Tag Archive: outlining

Guest Post: How to Use Scapple

Hannah Givens is always a favorite guest blogger at WriteOnSisters, and we’re thrilled she’s back. If you haven’t already done so, follow her wonderful book blog, power packed with great ideas for reading diverse books and authors. And now, take it away Hannah…

I love sticky notes, and I’ve used them to organize my thoughts for years, but that method has some problems: notes fly off the paper, or you have to rewrite the same things several times as you move your notes around. Plus there’s the space issue. Where can you stick enough notes to outline an entire novel, and how can you back that up reliably? Scapple to the rescue!

The Scrivener writing program from Literature and Latte has achieved a certain level of recognition in the writing community, but L&L’s other program, Scapple, has flown under the radar. I can’t imagine why, because it’s equally well-designed and may be even more useful depending on how you like to work. It’s something like mind-mapping software, but with more flexibility — L&L calls it a “freeform text editor” and that seems the most accurate description. You type, and then you can copy/paste or format your text however you like, but you can also stick each piece of text anywhere on your infinitely-large page and connect them with lines or arrows any way you want.

Scapple is really fantastic, but possibly also daunting if you’re not sure how to use it. So today I’ll be sharing three ways I use the program for writing: mind-maps, character sheets, and outlines. (Disclaimer: I’m not sponsored in any way, nor is anyone at WriteOnSisters, we just happen to adore the program!)

1) Mind-mapping:

Again, Scapple isn’t exactly mind-map software, but for me that’s an advantage. I don’t have to force my mind to be mapped according to someone else’s system. I don’t have to know what I’m doing right away, decide which idea is “central,” or anything like that. I can just start and figure it out as I go along. The main way I use Scapple is actually to create character charts, and it’s a huge step up from either mind-mapping or family tree software… I need a chart that can show relationships, but not just familial ones, and also show the passage of time to some extent.

Here’s a sample:

Note how I can have a mindmap with two connected centers, plus a list on the side, and then some special charts underneath (I use the system outlined in My Story Can Beat Up Your Story by Jeffrey Alan Schechter). Some of the character relationships are romantic, some are parental, some are adversarial or professional, and a few don’t show up until halfway through the book, but I don’t need a way to track all that because I know who’s who. I just needed a way to combine “list of characters” with “immediately-visible connections.” That helps me craft a plot that makes sense, without forgetting anything obvious. Scapple is great for exploded-view lists like this.

2) Character sheets:

Many writers enjoy using standardized character sheets or questionnaires, both to keep track of their characters and to learn about their personalities. I often feel like these methods take some life out of my characters, though, so I needed a more organic way of keeping notes on personalities and character arcs.

Here’s a sample for one of my protagonists:

Note the ability to drag-and-drop images! I also love being able to mix and match “forms” that I can fill out or reimagine as needed, so I can combine plot notes with character notes. There are shortened versions of three “systems” in the sheet above, plus an unordered list of relevant information about the character and another list of relationships sorted by type. The next character sheet sits directly to the right in the same document and so on, because I like to see everything at once, but obviously you can set that up however you want!

3) Plotting and Outlining

I love all my character charts and sheets, but outlining is where Scapple really shines. It can handle complexity, and your own uncertainty about which ideas go where. Plus, I tend to change my visual outline structure depending on the project, and Scapple is totally flexible for that.

Here’s a half-done outline for an urban-fantasy project, in which I’m trying to work out several arcs in tandem:

There are four columns there, although muddled a bit: the left-hand column in the box(es) is a blank list of scenes, the guide to where my outline should be. (Again, I’m using Schechter’s system, but all this business of putting it into Scapple is my own design.) Then I have two columns tracing two characters’ arcs on each side, and the yellow notes down the center mark what the villain’s doing at the same time. The red ones are obvious questions to answer.

You can probably see at a glance that this would be incredibly difficult with sticky notes, because I’ve got several types of note and I need to keep track of how they relate to each other before I ever know which comes first in the final product — I’ve done outlines like this in Word before, but the linearity was a problem and things took much longer/were more stressful than they needed to be. (Also note the picture on the side there. I made some notes longhand, and rather than retype them, I just took a picture and slapped it in to refer back to as I go.)

Here’s a simpler project:

With this one I already know how it goes, and it’s a more linear space-travel story, so I’m basically outlining as I go along to have a clear reference for where I am in the plot. If I run into problems I can outline ahead to fix them, or I can go through and colorcode existing notes to highlight problems or check rhythm. It’s a completely different story with very different needs, but Scapple can do both without any fuss at all.

And worry not, you can back up your work in several formats. Plus, if you’re also using Scrivener you can drag notes straight into that. For me, though, I just adore being able to get my thoughts directly onto the page. I don’t have to force them to make sense, and I don’t have to remember how they relate, I can just draw them in however seems reasonable at the time. Then, unlike any kind of paper notes, I can immediately start working with what I scribbled down. Move it around, highlight it, draw lines, make a chart, anything I want.

