Feud – Two characters are interested in one another, but their separate worlds seem closed because of family hatreds and misunderstandings.
  • Good/Bad Dynamics – Character #1 is desperately in need of redemption, and Character #2, who is clean-cut and straitlaced, is amazed to find him/herself attracted to and interested in the "Bad" Boy or Girl. Another version of this is that Character #1 is somehow kinky or kooky and drives the clean-cut Character #2 to distraction, but between the two of them, they find a way to bridge their differences.
  • Homebody v. Adventurer – The characters have opposing traits. Which one will change in order to preserve their love? Another variation on the theme is City Mouse v. Country Mouse.
  • Kidnapping – One character is kidnapped.  The other character may be the kidnapper, a helper, a detective, bystander, or someone else.
  • Lost/Snowbound/Stranded –Two characters who were formerly not interested in one another—perhaps didn’t even like one another—are thrown together in solitary, forced intimacy complete with pitfalls and danger. They learn to get along and, surprisingly, grow in respect and caring. 
  • Mistaken Identity – One character isn’t who the other thinks he or she is. 
  • Secret – One character has a secret that must not be revealed or all love could be lost. This works well with coming out stories, too.
  • Unknown Baby – One character has a baby, but the father never knew. At a later time, the father and mother meet again, with him still not knowing the baby is his.

To carry this further, let’s say you decide to write a Kidnapping Plot Scenario. You already know you are starting the action in media res, your initial point of view is taken from the victim’s experiences, and one of the kidnapper’s helpers will also have a point of view later in the story. You know you want to be able to tell some details outside the points of view of the victim and the kidnapper, so you add a sympathetic cop. You can decide these things in advance. What you don’t know at first may include: Why did the kidnapping take place? Who is the helper, and why is s/he involved in this heinous activity? How will victim and helper ally with one another? Who falls in love with whom, and why? What conflicts will occur until the victim is released (if indeed s/he is). How does it all end up?

Use those questions and all the rest that pop up as you puzzle through, and place them within the framework of Aristotle’s Story Arc. You can do this in advance before you ever start writing, and it could possibly look like this:


  1. Initial set-up: place, character(s), point of view, setting, etc.
    - Victim’s name and circumstances, a bit about her life and something being askew.
    - While at the bank, Victim is taken hostage/kidnapped.
    (You could also start from Kidnapper point of view and describe the action.)
  2. Character explication: wants/needs/intent are described.
    - Victim in getaway car with three masked men who have just shot up the First National – she’s in shock and scared to death.
    - Introduction to the kidnappers and details about their motives come out in dialogue.
    - In a change of scene and POV, a caring Cop is introduced who is going to dog Kidnappers’ steps and try to capture them before Victim is injured (and before money disappears).
  3. Rising action: i.e., "stuff starts happening."
    - Driver takes the car to a remote place and big fight about the money occurs which then expands to an argument about whether to kill Victim. Third man (the "good" Kidnapper) argues to let Victim live since she hasn’t seen their faces.
    - Meanest Goon struggles with Driver and shoots him. Goon is also injured slightly.
    - Good Kidnapper grabs Victim and the duffel and they run. Goon chases.
    - Cop traces them to the abandoned car; finds dead Driver; manhunt ensues.
  4. Reversals: also known as "plot points" or complications.
    - Victim and Kidnapper are in grave danger; Goon nearly catches them.
    - Surprise to Victim: When unmasked, third man turns out to be a woman.
    - Nowhere to go and few places to hide. All three are on foot, trying to get across forest (or desert or some other deserted area).
    - Kidnapper protects Victim, risking life at least once.
    - Victim starts asking questions and getting information out of Kidnapper – finds out Kidnapper had an ulterior motive for attending the bank robbery. Goon has hidden her child with a confederate at a storage facility, and Kidnapper has to get there before Goon does.
  5. Recognition: changes occur and choices have to be made.
    - Victim finds she can’t help but be attracted to the Kidnapper. It makes no sense to her, but it happens. She originally only wanted to get away, but now identifies with the Kidnapper’s plight and wants to help her.
    - Close proximity, stress, and worry combine to cause the two to lean on one another, and Victim realizes that Kidnapper is someone she could love.
    - Victim and Kidnapper pair up to elude the Goon, but he’s close on their tail. They sneak into a convenience store to buy food and water, and Victim’s face is plastered all over the TV. Now they know they have law enforcement to avoid, too. The cops are on the lookout, but so is the Goon.
    - They steal a car and take off.
    - Goon comes on the scene a short time later, just missing them. Hijacks a car.
  6. Climax: when status quo shifts from one state to another.
    - Cop gets report of stolen car and of convenience store shooting and puts two and two together.
    - Car chase occurs. Victim and Kidnapper very nearly elude the Goon, but he knows where they are going and gets there moments after they do.
    - Confederate has kid all tied up when Victim and Kidnapper attempt to approach. He holds them off by threatening to kill the kid.
    - Goon arrives and Kidnapper has to jump him and fight. Victim tries to help. Kidnapper gets shot, but manages to incapacitate the Goon.
    - Now Victim has the gun. She stages mock shootout to confuse Confederate while Kidnapper limps around the storage unit and tries to rescue her child.
    - Cops ride in, surround the place, and snipers shoot the Confederate before he can kill the Child.
  7. Falling action: as loose ends are tied up.
    - Kidnapper is reunited with her child.
    - Kidnapper and Goon are arrested and taken off bleeding to the hospital.
    - Victim gets in car with caring Cop and starts telling the tale.
  8. Denouement: resolution leads to the ending.
    - Victim goes to the hospital to visit Kidnapper who apologizes and thanks her for helping save her child.
    - Victim meets the child and likes the kid a lot.
    - Sympathetic Cop shows up, tells Victim and Kidnapper that he expects the DA to go easy under the circumstances.
    - Victim takes Kidnapper’s hand and promises to stick by her, and there is the promise of a future for the two of them.

