Plotting workshop notes

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    Hi everyone, I did a really useful workshop with an Australian crime writer called PD Martin looking at different plotting techniques last weekend. It looked at different ways of approaching a good story structure (which fascinates me). I was familiar with some of the methods covered, as I’m sure you will be, and others less so, but what I found really valuable was the side by side comparison of different approaches. For me, some approaches eg the plotting chart and the Matthew Luhn approach could work best at an earlier stage of the project, while the more detailed approaches like the index cards and the worksheets would be useful at a later draft stage.

    She didn’t go into Dara Marks but there are definite overlays between the transformation arc and other approaches. Very very interesting to sit and mull and see where different approaches cross over and mirror each other.

    Anyway I thought it might be useful to post my notes to add to your own toolboxes, if relevant or interesting 🙂 They may come across as a bit garbled…

    Different plotting tools covered:
    – Donald Mass’s plot and structure tips
    – Index cards to plot a novel
    – The eight sequence structure
    – A plot chart
    – Matthew Luhn’s story ideas
    – Vogler’s quest/journey structure
    – Plotting worksheets – Save the Cat 15 beats
    – Annie Neugerbauer

    Plot: Basically the events and the order in which they take place. What happens and when. We need a good plot to keep people reading and to create intriguing pitch/book blurb (at the business end).

    1. Donald Maas

    5 basic plot elements:
    1. Sympathetic character who reader ‘knows’ (nb – this is the only plotting technique requiring a sympathetic character and I suspect a better description might be ‘relatable’ eg in the case of a dark protagonist).
    2. A problem arises for that character (conflict)
    3. Complications in the conflict – twists, turns, deepens, grows
    4. Climax
    5. Resolution

    “make conflict deeper, richer, more layered, more unavoidable and more inescapably true.” (pg 139 Writing the Breakout Novel)

    Plot techniques:

    Bridging Conflict:
    • Great opening line/para/first page/first 10 pages
    • Start the novel when events are already in motion
    • Series of small conflicts happen until main conflict comes into play

    The major conflict
    • Push your central problem as far as they can go
    • Push your characters as far as they can go
    • Make the impossible/improbable believable (eg Jurassic Park – the series of events that lead to the kids being trapped on the island are ridiculous if laid out in bullet points, but they are made acceptable within the context of the movie).

    • High moments
    • Turning points
    • Killing characters

    Structure your plot
    • Simple plot? Needs high stakes, complex characters and layered conflicts.
    • Twist/ revelation at very end – this needs to be a genuine surprise that is believeable within the story. A good eg is Sixth Sense – if you go back through the movie you see that nobody actually responds to him – and Crying Game.
    • ‘Frame story’ – starts at the end (story is ‘how did we get here?’)
    • Façade story – what at first seems real is shown to be untrue eg Gone Girl
    • Visitation story – ‘a stranger rides into town’
    • Quest or journey story

    2. Index cards

    Screenplays are very prescriptive – this can work well for some novels, esp genre or popular fiction such as action or thrillers.

    The classic three-act structure:
    Act 1 – set up, pg 1 – 30
    Act II – confrontation pg 30 -90 (‘sex at pg 60’)
    Act III – resolution pg 90 = 120 (120 pages = 120 minutes of screentime)

    Index cards
    Screenwriters and many novelists use index cards to notate each scene. One index card = one scene (which is action that takes place in one location).
    – a visual way of plotting
    – can use by itself
    – can use within 3-act structure
    – can use with eight-sequence structure
    – lots of software programmes that support it.

    She showed us her sample index cards which had the character, time and day and what happens in no more than a sentence.

    Using index cards with 3-Act structure:
    1. write out index cards for a novel or movie you’ve seen/read recently
    write out index cards for your WIP and re-order until scenes are in the best possible order.
    2. Create a story board with 4 sections (Act I, Act II part one, Act II part two, Act III) and arrange your index cards in the acts. Note your plots points (x2) and your midpoint (screenplays talk about ‘sex at 60’, which is the romance midpoint of the two characters getting together at page 60, ie halfway through a romance).

    Can also overlay index cards on an eight-sequence chart broken into 8 blocks (4 at top, 4 at bottom) – see next section.

    3. The eight-sequence structure
    Most movies can be broken up into eight 12-15 minutes sequences, each with a beginning, middle and end. Interestingly, dates from era when projectionists had to change reels during a movie – each reel contained about 12-15 mins of action.

