Thursday, May 14, 2009

Craft Issue #5: "The Sticky-note Method of Plotting"

I’ve been thinking about plot a great deal lately – which has something to do with writing a first draft. In particular, I’ve been contemplating plot structure. But before I tell you of a trick that seems to be working for me, I’d like to look at the concept of story and conflict.

In her remarkable craft book Writing Fiction, Janet Burroway discusses conflict in terms of struggle. Here’s how she sums up the plot structures of Romeo and Juliet, Othello, Anna Karenina, and Gone With the Wind:


“In each of these plots, there is both intense desire and great danger to the achievement of that desire; generally speaking, this shape holds good for all plots. It can be called 3-D: Drama equals desire plus danger.” She goes on to talk about the need for the protagonist to act, to not be passive or reflective, but to “want, and want intensely.”

Fine. But how do we create a structure that reeks of “desire plus danger?”

I recently tried writing organically, which did not work well. I’ve devised a new strategy, that I’ll call the “sticky-note method of first-draft plotting.”

I found an old foam-core board (light-weight, yet rigid). And then bought a pack of sticky-notes – bright colors, about 3 inches square. I divided the colors into four sets: the first for Act 1, the second for Act 2 part 1, third for Act 2 part 2, fourth for Act 3. I stuck them on the foam core – roughly 12-14 per set.

Each sticky note is a scene. For each scene I wrote no more than 5 words. (That’s the important part – 5 words. It condenses the material to the bare essence.) There were initially lots of blank notes in Acts 2 and 3, but that was okay, because I found it easy to fill them in as I progressed through my first draft and grabbed hold of my ideas.

Now, how does the sticky-note method pertain to structure? Mainly because it became easier for me to see whether I’m fulfilling the desire line. Is my character wanting something so intensely that she has to put herself – or others – in danger? A quick glance at the board tells me whether I have enough drama. Whether I need to move a scene, or add, or subtract.

I promised I’d discuss plot points, and I will – next craft post!