How to Set Up a Plotting Notebook
It’s early September and the temperature has begun to drop. Venturing out-of-doors in a sweater is no longer the wishful thinking of hot, hot August, but the whimsy of sweater-lovers like myself. And as fall approaches us head-on, so does November, and with it, Nation Novel Writing Month.
This is my first year participating. I’m sixteen now (almost seventeen when November finally rolls around) and I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. What makes this year different is that I’ve found the answer to my writing issues. It was not that my characters were bad (I’ve always prided myself on my characters) or that my writing was in any way “faulty” for my age. My problem was that I could not finish what I began. I lost steam quickly. I ventured into a magical world of make-believe only to find I had no map, no guiding light, to keep me on the straight and narrow.
This change was slow to come. I decided to start finishing things (long things) around last year. I still haven’t. NaNoWriMo presents an opportunity I dare not miss.
Which brings me to earlier. I stated that this was my first year. It isn’t. I tried last year, but without an inkling of an idea to call my own. A little fantasy, and I churned out an epic poem, but I had nothing finished, no more than ten thousand words by the end of November. I tried my hardest, but without a plan, my steam was gone.
So when I decided to participate this year, I began to collect information on “how to plot”. I tried it on the little things, and it never worked. I couldn’t attach myself to someone else’s ideas or thoughts or notebook organization.
What I didn’t realize at the time is that I could do that, but that I needed to take it one more step. I needed to make a Frankenstein Monster of a plotting notebook.
Where does this leave us?
Well, in a pretty good position. I want to impart to you, the reader, what I have found to be a successful way of creating and organizing. The things you’ll need can be purchased from your local drugstore, and I doubt you’ll need much else aside from your imagination.
You’ll need a five-section notebook, a set of five pens of assorted colors, index cards, and you might want to invest in notecard rings or an index-card holder with dividers.
The pens are not a necessity. I like to write in pens, and later on in the article I will explain why it is that I use different colors.
Now that you have the materials, let’s begin.
This step is optional, but I promise that when you try it, you’ll understand its purpose.
Grab your new pens, scribble to get their ink running, and pull out a small stack of index cards. Many things I’ve read say “use this many”, but forget them. Use as many as you want.
What you’re going to do here is write down all the major points of your story, from the moment it begins to the moment it ends (or enters a second or third or fourth plotline, as my stories are prone to doing). I like to stick with movement, you know, where people go and what they do because I have a rough time with following where they head through a story any longer than five-thousand words. The use of movement in this also helps to include the use of action. In my current novella I’ve been planning, there are two main characters who are separate for long periods of story content, and with the use of index cards, I’ve safely put them both into reasonable chunks of the stories and outlined where they split, what happens when they do, and when the meet back up again.
This is where the colored pens come in, too. For my NaNoWriMo, I wrote the subplots in different colors from the main story and different colors from themselves. It gave me a clear visualization of when a subplot began, where it wove into the story, and where it ended. There was no confusion when I began a more detailed outline after.
Another use for the multi-colors is what I detailed with my current novella section. There are three POVs — Jena, Nine, and Case. Case has very few scenes, being a villain, and there’s about a sixty-forty split (Jena/Nine) with the two main characters. When I wrote out the first section of the story in index cards, I wrote their respective plotlines in a different color to see the changes in POV and plot.
The best use for your multi-color pens is during this phase of writing and a little of the next.
Again, fill up as many index cards as you need. I include the big things and some of the little things (sometimes dedicating a card to emotion, when it is strong enough, or maybe a bit of side-information of the world if I think of something cool). For any given part of a story, I tend to get around twenty to forty cards, and the word count is even more diverse (because I’ll write small parts on separate index cards).
After you write “the end” or “end part”, spread them across a table/flat surface. This is why you write on index cards first. The sorting process is much more fluid with index cards than with a list of sequences. Make new cards, discard some, reorganize the plot half a dozen times, whatever makes it the best story you can make. Leave it alone for a day. Come back the next, read them in order, and if it sounds like a story you’d punch an old lady in the face to read, go ahead and start into the next step.