If you’ve struggled to use pre-structured methods, been inspired by worksheets but haven’t found the exact right thing, or just desperately wanted electronic sticky notes in your life, Scapple may be for you. Either way, I hope this post gave you some organizational inspiration!


Hannah Givens is a lifelong book lover, student of literary history, and writer of numerous term papers. She blogs about genres of all kinds at Hannah Reads Books, and is currently working on her first novel. She can also be found on Facebook and Twitter, talking about books and much more.

Permanent link to this article: http://writeonsisters.com/writing-craft/research/guest-post-how-to-use-scapple/

15 Story Beats to Keep Your NaNoWriMo Novel on Track

Regardless of whether you’re a plotter or pantser, you might come to a place mid-month where your story feels like it’s gone off the rails. A lot of people will tell you to plow through! Just keep writing! It’ll work itself out! But I think better advice is to check in with your basic story beats. It doesn’t matter if you plan them ahead of time or figure them out partway through writing. The important thing to know is that these beats are an extremely useful tool to avoid writer’s block, mushy middle syndrome and general NaNoWriMo fatigue.


Originally posted on Nov. 3, 2014. Revived on Oct. 23, 2016.

*Note: Basic Beats based on Blake Snyder’s “Save The Cat” method.

1 – Opening… shows where the protagonist is at the beginning before they’ve gone on a journey that will change them to the person we see in the Final scene. For example, if your hero starts off loveless, she will find love in the end.

  • Do you even have a change? If not, that’s probably why your story has stalled. Think about how this story will change the hero and your writing will find its direction.

(For more, check out “3 Steps to Creating Character Change”)

2 – Theme… is the heart of your book as opposed to the plot. Not knowing the theme or having too many themes is a common reason stories get muddled and bogged down. Figuring out the theme will give your novel a purposeful direction, so ask:

  • Why are you writing this story? Deep down, what is the one thing you’re trying to say with this novel?

  • What is the value at stake in this story? Why does it matter?

(For more, check out “Theme With a Capital T” and “The Controlling Idea – Not Your English Teacher’s Theme”)

3 – Set-Up… establishes the protagonist’s world, introduces supporting characters, reveals protagonist’s personal problems and the stuff she’ll need to fix by the end in order for that vital character change to take place.

  • Did you set up the character’s goal clearly? No clear goal is a common reason stories ramble.

  • Did you set up the stakes? There needs to be consequences if the hero fails. Stakes drive stories!

(For more on stakes read “6 Questions to Ask to Make Sure Your Story has Real Stakes”)

4 – Catalyst… is also called The Inciting Incident. This event disrupts the character’s world and starts the story. Without it, there’s no story. For example, in “The Hunger Games” the catalyst is when Katniss’s sister’s name is selected for the games. If another kid’s name had been selected, there wouldn’t be a story – Katniss would just keep on hunting and hanging out with Gale in her district. Life would remain the same.

  • Does the catalyst change your protagonist’s life? If not, figure out what will. Stories need to be life-changing!

5 – The Debate… is when the protagonist decides how to proceed after the Catalyst. This shouldn’t be an easy decision. To go on the journey, or not to go on the journey? Of course, she has to go for there to be a story, but doubt adds tension and stakes, which help move the story forward.

  • Did your character debate going on her journey? What could have been holding her back and how can that add layers of tension to your novel?

6 – Break Into Act II… This is where the protagonist leaves her familiar world behind and goes on the journey to achieve a goal. The key to this beat is that the protagonist must choose, not be forced or tricked into action.

  • Is your character pro-active? Passive characters are common culprits in stories that drag.

7 – B-Story… Often this is the love interest, but can also be a sidekick or a mentor. This ally guides the protagonist and is often instrumental in helping him learn the Theme, i.e. what he needs to do to survive and win the story.

  • Does your B-story character challenge your hero? Maybe they can spice things up with conflict and humor!

(For more check out “What’s a B-Story? And Why that Lame Love Triangle Doesn’t Cut It”)

8 – Act II part 1: Fun & Games… is the promise of the premise. If your novel was a movie, the F&G section would be featured in the trailer. For instance, in a romantic comedy, this is where the two love interests clash.

  • Do you have enough conflict? Sometimes a story meanders simply because it lacks conflict. Repeat after me: make your characters suffer!

9 – Midpoint… right smack in the middle of Act II, this is usually a False Victory where the protagonist thinks she’s achieved her goal but she hasn’t. It’s here that the stakes are raised and the bad guys start to close in on the protagonist.

