Plotting with Catalyst Events and Elements

Today I’m going to talk about a particular approach to creating plots- the use of catalyst events and elements, which is just my term for any event or element that moves the story along. Normally, the grand skeleton of a story comes to me of their own accords but I find this catalyst event approach quite useful for filling up a particular plot arc. For example, I might have decided that a particular plot arc involves my protagonists adventuring in a desert and then I could just consult my list of catalyst events in order to fill up what the protagonists actually encounter during this desert plot arc. It also comes in handy when I’m particularly stuck on what happens to the protagonists next.

I was going for completeness of coverage for a fantasy story when I created the list and in total the list has about 100 items.

Roughly, they fall into 6 groups:

  1. Related to nature: natural disasters (famine, drought, earthquake, tidal wave, volcano eruption, typhoon, flood), weather related events that could have interesting interactions with the terrain and hinder protagonists’ movement (storm, blizzard, rainfall, fog, nightfall), other bad events (avalanche, pestilence), good events (bounty)
  2. Societal changes: “threats” from outside a society (war, different plane [of reality], divinity, alien sentience, breakout of ‘evil’ sealed in), change in authority (just ruler coming on, tyranny), within a people/group (dissension, corruption, conservatism, a break of tradition, a forbidden rule broken), discovery/rediscovery of knowledge, discovery of old/ lost civilisation
  3. Related to people, relationships and personal fortunes: life class, widening of social circle, growing apart from friends/lovers, increasing intimacy with someone, maturing/growing up, moving on versus stuck in the past, losing all/going on a brand new start, unemployment, sudden fame, personal loss, memory abnormality, minor illness/injury, reincarnation, being lost, being trapped, indecision, oversight, travel to foreign lands, mutation, exiled, poisonings, enslaved), power dynamics (old bloodline versus a new power), layers of truth (misunderstanding, misconception, mistaken impression, rumour/gossip, lie/untruth), character actions, not necessarily that of protagonists but all characters in general, I sometimes think actions by other characters besides protagonists are more interesting catalyst events (reunion, union of lovers, lovers who missed each other, a promise kept/broken, revenge, past trauma, family feud, oath/geis, family heirloom/duty, penance, personal sacrifice, act of generousity/mercy, act of small malice, act of curiousity)
  4. Sources of dispute: treasure, relic of power, legacy of power, ill begotten wealth, new ability that surfaces, racial/ethnic feud
  5. Symbolic elements and other standard troupe of fantasy: prophecy, dream/vision/oracle, illusion/mirage, a fortune telling, local lore, legends, curse, secret, portal, non-aging (effect of the Ring on Bilbo and Frodo in LoR, fountains of youth etc.), possession by ghost, secret meeting, duels, hauntings, sacrifices (as in cult sacrifices ala Indiana Jones style)
  6. Chance encounters: chance meeting/stranger, chance acquiring, mysterious note, overheard conversation

Moonlake’s Novel Planning Method

I haven’t shared any writing insights lately because my novel is stagnating a little. But today I’m in the mood to post about writing again. In particular, I would like to share my particular method of novel planning. My current method is actually derived from the following two articles:

The Snow Flake method by Randy (www.advancedfictionwriting.com/articles/snowflake-method)

The Novel Formula by Kat (http://thenovelfactory.blogspot.com.au/2012/01/novel-formula-novel-writing-method-step.html)

 

My particular method actually follows the Snowflake Method quite closely but have small deviations that are either self-devised or ideas that I’ve taken from other sources in one or two places. As for the second article, I personally found it to be an overkill in terms of novel planning but that is just me, who’s always impatient to get on with the actual writing. In terms of being comprehensive, it wins hands down compared to either my method or the Snowflake Method. At any rate, I found the second article to have value in that it does add other insights.

So basically, my method proceeds in the following stages:

  • 1st stage- Condensed Back cover blurb: first one-liner to summarise the story and then expansion to a single paragraph with 5 lines.
  • 2nd stage- Character synopsises: this stage is done for each of the major characters in the book. I usually start with the protagonists and move downwards. It has 2 steps. The first is creating a one-page summary of each character’s experience in the story detailing a one-liner of his/her storyline, his/her motivations, goals, conflicts, ephiphanies/growth and a one paragraph summary of his/her storyline. The next step is to write a one-page synopsis from the point of view of each of the protagonists and ½ page or other major characters. I personally really enjoy this stage because it gives me the chance with work with the voice of all these different characters although sometimes changing between voices is a problem. My habit has been to group the products from this stage together by characters and save by separate characters, each named cs_(character name).
  • 2nd stage a- This actually cycles back to the 1st stage and I usually keep what I had produced at the 1st stage and this stage together in one Word doc titled synopsis. Basically, in this stage, I use the character synopsises to expand the one paragraph condensed back-cover blurb written at the end of stage 1 into first roughly one A4 page (don’t feel restricted by the one page limit though, all these are for brainstorming after all) and then into 4 pages by expanding each paragraph of the one-page synopsis into a full page (this is again on a rough speaking basis. Again, don’t restrict yourself at all by length but from my personal experience the 4 pages thing tends to fit a conventional length novel, that is, about 40000- 50000 words).
  • 3rd stage- Character filling: self-explanatory, basically just a stage that you go through to suss out each of the major characters in your book. In both of the articles I cited in this post, they suggested a character profile approach which I’ve already mentioned that I have a personal aversion to. So I’ve substituted for the 10 by 10 character grid method that I’ve already talked about in a previous post. Also, I should point out that what I talked about so far before this stage was strictly following the Snowflake Method from step 1 to 6. I usually do a full grid for all of my protagonists, companions on their adventures and a selected number of notable characters. Then, I take much more discretion with the other characters who might be important to the main characters but not to the story itself- what I call background characters. I will usually brainstorm somewhere from 15 to 70 facts about them.
  • 4th stage- Plot filling: I usually make a Chapter by Chapter event skeleton as the first step. This is not in the Snowflake Method. I just ran across this structure when I do a Google search on how to create a synopsis for a book. I usually give each Chapter a name that based upon the main event happening in the Chapter. Then I would list under each Chapter 2 sub-events that happen in indentation form. For a long plot arc, the Chapter names do run into a series. To be honest, I don’t think I’m good with clever naming and such so the Chapter naming is really just for my own reference. Step 2 was suggested by the Snowflake Method where you go across to spreadsheet and make the following columns: Physical Setting of scene, Sub-scene number, Event arc, Point of view character (i.e. whose eyes you want scene to be told through, might be slightly redundant if you are using the all-seeing perspective in writing or first person), purpose (I personally have 3 categories: plot development (PD), character development (CD) and world revelation (WR) and then I would put in some other notes in brackets within the cell eg. for PD, I would put whether it advances the plot or presents a setback; for CD, I would jote down whose character I’m development in the scene/sub-scene; for WR, I would jote down which aspects of the underlying world I’m revealing), Chapter Number, Scene Number and finally Themes touched in each scene/sub-scene. The last column I tend to leave blank a lot of the times but I just added it in for reference and also because I’m personally into life philosophies delved/reflected by fiction a lot. To me, that is one of the many important reasons for why I’m drawn to fantasy. This spreadsheet I would label as scenemanager.

Then I just move onto my Chapter by Chapter writing. But I also have the habit of doing some pre-writing as well. That is, I usually take the event sequence from the scenemanager and then expand them into a Chapter skeleton of what goes into each paragraph or sub-section of a scene. This method of writing is also mentioned in the Snowflake Method. I find it quite useful in combating writer’s block.

So that’s pretty much it. Feel free to leave comments of any aspects you would like to discuss. Also, I just released that I’ve just written my first long read. So thanks for any of the dedicated readers who actually read and finished this post.

Writing from a Sequence of Events

I’ve just realised one major mistake to my approach of transferring plots (or events) to words and this is what I will be sharing in this post. In case you haven’t figured it out, this blog is really more about sharing what I’ve learnt about writing and since I’m just freshly into being a wannabe writer as opposed to hobby writer, my posts will be more centred on how I tackle my mistakes rather than an article centre for all writing related things.

All right, preambles aside, let me first define what I see as the difference between event and plot so that we are all on the same level (not because I’m condescending but just in case everyone has their own definitions which are all different from mine, I’m not using any standard definition out of Fiction Writing 101 so it’s very possible). Event we all know, my own definition of plot is as follows: a plot is a sequence of events with a particular shape or theme.

Now, onto my personal discovery: I’m a bit of a planning freak and my most extensive planning is definitely for the plot aspect of a story. I would go through 7 different stages until I finally have a plan for each scene in each Chapter throughout a book before actually starting on it in spreadsheet form. On this spreadsheet, I summarise the events occurring in each scene in one-liners.  Then in Word, I have to actually pin down in details how events unfold in each single paragraph for a given scene before I can actually write down anything that can go towards my word count. In other words, I’m basically writing purely from the basis of how the sequence of events happen in my story. On this basis, I happily write up to Chapter 14 until feedback from my beta reader came back that makes me go back all the way to re-write from Chapter 2 onwards. His exact words were: “I think you have run rough shod over the story thus without taking time to properly develop plot points… There is a very interesting story there which you wrote but oddly did not respect.”

What exactly was he referring to? Basically, that I’ve kept my heroine too busy with new conflicts and situations that keep coming up in her life but no resolution to any of these conflicts within the first 5 Chapters. Also, that there is no linkage whatsoever between these conflicts that the heroine is experiencing. So what have I tracked down to be the cause of this mistake? The astute of you will probably pick it up already, it’s because I never check all my Chapters link up together. My way of saving each Chapter as separate docs makes worse this oversight. I also do not make adequate planning in advance for exactly how plot hooks that I’ve unconsciously planted, as in I know vaguely how they unfold but never thought about how to properly shepherd them in a given Chapter. Another thing that was picked up by my beta reader in relation to this was that in one scene, I introduced a minor character (who would act as a hook for character and plot development later) and she did nothing at all in the scene, just went by and said hi, prompted some minor changes in behaviour in the other characters before walking off again.

What actions am I putting in place to deal with this? Well, I’m not ditching the saving each Chapter separate habit because it makes editing easier for me in terms of addressing comments from my beta reader. So I’m thinking to take the time out to write a short paragraph of synopsis of last Chapter at the start of going onto a new Chapter. I can probably start making a plot summary document that tracks down the main plot and sub-plots that I’m putting into the story (have I already said that I’m a sub-plot maniac? It doesn’t help that I’m planning to write a 5-book series). I actually made one earlier for a work that I abandoned but somehow when I was planning the current book, the plots and sub-plots were just too fuzzy in my idea and I couldn’t make the same for it.

If you have insights about a similar issue or just want to let your opinion be known, you’re welcome to leave a comment. Otherwise, thanks for reading this post.