15 July 2010

Plot Planner

Plot your story using the universal story form for structure and impact.

A Plot Planner mimics the universal story and is the framework for developing a gripping story. Rather than creating a dry, episodic list of scenes to cover, arrange your story by cause and effect to best engage the reader.

Think of the Plot Planner as the route or map of the journey you envision for your story. When you first plan your plot, your route is likely to be sketchy with lots of gaps and dead ends. These gaps will smooth over and fill in as you come to know your story and characters better. Along your story's route, the plot elements of dramatic action, characters, and thematic significance will rise and fall, like waves cresting. The flow of these elements is like the flow of energy the Chinese call “qi” (pronounced “chi”). The qi is the mainstay of life force, inherently present in all things.

Within your story, the energy undulates. Although every story has its own energy, a universal pattern of energy rising and falling repeats itself. The greater your understanding of this stable format, the better able you are to determine where and when to allow the energy to crest, to make your story most compelling to the reader. Allow the energy of your story to direct the flow of your scenes. The closer you can re-create this pattern in your presentation to the reader, the stronger and more compelling your story. A plot planner helps you map your story's energy and direction.


All great stories have a beginning, middle and end.

1. The Beginning

The beginning usually encompasses one quarter of the entire story. Most of us start out strong in the beginning, but struggle to keep the momentum going.

2. The Middle

The middle is the longest portion of the project – one half of the entire story. It commands the most scenes, and is where many writers fall short. When the allure of the beginning is over, the story starts getting messy. Writers often know the beginning and the end of their story, but bog down in creating the middle. Crisis is the meat of the middle.

Place crisis – the scene of greatest intensity and highest energy in your story thus far – around the three-quarter point in your story, when your audience needs a recharge to combat fatigue, frustration, and irritation. Crisis is where tension and conflict peak – it is a turning point in your story. Crisis is developed through the scenes to provide the greatest impact in the energy flow of your story.

The crisis is the false summit of your case, where the audience can perceive the true summit. Here, your story’s energy drops after the drama of the crisis, giving your audience the opportunity to rebuild energy in anticipation of reaching the climax.

3. The End

The final quarter of your presentation represents the end, which comprises three parts: the build-up to the climax, the climax itself, and the resolution. The build-up to the climax represents the steps you take to lead the reader to envision how the story should end. The climax is the point of highest drama in your story, the crowning moment when the thematic significance of your story becomes clear to the reader. The resolution is your opportunity to fully tie together that significance and make your story complete.


A Plot Planner helps you visualize your story. Use a Plot Planner to place your ideas and sequence your scenes to greatest effect. A plot planner allows you to experiment with changes in the storyline or presentation to evoke stronger reaction and interest from the reader, and gives you a sense for how the story may be paced. A plot planner also allows you to collaborate with others to generate ideas for better developing your story and to solidify your understanding of the story's core elements, and helps ensure that you understand the story you are presenting. Importantly, the plot planner enables you to keep the larger picture of your story in full view as you concentrate on creating the story’s individual parts, helping you maintain paramount focus on crafting a story that will convey your core message to reader or audience in a compelling way.


I recommend building your Plot Planner on big pieces of banner paper, running horizontally. It takes up quite a bit of space, but serves as a continual visual reminder of the entire project.

The Plot Planner is merely a line that separates scenes filled with conflict and excitement (above the plot planner line) from those that are passive, filled with summary and back story, or heavy with information (below the plot planner line). Scenes are where the story plays out, where the action happens moment-by-moment in your presentation.

The external dramatic action of stories told in scene and filled with conflict belongs above the line, like the white caps on the sea’s surface as a wave swells toward the shore. Scenes that show complications, conflicts, tension, dilemmas, and suspense belong above the line. Any scene that slows the story’s energy belongs below the line.

By placing ideas above and below the line, you create a visual map for analyzing critical story information, presentation flow, and weaknesses in your story’s overall sequence.

The Plot Planner line is not flat – it moves steadily higher, building your story slowly and methodically as tension increases. Each scene delivers more tension and conflict than the preceding scene, with intensity building to your story's climax.