  • Do you have a Midpoint, a turning point that is like a tent pole holding up the middle of your story? If you’re meandering through the mushy middle, probably not. For help, read “Mapping the Mushy Middle

10 – Act II part 2: Bad Guys Close In… Both internal problems (hero’s issues) and external problems (bad guys) tighten their grip and get closer and closer to thwarting the protagonist’s goal.

  • Quite simply, are things getting progressively worse for your hero? Don’t just pile on new problems; make sure the problems escalate.

11 – Crisis / All Is Lost… is usually a False Defeat. If at the Midpoint the protagonist thought that she’d achieved her goal, this is where she thinks she’s utterly and completely failed.

  • What is your All Is Lost moment? It’s easier to keep your story on track if you know the big disaster you’re writing towards.

12 – Dark Night of the Soul… is the emotional fallout of the crisis wherein the protagonist loses all hope. The worst thing about this beat is that she knows it’s her fault. The hero that resonates is not innocent and blameless and perfect; she has flaws just like we do. And despite her best intentions, she had a hand in her own defeat.

  • Has your hero failed? Does she think it’s her fault? How can you make this the lowest moment of her life?

13 – Break Into Act III… Thanks to a fresh idea, new inspiration, or last-minute action or advice from the B-story ally, the protagonist digs deep to find a solution.

  • How does your hero move past her defeat? Having even a rough idea of this crucial moment will help focus your story.

14 – Act III Finale… From what she’s gone through and what she’s learned (i.e. Theme), the protagonist forges a third way and conquers her problems (both internal and external).

  • How does your hero win in the end? Again, you don’t have to have all the details, but knowing the basic ending (i.e. hero finds love, hero captures bad guy, hero leaves home for college) is invaluable for getting you through to The End.

15 – Final Scene (aka THE END)… is the opposite of the Opening scene and proves a change has occurred. There’s no point to a story if it doesn’t change the hero’s life.

  • What is your final image? What does your hero look like after this journey is over? How have they changed?

So if you’re ever struggling with your story, check in with these beats and make sure you’ve got the answers. Of course, the answers may change as you are writing, and that is totally fine. I keep a version of this beat sheet with me at all times. I look at it whenever I get off-track and revise it when necessary. Of course, during NaNoWriMo you don’t have time to revise what you’ve already written, but it’s still helpful to note what you will change and write the rest of the novel as if you’ve already done so.

Now good luck with NaNoWriMo, everyone!


For more on basic beats, outlining and story structure, check out the recommended posts:


Permanent link to this article: http://writeonsisters.com/writing-craft/story-questions-keep-nanowrimo-novel-track/

Camp NaNo & My Escape From The Outlining Outhouse!

outlining outhouseLast November I attempted my first NaNoWriMo, but since I’m a turtle-paced plotter and not a fast-fingered pantser, I approached it like this: A Slow Writer’s Scheme to Win NaNoWriMo. Despite that excellent plan, I didn’t win (see Results of a Slow Writer’s First NaNoWriMo). There were two reasons for that, one of which was that I started a new freelance writing gig mid-month that ate up most of my time, and the other was that “pushing ahead” on my project, something NaNo encourages, did not  work for me. Despite all my preplanning, my story simply wasn’t ready to be churned out in one go. I hit roadblock after roadblock because I hadn’t developed something crucial regarding the story or the characters, and had to go back to change things, and try again. Which, I suppose, is what writing is all about. But I’d rather develop those things before I get into the messy process of writing. So what was I missing?

This is something I’ve been struggling with for years: what exactly needs to be developed before I start to write? I know how to beat out a story arc (Outlining Method 1: Story Beats) and hone a life-changing character arc (The Hero’s Emotional Midpoint). I even made myself a handy Pre-Writing Checklist. Yet my story outline still stinks! It’s like I’m stuck in the Outlining Outhouse, re-plotting, re-plotting and re-plotting, hoping to eradicate the stench. But I can’t, so I burn it down and dig a new hole – only to fill it  with more crap.

How can I escape?

In desperation I turned to more writing craft books. After a few useless misses, I found THE ANATOMY OF STORY by John Truby. It is exactly what I need: story development steps to go through before one starts writing. Truby also stresses that this approach is for all writers, plotters and pansters alike. Why? Because it’s less about story structure (i.e. this action happens here and is followed by this action and then this action, etc.) and more about story elements that are needed to create not just a good story, but a great story. And I think that is the most valuable aspect of Truby’s book — discussing what makes a story great and giving the reader actionable questions to answer to develop that greatness in their own work.

And what makes a story great? A Moral Argument.

Some of you might be going, “No kidding! I knew that!” Well, so did I. But it’s a very difficult thing to write. It must be woven so seamlessly into the plot that it won’t be seen by the reader but rather felt. That’s what I was going for, but I wasn’t quite hitting the mark. I’m sure with enough practice I could have got it, but I want to have a great novel published before I’m 80, so I’m ecstatic that Truby has written a book to speed up this learning process. Because this outhouse reeks and I cannot wait to get out of it!

