Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Building a Story: Grids, Mapping and Outlines.

Have you ever been attracted to a book because of the cover, read the first page and bought it, but later became disappointment because the story fizzled? I know I have. What went wrong? The writer didn't measure, cut, and trim to build a story that grew with tension and conflict.


You don't want your book to ever disappoint your readers. Yes, I know you can't please everyone, but you can please a great deal of people by crafting a story that is rich with well-developed characters, a plot that grows in depth and tension, and a climax that satisfies.


How do you do this? I have yet to find a magic formula that works for everyone. I have several suggestions that might help you find a fit for your writing style. Some writers like a conflict grid, some use mapping, and others outline.


Conflict grid...
Archeologists use grids to help them unearth fossils and other treasures hidden in the earth. For the writer, a grid can help you unearth your characters. You can set up your grid in a way that is easiest for you to work with, but you might like a column for each character. Because of my background in accounting, I use a grid like a spread sheet keeping the left-hand column for headings. Some headings could be: Inner Conflict, Outer Conflict, Life Goals, Immediate Goals, Most at Stake, and etc. Now fill in your grid with wonderful flaws and strengths for each character. Using a grid is great for seeing your characters inner and outer flaws all at once. You can see where you need one character to playoff of the strength of another. You can see if you have too many characters acting in the same way. Using a grid is a good way to measure the strength of your characters and fill in where they are lacking.


Mapping...
You can use mapping for character development, character relationships and plotting.This can be done like a pedigree chart or a spiral. Lines are used to connect each element. For instance, what if your main character had a serious illness in his youth, which gave him a weak heart, which developed into a heart attack later in life? Lines would connect "illness in youth" to "weak heart" to "heart attack". Using a mapping chart or spiral for relationships you can connect characters following who is the father, son, sister, brother and etc. For plot mapping you can actually graphed tension in your story by connecting one plot point to the next plot point. Each should build to the final climatic scene.


Outline...
Many don't outline because they feel it kills creativity, however, who says you have to stick to the outline? It's not like you have a teacher standing over your shoulder. Outlines can help you stay on course, but you can also find flaws in your story because of an outline. You can find where tension needs to build, or where you need more substance sooner than later. Just remember, you're in charge. You can erase, cross out, and add to your outline any time you want. I have used a chapter outlined for many of my books. I find it helps a great deal when it comes time to write the ever daunting synopsis.


Writing a book is like building a house, it takes a lot of measuring, cutting, and trimming. Remember if you change your mind, you're the contractor, you can rip out a wall or add one wherever you need it. But pretty soon you'll build a a great story with tension and conflict.


I'm sure there are other ways to build a story. Feel free to share your thoughts and ideas. And if you have any questions, please let me know.    

32 comments:

  1. I do the mapping and outlining. It's amazing what I come up with when I'm mapping, and outlining is a terrific guideline for me. It keeps me on track, but I don't have to follow it if I see a better course elsewhere.

    I love the idea of creating a conflict grid. I'm definitely going to try that. Thanks for the suggestion!

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  2. I only outlined for my rewrite. The first draft was to discover my characters and the story I want.

    The rewrite is to strengthen the story and to finish thoughts.

    Then comes the revision where I will tighten everything up.

    And the edits to polish to a shine.

    So I got to be a pantser without allowing my story to fizzle. Why? Because I have gotten to know my characters on a personal level.

    :-)

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  3. Laura,
    I've tried mapping, but grids and outlines work better for me. Let me know if you have any questions about using a grid. Have fun!!!

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  4. Misha:
    Good for you!!! Sounds like you have a system that works well. Thanks for sharing it.

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  5. I so need a grid. I just got news that one of my things feels sutured in. I know it does. And if I can grid it out, I can hide the stitches. Great post.

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  6. I like the grid for the characters. That is very helpful. I keep plot points for each chapter so, if needed, I can go back to check myself and to add in things later during the editing phase.

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  7. Elana,
    Grids are super! I highly recommend them. Some good 'ole writing cover-up will hide those stitches nicely. ;)
    Thanks for stopping by.

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  8. Helen:
    I'm glad the grid will help. I'm with you on the plot points. Used mine just this morning. :)

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  9. I have to be very careful not to let my stories fizzle! I always have a great idea and a great end: it's the middle that I need to up the tension!

    Great post! And I can't believe that your daughter met James Franco at Sundance! She's sooo lucky! Wowee.

