novella plotgrid

Apologies for last week, random life happened. But something else happened too: I finished the plotgrid for the novella I'm about to spend the next two weeks writing.

It's a technique I developed in the last few weeks of Odyssey to help myself find the weak points in my story. I have a terrible habit of skipping over problems in my head because I really like whatever story-moment or logic is going on, or because I've just found an easy way to get from point A to point B and I don't want to have to rethink it. The plotgrid shines a harsh searchlight on problems that I'm quietly ignoring.

There's no special software, the grid in the photo was made using excel, printed out on 14 A4 pages and then sticky-taped together. You can use any spreadsheeting software, you can even do it in a word processor with a table, or you can do it on a whiteboard or a giant piece of paper.

I usually prefer the ease-of-editing that software provides, because I insert rows and move things a lot when I'm working this out, but YMMV.

What a plot grid shows

I know you can't read the grid. That's on purpose, because this is a work-in-progress and I don't share the details of WIPs when I haven't written them yet. But the grid is very simple:

Each row represents a significant moment in the story. Because this is a novella, rather than a short story, each row represents a scene (which is why some of the rows are quite large--a lot happens in the scene). When I plotgrid out my short stories, each row typically represents a plot-relevant decision or action by the main character(s).

Then we have the columns, which look at what's happening in each of these moments from different angles. From left to right across the top, I have:

  • Scene number and location (just to easily track position in the time and place of the story.)
  • Scene summary
  • Plot events and character choices
  • Causal chain
  • Emotional logic
  • Internal conflict
  • External conflict
  • Stakes
  • Information setup
  • Theme

Some of these are really obvious, like the scene summary, and some are just housekeeping notes-to-self, like the time/space (scene number and location) and the information setup (stuff that has to be set up here because it's paid off later). The real meat of the plotgrid is the other columns.

Plot events and character choices

There's a common problem with fledgling writers where they have a great idea and a great world and cool stuff is happening... but it's all happening to the character. Or even worse, at them. The characters themselves are not driving the story forward, they're just reacting to it.

Reactive characters are, as a rule, much less interesting and involving, because they don't seem to have a goal, other than "make this stop happening and leave me alone". They don't want anything, they're not striving to achieve it, they're not taking actions to get it. One of the fastest ways to get a reader to identify with a character and tune into the story is to make the character want something they can't have yet. If stuff is just happening to a character, you lose that core involvement.

You can make a story about a character avoiding something, but they have to be taking steps to avoid it. So this column is where you look at your scene summary and you find what active choices the character is taking. What are they choosing to do. And keep a careful eye on whether all of those choices are "X happens so she does Y" - that's not likely an active character.

(Things do happen in a story that are not character actions and are perfectly fine. Typically, it's the inciting incident. That's why there's "plot events" in this column too. But you need to make sure your plot events don't outnumber your character actions. If this is a problem for you, I suggest splitting this into two columns, one for each, so you're forced to have real character action.)

Causal chain

Another common problem is that the events of the plot are not actually impacted by the character's actions. The classic example is Raiders of the Lost Arc--had Indy never become involved, the Nazi's would have opened the arc and been consumed anyway, so his actions actually had zero effect on the causal chain. 

But even worse is when this happens throughout your plot. You can have things "just happen" at the start of your story (though it's better if there's a reason for them, too). But if things keep "just happening" it starts to feel all too coincidental, and the reader loses interest. Worse, they feel like you've wasted their time, because if things just happen anyway, then what the character did had no meaning, they might as well just have sat around staring at their toes. The whole scene they just read has no actual impact on the story, no point, and no reason to be there unless something the character did in it has a consequence later on.

If things can just happen, it negates the character's influence on the story. It's no longer about them, it could be about anyone who just happened to be there. So their choices (see previous column) have consequences. They chose to do something earlier (either immediately before, or much earlier, or possibly before the story even started) and now it's made things worse.

So, this column is: why is this scene happening, what actions did the character do that resulted in these events?

Emotional logic and internal conflict

Characters have reasons for the choices they make. And I'm not talking about the reasons that they'd tell a journalist, here I'm talking about the reasons they don't tell anyone, often not even themselves. The selfish, secret reasons, the reasons that make sense to their neurosis that they'd never admit out loud. "I did it so people would pay attention to me", "Because I wanted him to feel like he'd screwed up", "Because if she leaves me I will die". This is the emotional logic, the non-rational reason they made the decision. How is this action supporting who they think they are, in the state they feel they're in? 

Internal conflict is the other side of that coin: how are they getting in their own way, here? Internal conflict is the dog with two bones: he wants both, but he has to choose only one. Sometimes it's two good things (choosing in a love triangle), or it might be a good thing vs avoiding a bad thing (he wants the girl, but he's frightened of rejection), or two choosing the lesser of two bad things (be honest and hurt the girl, or keep lying and feel like a cheat), or any combination where it's a difficult choice.

If this is an important moment in the story, you really need both. You need emotional logic to make sure the character is acting in-character (or appropriately out-of-character for the moment) and internal conflict to make sure this is a difficult moment.

External conflict and stakes

At the same time, generally the world and the plot are against them. What's trying to stop them getting what they want right now? How is the rest of the world trying to defeat them? The bully's going to hit him, the principle's given him detention and his Dad has grounded him for a month. Things he's going to have to overcome to get the girl. (I'm not writing a high-school drama, but the examples just write themselves here).

Stakes are what the character stands to lose (or win, but more importantly lose, because we like torturing our characters). What's at stake? If he doesn't meet her after school to explain things, she'll never speak to him again and he'll lose her forever.

Like internal conflict, if this is an important moment in the story, something should be making it difficult, and they should stand to lose something if they fail.


And the final tie-in. Your mileage may vary with this, but I'm a very analytical person and I love layers in my stories, and this is where theme comes in. This column is essentially a check-off of how the other columns are supporting my theme. If my theme is Love Requires Courage, then anything my character does that does not follow that theme (chickening out) should be punished by the plot. He's not learning the lesson he needs to learn, so bad things happen. Anything he does that is courageous should be rewarded, even if it's not rewarding him with the girl he wants (yet). (Maybe he impresses someone else and gets an ally in his quest).

If there are areas where I really can't find how it echoes the theme, then those sections of story are going to feel "off-message". The point of the story will feel lost, and readers will get a vague sense of not really knowing why that scene was there. So if I can't answer this column, I need to take a hard look and what's happening, and what choices the character could make instead that would support the theme.

Colour and structure

The colour-coding isn't strictly essential, as a side-note, but I'm a very colour-oriented person and it helps me to see the breakdown of major plot moments and when they fall. Here, the first two orangey rows are my first act. My second act, which is very large, and actually split into sub-acts to keep it structured, is the whole purple section from the third row down to the blue (the pink row in between is a kind of 'transition' scene, and technically belongs at the start of Act 2, but isn't really part of the Act 2 journey). The blue is the Act 3.

Side-note to the side-note: I've been asked by a few people how I did the colours in Excel. Near the direct formatting buttons (the B, I, U buttons you click to make something bold, italic, underline, etc) there's a button with a pouring paint bucket. This controls the cell background colour. The 'A' button next to it is for the font colour. Go nuts. 

When you have holes and problems

Solving problems depends on which column your hole is in, but most of them come back to:

  • Knowing your character better, to better understand their emotional logic, internal conflict or their choices.
  • Making things harder for the character by making more stuff come back to bite them (causal chain and external conflict).
  • Knowing what you want to say, to better understand your theme and character arc.

So, there you have it. Plotgrid 101.

Tags: Writing: Character,Plot,Outlining
Topics: Writing