I made all of that up on the spur of the moment, and I've already thought of one question that somehow must be answered: what skill does the "good" Kidnapper possess that makes the Goon and Driver force her to participate in the bank heist? Maybe it’s not a bank heist after all? Maybe she is a good lock-pick and can get them all into the back of a jewelry store or some other place that would have lots of money or valuables on hand? Or maybe she works for the store and knows the key-code? Whatever the reason, I have to "sell" that to the reader – or I have to convince the reader (and the Victim) that the Kidnapper has a viable reason for willingly participating in a robbery, but is still innocent—or that she is at least worthy of redemption.

Outlining by using the Story Arc is one good way to make sure you have all your causality and facts lined up. If you know what your story is all about, then you can do this in advance. If you are like me, you may not have a clue about all the events that will occur, but you can still use this tool after you have written the novel to make sure that things square up.

Somebody once said "Character is plot, and plot is character." I don’t know if that’s true, but your plot will be enhanced if you make sure that your characters from scene to scene (and from book to book if you write a series) are consistent in qualities and details. Keep an inventory of all of your characters regardless of whether they are major, secondary, or even seem inconsequential. Crawford Kilian has a nice tool for character building at his site (see below). You can use his outline there to keep track of every character about whom you write.

There are many other tools you can use to build and manage your plot. In addition to Aristotle’s Story Arc, here are favorites suggested by a variety of writing books:

Plans & Maps for Organizing and Remembering Plot Structure

Some writers use an Outline format (and most Word Processing programs have one). Like the Story Arc tool, this can be used in advance or written as you go or worked out once you have completed the first draft of the manuscript.

I highly recommend the use of a timeline. It can be as simple as getting a large piece of paper, drawing a line from left to right in the middle and then charting the events of the novel and their dates of happening from left-to-right.

I do a timeline for every book I write. I start with the character(s) born the earliest and the events that have any sort of importance and work forward in time. As new information or events emerge, I add them to the timeline. Try to be as exact as you can. I use the Perpetual Calendar (see URL below) to make sure I have the right date and day of the week. You would be surprised at how many readers associate a day and date in history. John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963. If your plot calls for that to be a Monday evening, some readers will call foul because it was actually a Friday morning.

Keep an Ongoing Notebook or a Large 3-Ring Binder
I know writers who use color-coded pages and separators to keep track of scenes, characters, and the plot line. Some print out the various scenes and tuck them into the notebook in an organized manner. One writer friend keeps it in her car or with her most of the time and can be seen scribbling marginal notes as new ideas come to her.

Index Cards
Index cards have been useful to me, especially because I tend to write scenes willy-nilly all over a book and am not always sure what order they should go in. Each time you write a scene, title it and/or write a line or two description of what occurs in the scene. After a while, you’ll have a stack of cards you can lay out on the table and organize. Is something out of sync? Go back to your computer and cut-and-paste everything to achieve proper of order.

Also, visually laying out the index cards can help you find gaps in your story. Get a couple of people to listen to you talk through the scenes in a linear fashion. Encourage them to ask questions about anything that doesn’t make sense. Usually, wherever they get confused is where you are missing a scene or something is not in the proper order.

Screenplay writers talk a lot about "storyboarding," which consists of using large pieces of cardboard or whiteboard to draw, diagram, and illustrate a scene or scenes. It’s usually done in advance in order to lay out a visual plan for a movie. Each scene is arranged with all the particular angles and details in sequence so it can be filmed. A director like Alfred Hitchcock laboriously laid out every single scene and detail, including cartoon-like drawings of each part. (This enabled Gus Van Sant to come along later and re-do "Psycho" exactly the same way Hitchcock had!). Other directors may have simple or elaborate plans on paper or drawn out on storyboards, too, and writers can use this same technique to organize plot and characters.

In a visual manner, you could storyboard your plot with a pack of oversized index cards or sheets of paper. Each page represents one scene. Use each card to record an image, graphics, or the layout of the physical scene. You’ve got plenty of paper, so don’t worry about messing up. As you think about your story line, you can easily move the images around into the order that makes sense. And as you rearrange, you will see where you could use more scenes or more exposition. Think in terms of asking what the reasons are for every scene. Does it advance the plot? Do you show the reader more about the characters? Pretty soon, you have an entire plot line all laid out.

In addition, if you happen to work as I do, half the fun of writing a novel is the discovery process. You don’t have to use the storyboarding technique BEFORE you write. You can do it as you write or afterwards, if it will help you map out the events, chronology, and sequence of your story more clearly.

I’ve never used a flowchart, but some writers swear by them. FlowCharter, SmartDraw, Inspiration, Visio, and MacFlow are just a few examples. You can chart the action, the plot, the sub-plots, the character growth, or even just the chapters.

Writing Software
Software like StoryCraft, Power Structure, Power Writer, Dramatica Pro, StoryBuilder, Fiction Master, WritePro, Story View, and StoryBase are complex programs that a writer can use to format, create, expand, and analyze a story or novel. They range in price between $100 and $300. I haven’t met an author who actually uses the software, but someone must because there are a couple dozen on the market. If anyone tries any writing software, drop me a note and let me know your thoughts.

We have come to the end of the 3-part series on Plot. I hope it has been useful to you. If you have questions, comments, or divergent points of view, please drop me an email at

Crawford Kilian’s site:
Perpetual Calendar:
© Lori L. Lake, 2003 - Associate Editor of Just About Write
From her untitled book about novel writing, a work in progress.
Not for distribution or copying without the express permission of the author. Lori can be reached at and welcomes questions and comments.

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