    Act I
    First sequence – establishes central character and status quo, usually ends with an inciting incident.
    2nd sequence – sets up main predicament and usually ends with main character locked in predicament and propelled in new direction (plot point/turning point). Eg Dorothy lands in Oz
    Act II
    3rd sequence – main character faces first obstacle and stakes are raised. Attempts to solve problem of plot point event (eg meet Glinda the GW, D wants to return home, doesn’t understand new world. Receives ruby slippers. Must get to Emerald City, meet with tin man and lion and their quests).
    4th sequence – character fails in first attempt to solve problem and desperately tries other avenues. More obstacles faced to increase tension/action. Sequence ends in MIDPOINT (eg arriving at gates of Emerald City).
    Act II (cont)
    5th sequence – main character deals with ramifications of midpoint event. Sometimes new characters are introduced. This sequence often deals with subplots. (eg wizard won’t see them, then refuses request).
    6th sequence – main character tried all easy courses of action and directly addresses central dramatic question. The highest obstacle, the last alternative, the highest or lowest moment and the end of our main tension comes at this point (plot point). Then move into new tension. (Dorothy captured by monkeys, rescued but ends up with scarecrow on fire. D puts fire out by throwing water which melts the witch).
    Act III
    7th sequence – apparent solution to central dramatic question shows its problems here. Stakes are raised. Establishes third act tension. Twist comes at the end of this sequence or at the beginning of eighth sequence.
    8th sequence – Resolution. The tension from the plot points resolved, subplots resolved.

    NB – a novel might end up with more sequences – eg 12, 15, 20. Can still think of your novel as a collection of sequences.
    – Can use index cards and story grids to overlay act structure and sequence structure (check online for examples).

    4. Plot chart

    (I have a chart but I can’t copy it onto here! Its basically a wonky mountain leaning to the right with exposition down the bottom on the left, a straight line to trigger then rising action up to the summit, where the climax is, then falling action down the other side to resolution at the bottom.)

    Conflicts (rising action)
    Falling action to resolution

    Romeo and Juliet

    – Montague/Capulet brawl (the age old feud in action)
    – Romeo/Rosaline and Juliet/Paris (both seems taken with other people)

    – Capulet masquerade (introduces the two lovers)

    – Romeo and Juliet fall in love
    – Their identities are disclosed – internal conflict (family loyalty vs love – both are very important, high stakes)

    Rising action
    – Tybalt discovers Romeo at the masquerade
    – Secret marriage
    – Duel challenge (Mercutio is killed; Romeo kill Tybalt)
    – Consummation of R and J marriage
    – Announcement of Juliet and Paris marriage
    – Friar Lawrence’s plan (J to fake death)
    – Wedding between Paris and J brought forward
    – J’s apparent death
    – Message to R never delivered
    – R finds out about J’s ‘death’
    – Paris murdered

    – R kills himself
    – Friar Lawrence arrives but too late
    – J awakens and kills herself

    – Arrival of the prince, Capulets and Montagues
    – Truce
    – Peace restored to Verona

    5. Matthew Luhn’s story ideas

    What’s the story’s premise? Work this out by thinking of a ‘what if?’ scenario.
    – What if a boy discovers he has magical powers? (Harry Potter)
    – What if a serial killer can be trained on other serial killers? (Dexter – dark protagonist. Another good dark prot is in Breaking Bad).

    Work out your ‘what if?’ premise and what your controlling idea is (the story wrapped into one sentence). Eg the scariest monster in monster world risks everything not to scare kids. – Monsters Inc

    Elements of a story (Matthew Luhn):
    – Exposition (show the world your character’s big passion and their big flaw)
    – Inciting incident (this can take away their passion OR can give it to them – used eg of The Incredibles, job is their passion and then it was banned. Or in UP – his passion was his wife, his flaw was his timid nature. Inciting incident is when he hits a man with a cane).
    – Progressive complications (continually ramping things up, more obstacles)
    – Crisis (at this point the protagonist can choose to go back to the old version of herself, or can go forward as the new improved version of self)
    – Climax
    – Resolution

    Matthew Luhn in Action
    – Once upon a time…
    – And every day…
    – Until one day….
    – And because of that…
    – And because of that….
    – And because of that….
    – Until finally…
    – And since that day…
    – The moral of the story is…

    Plot points
    – Exposition (once upon a time and every day)
    – Inciting incident (until one day)
    – Progressive complications (and because of that). These can be either plot driven or character driven, eg relationships or more internal development.
    – Crisis (until finally)
    – Climax (until finally)
    – Resolution (and since that day – new status quo)
    – Theme (moral of the story)

    Matthew Luhn and acts

    Act I
    – Exposition
    – Inciting incident
    Act II
    – Progressive complications (biggest part of the story, the middle).
    Act III
    – Crisis
    – Climax
    – Resolution

    In a 400 page novel, the inciting incident is usually within the first 100 pages – if it’s later within these 100 pages, you need to have a strong bridging conflict).