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  10. I appreciate all the grids, mapping and outlines, because it is soooo disappointing to have a book fizzle on the inside...

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  11. Aubrie,
    Middles can sag at times, that's when we need to turn up the heat. Using plot points helps to keep me going.

    My daughter has been a volunteer at Sundance for years. She's seen quite a few stars. That makes me once removed from meeting Franco. And now, your twice removed. Cool, huh?

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  12. Victoria,
    Fizzling can be sooo depressing. Three cheers for grids, mapping and outlines. Now to use them.

    Since you're a song writer, do songs have similar challenges?

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  13. Kathy, this was so helpful. I'm coming straight from pantser world because I so many plot and character disasters in my WiP. So my next, which is now in the early planning stage, will be plotted and characterized before I ever begin writing. Keeping track of everything has been daunting, and I've barely begun. I like the grid idea - Excel is my friend. I also will keep a time line because I'm notorious for losing track of it.

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  14. Kathi, I am such a science/math nerd--I love the idea of mapping things that relate, like your heart scenario. Do you use a computer program to draw these parallels? Or do you hand draw a map? I'd love to see how this works!

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  15. I like to make a list of, say, 10 story-moving events and/or conflicts.

    Then I write TO each one. Chapter one has to get me to a specific event, the flexibility is in how I get to that designated road post. Once I get there, I write TO the next big event, and so on until I get to the last one (the Climax), taking the story in chunks.

    That's the first draft, and it comes together fairly quickly, then the real wok begins. ; )

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  16. Carol,
    I'm so glad I could help! Sometimes while writing I feel like I'm walking on soap because characters and plot lines seem slippery.

    Grids help a lot. So do plot points and outlines. Just went over my outline again this morning. Had to make some changes. Thank heavens for white-board erasers.

    Happy writing!

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  17. Jill,
    For mapping I draw it out by hand. With computers as they are now, you might be able to find a program that will do it for you.

    For grids, there's nothing like Excel.

    I do my outlining on my white board as I'm writing. Once the book is done, I type a copy into Word. It helps because my publisher likes to receive a chapter by chapter outline for their the marketing and graphic departments.

    Let me know if you find a program that makes it easy to map on the computer. :)

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  18. Anne,
    Sounds like you have a great system that works for you. And you're right, once the rough draft is complete the real work begins. I'm hoping to finish a rough draft by the end of this month. I'm actually looking forward to rolling my sleeves up and getting into the editing mode.
    Happy writing!

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  19. My husband was a carptenter and when I try to explain to him how I lay my book out, I use an example like you did. He has a plan and needs it so he doesn't have to go back and tear it all out. Great post!

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  20. Terri,
    Good to know that a true-blue carpenter works with similar plans.

    Thanks for sharing and stopping by. :)

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  21. I'd never heard of a conflict grid before but the idea appeals to me. I love outlining and those little details just bloom for me.

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  22. Laura,
    You might give grids a whirl. Thanks for stopping by. :)

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  23. I'm definitely an outliner, but then, I write historical fiction. I have to have an outline so I get the timeline and facts right. I honestly don't know how people write without an outline- I like to have all my ducks in a row before I sit down!

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  24. Stephanie,
    I know what you mean. An outline helps to keep those ducks in line. Thanks for stopping by. :)

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  25. Wow, what a great post, Kathi! It's one I'm going to need to come back to and take notes on when I'm in my office working. Thanks for all the super tips!

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  26. Sharon,
    I'm happy to help. :) Let me know if you have any questions.

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  27. I think women with power tools and who build stuff are incredibly sexy! Sorry, what was your blog about again?

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  28. I struggle with mapping and outlining. I find that I can only do this part after a first draft. It's fine, but it does require a great deal of rewriting after the fact. Oh well. I can't seem to write any other way.

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  29. Stephen:
    Cool. Power tools, huh? I wonder if that's why Hubby gets that cute grin when I take out my hammer. :)

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  30. Susan,
    Whatever works for you and helps you finish your manuscript--that's a win!

    Thanks for stopping by.

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  31. Very helpful advice as I'm currently searching for the best planning method for me. I'm trying to be less of pantser, and I'm surprised that I'm actually enjoying it. Great post!

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  32. Abby:
    I'm glad if one of these suggestions helped you. If you're like me you're always looking for new ways to help make your story stronger.

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