So for Camp NaNo, my goal is to not  spend all my time in the outlining outhouse. The plan is to work my way through THE ANATOMY OF STORY to develop my novel idea, and then write an outline that hopefully won’t completely stink. I’m sure I’ll find myself in the outhouse every once in a while, but at least now I know how to escape it and write a better – no, great! – story.

Any of you guys going to Camp NaNo this summer?


Permanent link to this article: http://writeonsisters.com/writing-craft/camp-nano-my-escape-from-the-outlining-outhouse/

Outlining – Method 2: Active Beats (aka “Show Don’t Tell”)

Happy Archive Revive Day! It’s always helpful to refresh what we know about writing by digging up past posts and updating the information a bit, so here we go…


Originally posted on Oct. 7, 2013. Updated Sept. 21, 2015

I learned this method of outlining at Ryerson University. My screenwriting professor called it a Step Outline. He instructed us to write a scene-by-scene outline and ONLY describe actions, i.e. what the characters physically do. No dialogue. No narration. Like turning the sound off a movie. The test: could the audience get the gist of the story just from the characters’ actions?

The class reacted with a mix of confusion and frustration. Students insisted they needed dialogue to explain. The professor insisted they did not. Dialogue enhances a story, but it doesn’t make it. Action begets story. Characters must DO things, not just sit around and talk. He told us if a scene uses only dialogue to move the story forward, we needed to change it and use action as well. A simple example would be a character who wants to tell her roommate she’s mad at him for making their apartment an episode of Hoarders. Instead of using just words, she should throw his collection of deflated party balloons in the trash. That would get the point across nicely.

It’s the classic rule: SHOW don’t TELL. SHOW don't TELL

Not that you won’t use dialogue or narration in your story, but it’s important to realize that these only support the story. A story needs action.

Why is it stronger if the characters DO rather than just SAY? Because, generally, people don’t like to be told what to think. They like to discover, figure stuff out, and come to conclusions themselves. Therefore it’s more intriguing if your characters show their emotions/desires instead of simply telling the reader what they feel/want. At the most basic level, showing is simply more interesting. I mean, would you rather have someone tell you the ocean is beautiful, or take you scuba diving so you can see for yourself?

Still not convinced? I’ll give you 5 Reasons to Write an Active Beats Outline:

  1. To make sure you have an actual story. A story needs more than pages of clever character chatter; it needs characters who take action.

  2. To see if beats are missing. If you write down your active beats and find out the story doesn’t track, you need to add that missing action.

  3. To cut beats which don’t serve the story. Does you character do something that doesn’t move the story forward? Probably. Can it be cut? Most likely. When you distil everything down to actions, it’s easier to spot what can be edited out.

  4. To ensure the protagonist is active not passive. Is all the action done by supporting characters? Is your protagonist merely an observer? If so, maybe you need to reevaluate whose story this is or make your protagonist more active.

  5. To avoid being boring. Because no matter how clever or observant your character, he is boring if he doesn’t do something.

Just like the Basic Story Beats, the Active Beats can be used to outline your story before writing or to story edit after writing. The important thing is to use this tool to make your story as strong as possible!

More posts about Outlining/Story Editing:

Outlining – Method 1: Basic Story Beats

Basic Story Beats of The Hunger Games

How to Story Edit Using the “Save the Cat” Basic Beats

Outlining – Method 3: The Wall of Sticky Notes (aka “The Board”)

Outlining – Method 3 cont.: From Sticky Notes to Proper Scenes

Permanent link to this article: http://writeonsisters.com/writing-craft/outlining-method-2-active-beats-aka-show-dont-tell/

5 Reasons to Track Questions & Answers in Your Novel

This week while flushing out my novel’s outline, I decided to track where I raised and answered questions in the story. Why? Because questions are crucial to a good story; they ensure it has enough intrigue and suspense to keep readers reading. Have you ever set down a book and not been compelled to pick it back up? That’s probably because you weren’t dying to know the answer to a question! Questions and their elusive answers keep us reading. For the A to Z Challenge, I blogged about big and little story questions and gave tips for how to make these questions engage readers all the way to The End. Check out the full post here. For today’s post, I will illustrate how tracking questions and answers can improve your story.

To start, I created a numbered list of questions raised and questions answered alongside my outline. I used Document Notes in Scrivener so that this list is in the Inspector right beside my outline and I can see both simultaneously. I numbered each question (Q1, Q2, Q3, etc.) and the corresponding answer (A1, A2, A3, etc.). Then I went through my outline, tracking where questions were raised and how quickly/slowly they were answered. As I did this, I came up with a bunch of reasons why this exercise is helpful…


1. To avoid info dumps. During the set up scenes of Act I, it’s easy to think you need to explain everything or the reader will be confused. However, when I sat down and asked myself, “What will readers be wondering in this opening scene?” it became clear that a lot of the stuff I thought I needed to tell readers wouldn’t even be on their radar yet! The takeaway? Don’t give away answers to questions your readers haven’t even asked! That’s a sure sign you’re info dumping.