“What the heck, Kellye? We just outlined the entire story. Must we do it again?”
The answer: yes.
Now you need to write it into the first section of your five-section notebook. I label this section “[story outline] story title” and then proceed to copy all my index cards down into it. You’ll find that writing it a second (or maybe third) time helps. Now that you’ve sat on it for a while, you can see the garish openings just begging to be filled by hot, steamy words.
This is also a great time to ponder the scenes themselves. When I get to the second outlining process, dialogue starts coming, choppily, into my brain, as well as emotion and general exposition (like times and places and people). So in nice pretty brackets (  ), I put it all in.
During my current novella, I redid the outline quite a few times, rearranging what happens so that it made the most sense dramatically, if not chronologically. At first, I had completely forgotten to add any tension to it, plotting the scene where Jena goes to find Nine and meets Diego before the scene where the slaver Marco is shoving Nine into this seedy downtown bar called The Hole. Well, that screamed “Hey! Everyone’s going to know it’s gonna be okay if you do it like this!” so I changed it, adding the scene with Jena at the end of Nine’s scene as a brief expositional explanation. It made all the difference.
My point is to be careful and plan, plan, plan. You never know when something new may pop up.
I can’t take credit for this idea or format, but I will expand on what was previously written. Read the actual article here.
The pre-notes section made so much sense to me, it was ridiculous (and the fuel for what you are now reading). I wrote down three sentences as a summary of a section of a chapter. In case you haven’t noticed, I’m obsessed with fictional fractions. I like to divide stories into parts, parts into chapters, chapters into little parts, and little parts into scenes. What does this mean? That I took the idea for a chapter, connected the parts of my story outline into what it would be, then divided that into little parts before even thinking of my three-sentence summaries.
Those three-sentence summaries are great. When you know as much grammar as me (which you should as a writer), you can construct very long, very correct, and very fluid sentences very easily in a very short time.
This is the part I’m at in my novella, so I don’t have an example from it, but for my NaNoWriMo novel, I’ve constructed the chapter outlines already, and they came out beautifully. The sentences are meant to show the entirety of the part of the chapter, and they should do that job to their best ability.
The next part, the “point” of the section, is a little harder to describe in my own terms. I simply state why this is happening, and go from there.
Then comes, what else, more outlining. Here you take whatever portions of your story outline apply to the summation you did and make a detailed structure of what will happen. Now, don’t get me wrong, these don’t have to be long — my “mini outlines” averaged less than ten bullet points, but the idea of it needs to be there. I wanted to know what would happen, not how. It’s like reading spoilers but still being surprised by how it happens. The end result is what you’re writing here, and when you get into the actual construction of your story, you discover how it happens. That seems to be the biggest obstacle/complaint for most people. They think outlining ruins the discovery process. It doesn’t It enhances it by allowing you to think beyond first thoughts and into what you would want to read.
The chapter outline is important. No questions asked.
Now we move on from plotting, but we’re still sort of it it because you can’t take your plot from the characters or your characters from the plot (well, you can, but you see my point).
I spent a long time thinking filling out those character sheets would get me somewhere I needed to go when it never did. The time I wasted on them weighed the story down. They took the steam away more than anything else I did.
I’ve said before that I pride myself on my characters. I think they’re fun and unique (or at least as unique as they can be), and the situations they’re in exemplify that. Still, you can’t keep every little quirk in your brain. It doesn’t work. The situation normally goes “Did Character A have brown eyes or blue?” or “Did Joe Schmoe work at the gas station before or after he had those triplets with his sister’s best friend’s mother?”
The answer? A simplified, minimalist character sheet.
This is another case where I’ve used a resource and slightly changed it, so you should check out the wonderful creation here. This is one of my very favorite writing places because the founder, Narr, is simply one of the most imaginative prompt creators I’ve come across (when s’he isn’t lazing about smoking).
Using this sheet does imply that you’ll follow his’er directions (and if you’re wondering why I refer to him’er like this, well, his’er gender is “unknown”, and when the chat was actually populated, it was how we got around that problem).