    To avoid the “mid-sag’ it’s a good idea to plan progressive complications in advance.
    Real time scenes tend to be action or dialogue moving things forward (showing not telling)

    Quote – ‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights but you can make the whole trip that way.” – EL Doctorow

    6. Quest or journey stories – Christopher Vogler’s Hero’s Journey

    This is usually used for quest stories but elements are useful for other story types as well.

    Christopher Vogler’s stages are:
    1. The ordinary world
    2. Call to action/adventure
    3. Refusal of the call
    4. Meeting the mentor
    5. Crossing the first threshold (entering the ‘special world’) <end Act I>
    6. Tests, allies and enemies (or progressive complications)
    7. The inmost cave (often an internal retreat into self)
    8. The supreme ordeal <middle Act II>
    9. The reward (seizing the sword) – often a fight scene but can be internal
    10. The road back (returning to the ‘ordinary world’) <Act III> – this can be quite long
    11. Resurrection – the final and most dangerous showdown with death
    12. Return with the elixir

    Many novels can be seen as quests, even if not at first sight, so this structure is useful to think about – at least some elements of it or the archetypes.

    Vogler tracks the character’s arc against the hero’s journey:

    Character Arc Hero’s Journey
    1. Limited awareness of problems / Ordinary world
    2. Increased awareness / call to action/adventure
    3. Reluctance to change / refusal
    4. Overcoming reluctance / meeting with mentor
    5. Committing to change / Crossing the threshold
    6. Experimenting with first change / tests, allies, enemies
    7. Preparing for big change / Approach to inmost cave
    8. Attempting big change / Supreme ordeal
    9. Consequences (improvements/setbacks)/ Reward (seizing the sword)
    10. Rededication to change / The road back
    11. Final attempt at big change / Resurrection
    12. Final mastery of the problem / Return with the elixir

    Archetypes in Vogler’s analysis
    NB – characters can take multiple archetype roles and can also change roles.

    PD Marting also mentioned Also mentioned Blake Snyder (Save the Cat) and Annie Neugerbauer plotting approaches:

    7. Blake Snyder via Jessica Brody (Save the Cat for novelists) – 15 beats

    1. Opening image. 1st scene that grabs reader and tells them “this is gonna be good.” A ‘before snapshot’.
    2. Setup (1-10%). Introduces us to key players, showing us how they are before story starts. Typically multiple scenes and shows us what needs fixing.
    3. Theme stated. Somewhere in setup theme becomes clear – what the heroine really needs, often dropped in via a secondary character eg when Gail suggests they ditch everything and run away so they don’t have to live under Capitol’s rules anymore, heroine’s sister snarking ‘you don’t need a man to make you happy, girl’ etc. Also referred to as a life lesson.
    4. Catalyst. Something changes. At most a single scene with inciting incident. Prim’s name drawn, Harry’s invitation letter.
    5. Debate (10-20%). A handful of scenes where you protagonist decides whether to accept challenge or not. Ends Act I.
    6. Break In (start Act II) (20%). Single scene where lead character is motivated by what they want (not what they need) and accept the challenge. Decisive action beat that separates the status quo world of Act I with the new ‘upside down world’ in Act II.
    7. B story (22%). Scene that introduces something to help protagonist along the journey. This might come in Fun and Games as well (not always straight after Act II). This might be first hint of romance or intro of a side kick of some kind.,
    8. Fun and Games (20-50%). Hero moving forward – romance foaming or battling monsters. The middle section and the largest part of book – it will make or break your story. The ‘hook’ of the story or promise of the premise.
    9. Midpoint (50%). A single scene where something fairly major happesn to change direction of hero’s path. The hero for the first time sets out to find what they NEED rather than what they WANT. Typically a high or low point but it might be very temporary. Stakes will be raised and status quo broken eg sex for first time or big setback.
    10. Bad guys close in (50-7-%). A multiple scene section that tends to offset the midpoint. If that was a high, we head down and vice versa. While things are getting worse (or better) the hero realises that something fundamental needs to change. Regardless of up or down path, the hero’s deep-seated flaws (or internal bad guys) are closing in.
    11. All is lost (75%). Lowest point of novel. A single scene where we hit another catalyst. Looks like hero has been defeated and all is lost eg Ru dying in Katniss’ arms as Katniss sings to her. Pushes hero to rock bottom.
    12. Dark night of the soul. (75-80%). Reaction beat where the hero takes time to process everything that’s happened so far. Usually several scenes where the hero is lost and broken. Realising that what they wanted isn’t important after all. Moment just before true evolution and change (transformational moment). End Act II
    13. Break in 3. (80%). A single scene that starts Act III. ‘Aha!’ moment. The hero now knows what needs to be done and realises that everything up until this point has happened so they could do what comes next.
    14. Finale (80-99%). A multi scene section (typically the largest after Fun and Games) where the hero takes what they were in Act I, combines it with they learned in Act II, and uses it to follow a true path to change. Eg Katniss and Peeta working together.
    15. Finale image. Final lingering scene showing what things have become. Our happy ever after glimpse. Can be effective to mirror the opening scene beat 1. The ‘After” snapshot.