2. To check story pacing. When I started tracking my questions, I noticed that the first few scenes, especially the opening scene, raised many more questions than other scenes. This is normal. After all, questions make for intrigue, and we all want intriguing question-laden openings! But all good things have limits. So I decided to delay asking some questions and added them to later scenes, and to answer some more quickly to get them out of the way and make room for new questions. That resulted in a more evenly paced story.

3. To make sure each scene has suspense. No matter what genre you write, stories need suspense in the form of questions to keep the reader wondering and engaged. So every scene should raise at least one new question. If a scene doesn’t have a question in it, you risk boring your readers. And don’t think that if you raised a question in the previous scene, you don’t need to include one the next scene. That’s hogwash! Every scene must ask a question to keep the story moving and the readers engaged.

4. To keep track of The Big Question. This is the overall question that the reader will wonder throughout the entire novel until the very end. The big question is fed by dozens of little questions that are brought up throughout the story. Here are some examples:

The Hunger Games Will Katniss win the Games? In training, will Katniss get a low ranking? In the arena, will Katniss get her hands on the bow and arrow? Will Peeta betray her? Will Katniss find water or die of thirst? Will Haymitch send medicine?
Harry Potter Will Harry defeat Voldemort? In each book, the little questions of whether Harry will make the right decisions, or trust the wrong people, or get in trouble, etc., all connect to the big question of whether he has what it takes to defeat Voldemort.
Eleanor & Park Will their high school romance last? Will Park accept Eleanor’s weirdness? Will Eleanor learn to trust Park? Will Eleanor’s stepdad find out about Park and forbid her from seeing him?

Once you know your Big Question, you can track it and make sure each little question connects to it in some way. In other words, all the little questions must have the power to affect the big question. If you have a scene where a question is raised that doesn’t connect to the big question, you either need to make it relevant or cut it. Never lose sight of The Big Question, lest you veer off the goat path into boring territory (as I talked about in this post on Mushy Middles).

5. To make sure you don’t leave questions hanging. And finally… sometimes we lose track of all the little questions asked along the way. If you find out that you raised a question and never answered it, you have two options: 1) Answer it, or 2) Cut it. After all, if you forgot about it, maybe it’s not important and is just cluttering up your story.

So that’s what I’ve been up to this week. Do you track your story questions? I feel like this is something that mystery writers probably do all the time, but could be helpful for writers of all genres. Let me know in the comments!

PS – Next Monday I’ll have another Audiobook Pitfall post coming up.

Permanent link to this article: http://writeonsisters.com/writing-craft/5-reasons-to-track-questions-answers-in-your-novel/

T is for Trello

BLAST_TWriting a book is not as labor intensive as, say, launching a space mission, but sometimes it feels like it is. I use Trello to keep my sanity in check. It helps me manage all my brainstorming, to do lists, blog posts, home repairs, work deadlines and even my kid’s schedules…all in one place. And best of all, the basic version is free!

3 More Tips for using Trello
I wrote about Trello a few months back in the post 5 Reasons Why Every Writer Needs Trello, but since I’m still learning new ways to use the program, it looks like I have a lot more to say on the subject.

Trello makes outlining easy. Like most writers, I keep a corkboard and it’s covered with plotting index cards, character relationship maps, blueprints of my settings, inspiring photos, etc, but it’s only for my current project. I don’t have the space to keep two or three project boards in my office. But I can keep 100 boards on Trello, one each for the ideas, inspiration, characters or plot notes of every writing project I’ve ever dreamed of. I used the 3 act structure to set up a my boards. First I created a basic template with a card for each of the common story elements. I also threw in an other card at the end of each column to catch any oddball items. I can always adjust the board parameters as my project progresses.

Full 3 Act Board Once I have a template board set up the way I like it, I can quickly create a new board for a second (third, fourth, fifth) writing project. This saves time and makes plotting a simple process. I love watching a plot take shape on Trello and I can’t miss any of the important story milestones (inciting incident, pinch points, or midpoint reversal) because the cards in my template keep me on task.

Trello is perfect for world building. When sci-fi, fantasy or historical fiction writers start to flesh out their worlds, it gets complicated. We need to keep track of all the aspects of the setting: the political system, geography, flora and fauna, social structures… it’s file folders and notebooks full of raw data. Some writers use spreadsheets like Excel to streamline the process, but with Trello I can see the data more clearly. Plus the entries click open for more options. I can add links, make notes, create to do checklists, and upload research notes and add photos for inspirations. It’s like having Pinterest secret boards, but with more options for storing written data. The flexibility makes it extremely helpful for planning a series. I can create one board for each book, or keep track of all the series threads on one board to make sure I’ve created a cohesive series.