Now, this is just about the best character sheet I’ve ever seen. It’s simple and, unlike the plethora of other sheets, it actually forces you to write something. The only slight modification I’ve made to it (and this is for my own use, you may not need it, but I enjoy having the section) is to add “facts and notes”. Under this section I add the random tidbits that come to mind (like how old the mother of the triplets was) and what sorts of background information didn’t go into the summary.
It’s a very handy way of going about character creation. The ease of making up your own information comes much better when you aren’t forcing yourself to answer questions that don’t apply to your universe. For instance, and this was a problem recently and why I switched to using this character sheet for all my characters, I was working on my science fiction universe that is post-modern, Romanesque, fascist, and in general kind of strange, and I was writing out a “classic” character sheet for one of my characters. Now, when it came to what car he drives, I couldn’t answer that. Why? Because cars are rare. They walk to places or take the train through the city. When it came to the emotional state of my character, none of the questions mattered. Braden doesn’t care about the rest of the world as much as he cares about overthrowing a fascist corporation. His love interest in the first part is almost non-existent. The points they emphasize were useless to me, and so using this character setup appealed greatly. I could say what I needed to say, then stop.
The Facts of the Universe
The next section of your notebook will contain the facts of your universe, whatever they may be. I’m a writer of mainly short stories (and hopeful little novellas), but I like to have a connecting force.
What I choose is to have a long, detailed universe.
A lot of things I’ve read want you to design your universe, come up with your plot, create your characters, and do it all separately, thank you. I disagree with that assessment. For me, it’s about the connections. When I began with the idea for a man named Avalon back in 2007, I could hardly imagine that he would become as twisted, evil, and essential as he has become to my current set of stories. When I tried to design a modern fantasy world about a girl literally escaping a place called Red Oak, I didn’t think it would evolve into a fascist corporation where Avalon rules. When I made two bank robbers set in the 20s, I figured they would die out quickly. When I spent ten hours in a car designing a story to a set of songs by the band Gorillaz, I couldn’t imagine the assassin would be any more than a crazed maniac. When I designed two secret agents trying to take down a jewel thief, both with strange silver eyes and special powers, I had no idea it would turn into a new race of subhumans. When I had a dream about a vicious alien woman claiming some random man as her mate, I didn’t think that man would become the central character for a universe stretching across centuries of alternate-world development.
I did not think at the time that the worlds, plots, and characters would be any more than short story people. But soon I found they were all connected, all important, and all functional together, living their lives separately but in the same place, just as we do in the “real world”.
But the catch is, the world is the same. Just because I’m writing short stories or novellas doesn’t mean I don’t have to make sure the time line is correct, the facts are straight, and everything is perfectly in place. If I had started with the universe, designing it to perfection, there would be no room for interesting men and women that spark up from crazy conversations, songs, and people I see. I base stories off people, yes, but before I go any further, they must fit, and if they do not fit, they cannot be a part of my world.
So when I get a new idea, it goes scribbled in the fourth section of my notebook, tucked away safely for when I get a chance to come to it again. When you have people who live forever and corporations and wars and the development of city-states and laws that combine policies from civilizations that were hundreds of years apart, it becomes easy to get fuddled and confused. Writing down something helps, and before you know it, you’ll have enough information to write whatever the heck you want to and have it completely work.
It’s great to be prepared.
The last section, and probably least important (they don’t make four-section notebooks, I don’t think), is where you write story snippets. If, for instance, you’re stumbling along, watching television and doing homework and you think of something freaking spectacular, shove it in the back. If a chunk of dialogue hits you like a ton of bricks, write it down, write it down. If an idea comes about something you could research to make your universe that much more spectacular, put it down here.
So maybe a better name is the “useless section that you use to put down stuff and whatever really comes to mind when you’re too busy to concentrate”, but I found that title to be too long and drawn out. I mean, I’m not writing Puritan essays, now am I?
So here, on this fine Saturday in September, I’ve outlined what I do to write my stories. It’s a combination of the best things I’ve found on the internet and in books, and I truly hope you’ve found it slightly useful and come back to it for advice when NaNoWriMo begins to rear its ugly head in your life.
Until then, so long, and have fun writing.