Jul 9, 2012

Structure Complicated Plots

I posted about epic fantasy and its need for multiple plot lines, you can find tips on Creating Multiple Plot Lines here. It's one thing to come up with lots of ideas for multiple plots, but this can become confusing when you try to outline or compose your epic fantasy novel. Here's some different ways to keep track of and add structure to complicated plots:

Create a time-line for the events of the story, beginning just before the inciting incident and ending just after the final climax. Now using the same time frame for each main character, plot out their story events on that time line. Next you will compare each character's events. You want everyone's story to come together or peak at the same major climax point, but the events that confront them on their individual journeys could happen at differing times. This way, you don't get too much overlap or repetition and keep a constant pace with tension rising right up to the big climax.

Index cards
Many authors use index cards to plot out their novels. Write a short synopsis of every scene on the cards, labeling each card to identify which main character it relates to (some will relate to multiple characters when their paths cross). Then lay the story lines out in order, in rows of character plots. This way you can coordinate when they should cross, move scenes around to suit and identify unnecessary or repeated scenes.

Colour coding
A very simple idea, but whichever structure style you prefer, assign different colours to the main characters, it will make it easier and quicker to identify each plot line.

Story arcs
You'll probably already know about story arcs, this is the path your character takes and the changes to your character throughout the story. Almost always, a character should grow and learn through their experience. You can chart a character's story arc similar to the time line, the overall arch will be your leading protagonist, but they may have other characters they meet along the way, and those characters will have their own arcs. Some might stay to the end of the story and others might come and go (or just go, if they die). By using a different colour for each character, your story arcs might look something like this (apologies, I found a great example online, and then couldn't find it again when I was ready to do this blog):

Mix up the structures
Some of your characters may be on a hero's quest, or some might be experiencing growing tension until the climax, other characters might follow the classic three act structure. You can mix it up, and probably keeping track of their comings and going in the time-line will be enough.

I've also been reading James Scott Bell's Plot and Structure, and he suggests when writing complex plots you understand your theme, which can emerge from your characters' struggles. He also says that in an epic plot, the lead's (protagonist) objective may change to suit the stage of their quest, for example, in the beginning of the story they might want to fulfill some personal desire, during the middle they might be just trying to survive, but in a later stage/setting, their objective might be more selfless and they may set out to save someone (like a princess from a dragon). If you have two or more parallel plots (two characters, each with their own quest and objective), cut back and forth as each character heads towards the shared climax.

My study into writing fantasy fiction continues. To help on my quest, the kids and I visited a local games store and for the very first time in my life, I have now played:
It totally baffled me. 

As well as the two instruction manuals included, we were talked into taking another 300+ page manual on character creations. Turns out, there's lots of maths and recording to this game. Day two of instruction reading, and I was still not any closer to understanding the game so we could play. I then paid a nice sum to subscribe to the online community. Still confused. Matilda, who is all of eleven, got frustrated with me, sat down and read through the thinest manual and quickly became our Dragon Master. She has been talking me through. What I have discovered, is it's a great way to create novel plots and... I really like squishing goblins.


  1. Good advice. I don't plot rough drafts, but I do try to check for character arcs, plot, etc, during revision. I just finished Save the Cat. I'd like to read Plot and Structure next.

  2. A great program for doing this on the computer is Storybook -- it has a plot line watcher you can color code, as well as a "Your characters were here when" function that lets you match characters to the scenes (and their locations) and show it off in an easy to follow graph.

    I haven't found a program yet that is quite as extensive, though you have to use earth calendars for it. (But that is generally an easy convert if you know the number of days in your calendar cycle.)

  3. Charmaine,
    Good stuff. I've used coloured index cards, which functions well for the pov character I'm writing about each time.

  4. Great tips! I've definitely used index cards to keep me going in the story, I find them more flexible than, say, a typed up outline. Though I hadn't thought about highlighting them for different story arcs, which is a pretty nifty idea.
    Some Dark Romantic

  5. Excellent tips. I use a spreadsheet, but I need better organization when using Excel. I've been paying closer attention to arcs in my WIPs.

  6. :) I love that Matilda is the Master.

  7. I've never played Dungeons and Dragons. I know I'd be just as baffled and I don't have a young kid around to teach me. :)
    I use a three-act structure to write with. The index cards with their color coding intrigue me.

  8. Thanks for all the helpful info. I especially like Scott's point about the protagonist's main goal changing throughout the story.

    Be well.

  9. Excellent post Charmaine. Great advice. I love that Plot and Structure how to book. Great stuff.


  10. All good advice Charmaine. I too have read all of those books and the best thing I can say is that you have to do what feels right to you and what seems to get you where you want to go. It can all be a tad confusing...

  11. That's why I haven't tackled fantasy yet, although science fiction requires a lot of planning as well.
    And welcome to the happy geek world of D&D!

  12. Too funny! If in doubt with a game ALWAYS get a kid to help you :) I have to confess I've never played it either :)

  13. Great tips!

    I've heard a lot of good things about Plot & Structure; it sounds like a useful resource.

  14. I don't write epic fantasy, so I don't have too many story lines going on at once (thank goodness) but I still really like the idea of the note cards and color coding things.


  15. I write very complicated plots. Usually I have two main plot lines each with their own sets of characters. So, I use all the handy tools Scrivener has to offer. I use timelines and color coding.

  16. Glad to see how you advise also mixing the structures. For a downright pantser, I tear my hair out when I write myself down a dead-end, but I'm training myself to be more organized. Thank you for a great post.

  17. Hi Charmaine--great post! I have been researching plot techniques and I think your advice will work for me. I'll have to take some notes and try some for my next novel.
    So far, I've been starting with two chapters and plotting from there. I never know what my story is :-) It's fun but stressful.

  18. Great advice... I especially like the timeline.. am going to try it on my next story and see if it works for me:)

  19. Thanks for all of the great tips! These will be essential to helping me stay on task. You were adventurous playing Dungeons and Dragons! Julie

  20. Great stuff . . . was really LOL at the last one:-) Leave it to impatient kids to show us how to things~cheers, mate! Thanks for following my blog!

  21. Had to laugh at the D & D story... never played but it is VERY complicated from what I hear.

    I've kind of turned into a pantser recently, but I understand the usefulness of all these things for keeping track of stuff. I think index cards and timelines will come in handy during revisions.

  22. I've played D&D--or versions of it--but I never understood the rules. I'd roll the dice and have to ask everyone, "Did I slay the monster?" hahaha

    I love James Scott Bell's Plot and Structure. It's an excellent book.

  23. These are great tips. I've heard of the index cards and color coding before. They sound like great ideas if they don't slow down the progress. I might have to try.