World BuildingTrello streamlines the editing process. This is something I’d never thought of doing, but once I saw another writer doing it, I was convinced. Trello boards make an ideal place to keep my self-editing checklists and to track the revisions. As an extra bonus, I can upload chapters and invite other people to read and comment on them. This makes Trello perfect for online critique groups. I can sit back and watch as each beta reader marks the project read and adds their notes. Plus all the readers can have access to the comments leading to group discussions. The system makes it a great way to work closely with a remote editor or to get feedback from a writing partner or an agent. Best of all, I control who sees the boards on a project by project basis. I can set a board to unrestricted public viewing, or invite members into my group.

2 Examples

The Page Turners blog did a great job on showing how to use Trello with a remote editor. If you want to use Trello for an online critique group, I highly recommend this post.

If you want to use Trello for day-to-day management or just want a basic crash course try this How To Post from LifeHacker.

1 Link for more help

This is already a link-heavy post, but the last one you might need is the Trello Blog. This is the best place to find out what other users are doing with their Trello boards. It might surprise you. Everything from designing a book marketing campaign to planning a new author blog is easier with Trello.


Permanent link to this article: http://writeonsisters.com/writers-life/t-is-for-trello/

O is for Outlines

BLAST_OAs a screenwriter, outlines are mandatory. Not so for authors. If you’re penning a novel, it seems as if you must choose between two camps – plotter (those who outline) or pantser (those who start writing a manuscript sans outline). But it doesn’t have to be one or the other, and I think the vast space between these polar opposites is where most writers fit. So with that in mind, the following three tips for outlining are more like stages, moving from macro to micro in scope.

3 Stages for Writing Outlines

Tentpoles. These are crucial events in every story. I believe they’re called “tentpoles” because they give a story shape the way tentpoles structure a tent. Without tentpoles, your story (and your tent) will fall flat. Tentpoles are things like the Inciting Incident, Call to Action, Midpoint, Crisis and Resolution. Even writers who identify themselves as pantsers often have these tentpoles in mind before they begin writing. I follow this “Save the Cat Basic Beats” model to get all my tentpoles set up.

Beat Sheet. In the post noted above, I call tentpoles “basic beats” because they are the bare minimum needed. A full beat sheet, however, drafts all the little beats in between the big tentpoles. But what is a beat? It’s an action that moves the story forward. Each beat leads to the next. If you can erase a beat and not change the story, well, then, that’s not a beat. For me, the Beat Sheet is a fun game of fill-in-the-blanks, or if we want to stick with the tent metaphor, I’m filling my tent with supplies that will get me through the trip.

Scene Outline. This is the itinerary part of the camping trip. Not everyone likes this stage, and that’s okay because there’s no obligation to do it! However, some of us like to work out the fine points before hitting the road. For this step, I take the action in the beats and develop it into scenes that outline the hero’s want, conflict and change for each one. For more information, check out this handy scene checklist!

2 Examples of Outlines

There are lots of ways to outline. You can scribble notes on scrap pieces of paper. You can make flow charts. You can use Scrivener (I hear they have templates for outlining, though I haven’t checked out the program yet). You can even pin index cards to a bulletin board, like this:

The Board: I've begun plotting scenes on index cards.

The Board: I’ve begun plotting scenes on index cards.

Or if you’re J.K. Rowling, you can make a spreadsheet!


1 Link for more help

If you’re not sure why you’d ever want to outline, check out this post: 5 Reasons To Outline Your Novel.

And in case you’re just dropping in now, here’s our April A to Z list thus far:

A is for Antagonist

B is for Backstory

C is for Character Change

D is for Dialogue

E is for External Conflict

F is for False Stakes

G is for Genre

H is for Heroes

I is for Internal Conflict

J is for Juxtaposition

K is for Kittens!

L is for Laughs

M is for Midpoint

N is for Narrative

Coming up:

P is for Pinch Point

Q is for Questions

Permanent link to this article: http://writeonsisters.com/writing-craft/o-is-for-outlines/

M is for Midpoint

BLAST_MIf you’re a plotter like Heather and I are, you should know about the importance of the midpoint event. It’s one of those important story structure tentpoles Heather will be telling you all about in her O is for Outlining post. The midpoint is when critical new information is introduced to the story and it will lead the character(s) to make the most important decision of the story, the big fight or flight moment. This is a punch in the guts scene and it usually (but not always) is a reversal that negatively impacts the protagonist in a major way. After the midpoint moment, the story always move off in a different direction.

