It’s All A Plot

By Julie, putting away her summer clothes in Somerville

We’ve talked about being a pantser versus a plotter a few times on the blog. (Here, here, and here, for example.) Sherry Harris still talks about the expression on my face when she told me she wrote the end of her book before she wrote the middle. The Clock Shop Mystery series, which I am writing as Julianne Holmes, came with a book bible, which suited me fine. I not only enjoy a roadmap, I require one.

Because, dear friends, I am a plotter. And I’ve got a new toy, er…tool, to help me. Here it is.

dramatic structure
Poster Board with dramatic structure guidelines.

I just submitted my first Clock Shop manuscript. I had broken it into scenes, and used Scrivener, but I didn’t pay enough attention to the dramatic structure. This affected the pacing, and the story telling, and got fixed in editing, but still. Yeesh. There had to be a better way for a plotter like me. I read Jessie’s post last week about her process, and was inspired by her use of post-its. I decided to steal the idea, but since I don’t have a blank wall, I bought some poster board, and created a visual image to help me put the scenes in the right places.

This is a combination of the structure The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery and the three act dramatic structure narrative I know from theater. A beginning, a middle, more of the middle, and an end. Rising action, climax, falling action. The timing of the inciting incident–the problem that starts the story. Plot points or act turns–moments in the novel that complicate the problem, or reverse the reader’s expectations. The end, when it all comes to a head. And the denouement, where the reader (or audience) can relax a bit, and loose threads are tied up.

I am currently writing scene descriptions on post-its. I am also writing other scene descriptions that probably won’t be in the book (they take place in the past), but they inform the story. And finally, I am describing a few scenes from a subplot I am starting in the first book, want to continue in this book, and conclude in the third book. Once I have finished writing out the scene descriptions, I am going to put them on the board. And I am going to make sure the act breaks (plot points) fall in the right place, and have scenes that turn the action.

Confused? Hour long dramas are a great way to think about dramatic structure. (Law and Order, for example.) What was the hook that drew you into watching? What happens at the fifteen minute mark? What keeps you watching? Were you surprised while watching it? If the story fell apart, when and why?

Any other dramatic structure fans (nerds?) out there? Any fellow plotters?

17 Thoughts

  1. I am wildly in love with the three act structure. And plot points. And you probably know about set pieces, Julie.
    The move Gone, Baby, Gone–based on Dennis Lehane’s novel–is a great example of a precisely written plot. If you start watching on the hour and watch the clock, every 20 minutes, there is a plot turn.

  2. Great post, Julie! I learn so much from my Wicked friends. I have a large cork board that I tack cards on to keep me straight. It’s more of a timeline. I usually know I am at an exciting part when I realize I’m drinking cold coffee. Looking forward to reading your book!

  3. Hi, Julie,
    I think in terms of the three act structure, too. And I set my daily minimum writing goal at one scene rather than a set number of words, BUT I’m also a dyed in the wool pantster. How does that work? Darned if I know, but it does. If I think too much about where certain things have to happen, the writing gets choppy and that takes me as long or longer to fix than rewriting to get the flow of the story right after I have a rough draft done. Guess it just goes to show that we each have to figure out what works best for us. I’m looking forward to reading the first Clock Shop mystery.


    1. So interesting to hear about other people’s process. And that you are a pantser! I think one reason I need to plot is that I can’t keep it all in my head. And love the tip about the scenes being the goal, not the words. Manageable chucks. Thank you!

  4. Like Kathy/Kaitlyn, I’m a dedicated pantser, but I do use dramatic structure. During the first draft, particularly if I don’t know where to go next, I’ll take a notebook page and work out the next few plot points and in particular, the act turns, so I know where I’m going. I use a mash up of a chart I once got in a Hallie Ephron class, one my husband got in a Paula Munier class and one I got in a SinCNE class on dramatic structure. I also use it again at second draft, when I typically move a lot of scenes around and add in a turn or two.

    1. Your latest book is a great example of dramatic structure, and on the order of scenes. I love that you go back and forth in time to tell the story, rather than rely on linear narration. Well done!

      I have Hallie’s worksheet as well, and am so sorry I missed Paula’s class. Really looking forward to her book!

  5. I’m not sure I’ll ever change my ways completely but having to submit a synopsis to an editor for the next book has forced me to do some plotting. And I found it helpful. Great topic, Julie!

  6. I’ve had other authors talk about the 3 act structure and the hour TV show, and as I’ve watched shows, I’ve definitely noticed how it works. Obviously, part of that is brought on by commercials, but it does seem to work very well.

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