Detail Mapping Your Plot

Now that I’ve thundered ahead into the project I decided I wasn’t starting yet, I’ve hit a brick wall that I remember very well. And I still hate it.

Detail planning!

I’m sure most of you know this. You’re filled with excitement for the story brewing in your head. You know the general story and generally what’s happening to your characters, and you’re eager to get it on paper. You know the themes. You even know some of the scenes you’re stoked to write. But you’re hung up on the pesky details like… your immediate plot.

Even when you’re trucking along into a chapter, there inevitably comes that point when you stop and realize you hadn’t actually figured out a detail you need. You know your character is on the run, and you’ve got the tension of the escape well in hand, but you haven’t decided exactly what he’s up against on the way out. So, as soon as the next scene starts you just blink and draw a blank.

It’s not quite writer’s block—you know your plot. It’s the immediate hows and whys that get in the way. It’s hard to plow ahead, even when you know what your story is, when you haven’t worked out the details that fill the gaps and expand your great ideas into a novel.

For me, this is a frustrating stage. And going through it again is reminding me exactly how much easier it hasn’t become. I’ve become very attached to my notebook these days, and it’s been filling with scrawl at record pace.

Take your time

I know I say that a lot. Take your time. Let it come when it’s ready. Getting frustrated with yourself because you’re not ready to write yet doesn’t get you any closer to being ready to write. It just makes you a grumpy person to be around for a few days.

Ideas flow, especially when you let yourself shift into idea mode without skipping on to writing mode first. Make charts, scribble notes, make diagrams. Take a hot shower. Make a list of questions you’re struggling to answer. And through it all, remind yourself that you really are still making progress. This is a different kind of progress than typing words, but it’s still progress, so don’t get hung up on the idea that you’re stalled.

Talk to your Characters

Imagine a scene between your characters where one of them explains the points you’re stuck on to someone else. Maybe this is just a quirk I have, but my characters seem to know more about what’s going on than I do. Especially for things like world history (which becomes really important and really annoying to not know when a character needs to spout out a fact).

If you feel more comfortable writing it out, go for it, otherwise spend some time daydreaming while you’re on the train to work. You might be surprised by how easily the details flow when you consider them in context. (Ie- from the perspective of a character, rather than the author.)

Make Diagrams

If you aren’t ready to write the words, try drawing a picture. Not necessarily of characters doing stuff (though if you have that skill, go for it! My limit is stick people. Seriously my six-year-old daughter is a better artist than I am), but of contextual diagrams like maps.

For example, I was struggling to plan the political movements of my story, because I couldn’t see what my world looked like through a larger scope. So I sketched out a map, made it all pretty and named, and even named the capital cities of my provinces, even though I’ll probably never use them.

What I accomplished was more than create a nifty JPG with info I don’t need. I learned what my world looked like, and from there it became real. All of a sudden, the city I had been writing became attached to a fully developed and populated country. I was writing again that night.

Use Organization Tools

I’ve said before that I hate idea webs. And I do. They’re disorganized, and I can’t pull anything of relevance from the mess. That being said, I inevitably end up with idea webs during the process of brainstorming, which I later need to organize into something usable.

Find whatever tools work for you and use them. I use excel. I have tabs along the bottom for each character’s development, to-do tasks and revisions, names, even ideas for book three that jumped into my head. It organizes my thoughts into something more than a web of scrawl and gives my ideas context. (Context is a big one today.)

Think BIG

When you’re making your plans, sometimes the reason you can’t fill out the little stuff is because you haven’t figured out the biggest stuff enough. If you’re having trouble digging into the point by point outline, then try working backwards. Go right back to your theme if you need to, see if it’s changed from where it once was, and see if you need to reorient yourself as you move forward.

Or, see if you like the change better, and move forward with a clearer direction of what you’re actually trying to do.

Either way, sometimes the micro isn’t possible until you have the macro well in hand. So even if you think you know it already, if you’re really struggling with details, go back and see if you’re still working from you base you think you are. If not, take a minute and adjust accordingly. Then move forward again.

The truth that you need to remember is that the messy part always happens, and you always clean it up in the end. You might be sitting on a tangle of ideas and mismatched plot threads right now, but just keep moving. Every change you make and every knot you unravel gets you that much closer to a seamless whole. Trust in the process and don’t give up on it. You’ve done this before, and you’ve gotten through it before.

…Or maybe this is your first book and you haven’t done it before, and you’re currently close to tears wondering why the hell you suck so much. In that case, trust me, every novel that has ever been written ends up with the author at some point wondering why they suck. You don’t suck. You’re just in planning stage, and you’re in good company.

So keep plowing forward and trust that it will come together in the end.

It will.

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