3 Tips for The Midpoint

The midpoint event happens in the middle of the story. However, it’s unwise to stress the exact percentage point. If your midpoint event falls at the 42% mark don’t start adding unnecessary information to adjust the timing. Think of the midpoint event as a massive change in the direction of the protagonist’s situation, and not just as the perfect chronological center of your manuscript.

Mastering the midpoint is not for wimps. This is a great time to make your beloved protagonist suffer. This event should set up not only the climax of your story, but become the tipping point for the big emotional growth the protagonist will undergo as part of their character arc. Some writers consider the first half of a novel the discovery and reaction phase, when the characters are asking questions and figuring out the problems. After the midpoint shift the novel moves into an action and attack phase, when the characters are formulating plans and taking steps to accomplish their revised end goal. A story without a true midpoint event might be maintaining the same story trajectory. Even if there is an escalation of conflict, without a midpoint event there is a strong likelihood the characters are not changing! A properly crafted midpoint changes the character’s (and often the reader’s) perspective profoundly.

Planning helps you get this right. I think one of the big downsides to being a pantser is the risk of middle mush, when the center of the novel becomes a dead zone. It’s much easier to plot for a midpoint event, than it is to correct for a missing midpoint in a finished novel. If you’re a tried and true pantster, don’t despair, you may have created a crisis at the midpoint without realizing it. Using Heather’s editing post as a guide, start by creating the beat sheet for your story. Hopefully, you are almost there and if you just roll up your sleeves and do a bit of rewriting you’ll have a midpoint in no time.

2 Examples of Great Midpoints

A great midpoint is often packed with conflict! To some degree picking out the most critical elements can bit subjective, especially when the story uses flashbacks and flash-forwards to confuse the timeline. I’m picking films this time and my first pick is BACK TO THE FUTURE. Marty watches as his elder brother fades from a family photograph. With this midpoint event, Marty realizes his actions have disturbed the past. Unless he can reverse his mistakes and make his parents fall in love again, his life and that of his siblings will cease to exist.

My second pick is EDWARD SCISSORHANDS. Edward is tricked into breaking into a friend’s home and caught by the police. The other teens refuse to own up to their part in the deception. Edward makes the decision to protect Kim at all costs and refuses to turn them in. Overnight Edward goes from media darling to hated monster.

1 Link for More Help

Midpoint is easiest to study in volume. When you can see about 100 films with the midpoints careful documented for you, it will help you see the patterns. My link today is from The Script Lab: Five Plotpoint Breakdowns Find some films you like and put their list to the test.  Do you agree or disagree?

And in case you’re just dropping in now, here’s our April A to Z list thus far:

A is for Antagonist

B is for Backstory

C is for Character Change

D is for Dialogue

E is for External Conflict

F is for False Stakes

G is for Genre

H is for Heroes

I is for Internal Conflict

J is for Juxtaposition

K is for Kittens!

Coming up:

N is for Narrative

O is for Outlines



Permanent link to this article: http://writeonsisters.com/writing-craft/m-is-for-midpoint/

6 Easy Steps to Great Character Mapping

Character mapping is a technique I use on every project I write. These simple flow charts keep track of all the interconnected relationships in my books and help me build more complexity into those relationships. I love including lots of secondary characters. Out of personal necessity, I developed a quick method for making character maps.

1. Establish what type of map you need. Each project requires it’s own criteria. A mystery project might need a map to track the clues each character reveals. If your protagonist is constantly meeting new characters, you might need to keep track of where, when and how they met each character. That way you don’t accidentally included a character in an earlier scene than you should have. If you’re writing family saga or a series with lots of romantic entanglements, you might want to track which characters like, hate, date or have sex with other characters.


Created by WCityMike and released into the public domain.

2. Using your character sheets (or whatever method you favor for fleshing out your characters), make out a 3X5 card with the name of every character. If they don’t have a name yet, use the character’s title. Include one or two sentences of information about each of the characters on the back as needed. Don’t get crazy, you just want to jog your memory. If you have an image for character reference, feel free to stick a small photo on the card as a visual cue.

3. Alphabetize the cards. It’s an extra step, but it helps you find mistakes, like including too many similar sounding names. Also, I like to key each card with having a positive, neutral or negative stance in the protagonist’s life. I will indicate if the relationship changes over time.
(Negative > Neutral, or Positive > Negative, etc)
You can code for male or female, old or young, alive or undead. Whatever traits you need to keep track of for your story.

4. With a huge open space in front of you (I like to do this on a dry erase board and you’ll see why in a moment), place the cards for the main protagonist and main antagonist in the middle. Slowly start to fan the other cards around the first two cards. I have a basic structure I follow. The parents or mentors at the top. Siblings, love interest or partners in crime at the sides. Children, BFFs, frenemies, evil minions and other secondary characters go below. The minor characters go to the outer edges wherever they fit.

Pride_and_Prejudice_Character_Map Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

Wikimedia Commons GNU Version 1.2

5. Here is where the dry erase board comes in handy. Carefully create the web of connections around the characters. I like to use different colors to signify each relationship status, like my first example does. If you are not using a board, you will need to do this with more cards. Since you have already established the kind of board you need, make sure your web reflects your needs. For example, in a romance novel the web might reflect the role each character plays in thwarting or promoting the protagonist’s HEA.

6. Evaluate your pattern. This is when you start to notice mistakes in the big picture. Everyone shouldn’t love the protagonist, it’s not realistic. You need to give the protagonist some detractors. Also you may notice a deficit in your antagonist’s network. Evil seldom works alone. Adjust your characters and their relationships if you find any defects. Once you have the web the way you want it, transfer the information to a permanent source. You can transfer everything to a flowchart program, or just attach the cards to a cork board for your wall.

Once you have a perfect character map in place, you can refer back to it as you write. A good map minimized continuity mistakes, and makes the final editing process go faster. Don’t forget to update your chart as your charters evolve and change.

Permanent link to this article: http://writeonsisters.com/writing-craft/6-easy-steps-to-great-character-mapping/

Tips for Crafting a Frame Story

AframeAs you may have figured out from my post last week, 6 Tips for Re-imagining a Classic Story, I’m working on a project for NaNoWriMo that involves a reinterpretation of a classic tale. In my case I’ve decided to tell it a frame story. This is a literary device using a narrative structure to tell a story within another story. It’s also sometimes called a frame narrative, a frame tale or a nested narrative. This is a very old form of narrative structure (it shows up in stories from ancient Egypt) and it’s been used by too many authors to count from Shakespeare to Michael Crichton. It’s also the darling of films (Titanic) and TV shows (How I Met Your Mother.)

There are two basic styles of the frame story.

In both cases the writer needs to have a pretty good reason for going this route. Frame stories are notoriously hard to get right. Some reasons to try this type of story structure are:

  • To experiment with different ways of expanding a central theme.
  • To incorporate changes to the central theme over time.
  • To connect a large number of short stories into a single narrative.
  • To play with the role of the narrator, perhaps to trick the reader into buying into the narrator’s version of events.
  • To change the point of view so different characters can give their own interpretations of the same key event.

For my project I’m doing the second type, with the cyclical frame. I’m using The Decameron as my retold story. For those who are unfamiliar with the story it’s about a group of nobles who hide out in the Italian countryside during an outbreak of the Black Death. To amuse themselves and each other they tell stories each night and the stories reflect and expand on the noble’s concerns about the world they live in.

Some of the tips for writing a frame story I’ve picked up along my journey are:

  1. Firm up the themes.
    It’s easy to get lost while you’re creating each short story and forget the theme. I’m working with betrayal as my central theme, so each of my stories deals with how someone reacts to a betrayal.
  2. Find ways to fuse the frame and the inner stories together.
    Aspects from each part should either contrast or complement the other. In my case, each narrative plays off the same location and setting. Also each of the frame characters has an echo character in the inner stories.
  3. Form a plan for keeping voices distinct.
    I created a set of vocabulary notes for the frame narrative’s voice, then another set for the storytellers in the inner stories. In my case this created an extra level of planning. I’m sure I’ll have a lot of cleaning up to do, but I didn’t want each story to sound like the same person told it.
  4. Plot all the timelines.
    The frame narrative and the inner stories need separate timelines. I’ve already started to get a tad out of order with my inner stories and it’s only a few days into NaNo. I messed up by creating a single timeline for the project and I needed to backtrack. Now if I want to reorder something from the inner stories I can figure out where it goes back into the frame narrative timeline without messing everything up.
  5. Pull it all apart.
    Even though I don’t plan on anyone reading my story this way, I feel the frame story should be able to stand alone. In hindsight I think I should have written the frame first. Since I missed that step, the best I can do is read the frame separately and see if it would make sense as a solo piece. If I’ve failed, I’ll have to go back in and rework it. I’ve also followed in the footsteps of other cyclical frame authors and attempted to create inner stories that can stand alone.
  6. Read some narrative frame stories.
    It’s amazing how many frame stories are out there. Study how different writers use this device and you will learn a lot. I think one of the most difficult aspects of the frame story is keeping the main narrative story sounding fresh when the ending is partly known. Sometimes the closing frame needs a little unexpected punch. Rose drops the necklace everyone is looking for over the side in Titanic. In Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King, Carnehan shows the narrator Dravot’s severed head, still wearing his golden crown.

If anyone out there has some experience crafting a frame story, please share your tips and tricks for making it work in the comments. With the month ticking away on me, I need all the help I can get.


Permanent link to this article: http://writeonsisters.com/writing-craft/tips-crafting-frame-story/

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