    NB – Google ’15 beats examples’ for lots of stories broken down in this way.

    And finally:

    8. Plotting Worksheet – Annie Neugerbauer

    Working title:




    Part One

    Inciting Incident:
    What happens to the protagonist to put her unavoidably in path of antagonist?

    Internal Initial Conflict (call to action):
    What does your protagonist most want? Why can’t she have it? How will she try and get it?

    External Initial Conflict (call to action):
    What does your protagonist want to accomplish/obtain (physically)? How will she go about it?

    Woven in Backstory/Vital Information:
    What happened before the inciting incident that we must know to understand the story?

    Part Two

    Internal Conflict (obstacles):
    Why is your protagonist hesitant to strive for her goals? What (emotionally) makes her falter?

    External Conflict (obstacles):
    What stands in the way of your protagonist’s goals? What will happen to her if she fails?

    Internal Higher Conflict (obstacles heighten):
    Why should your protagonist turn back now? Why doesn’t she? What’s at stake?

    External Higher Conflict (obstacles heighten):
    Who or what is trying to stop your antagonist? Why?

    Internal Highest Conflict (obstacles intensify):
    What makes your protagonist realise the unavoidable importance of her original goal? What gives it new meaning?

    External Highest Conflict (obstacles intensify):
    how does the antagonist get the best of your protagonist? What could make it worse? What
    happens to make her believe that there is no way to win?

    Internal Point of No Return (stakes):
    What happens to change your protagonist so that she’ll never be the same again?

    Darkest Hour:
    What is the worst possible thing that could happen to your protagonist?

    Turning Point:
    How does your protagonist realise she must continue to fight? How does she decide to risk everything? What new approach or idea has she come up with to battle on?

    Part Three

    Internal Climax:
    What does your protagonist realise at the crucial moment? What does she learn? Overcome?

    ↑ ↓(Preferably simultaneous)↑ ↓

    External Climax:
    How does your protagonist defeat your antagonist?

    Resolution (external):
    What does defeating the antagonist accomplish? How are things different?

    Character Growth (internal):
    How has your protagonist changed?

    • This topic was modified 3 years, 2 months ago by KazG. Reason: correction
    John S Alty

    How incredibly generous of you to share your notes in this way, KazG. Thank you.


    Thanks Kaz. I’m going to print this out and have a thorough read.


    This looks really interesting. Thanks for sharing, Kaz.


    These look amazing, Kaz, what a great workshop it must have been. Thank-you so much for sharing. That might be my day’s reading sorted out!!

    Philippa East

    WoW, @kazg, what comprehensive notes! These days, I love this story structure stuff. I’ve recently read “Into The Woods” by John Yorke. In one chapter, he compares lots of the different models of story structure, to show how they are all effectively trying to describe the same thing, just in slightly different ways. The trick (I think) is just finding the model that makes most sense to you.


    Thank you so, so much for sharing these notes. Much appreciated.


    you’re all very welcome and I’m glad if they’re useful 🙂 But I forgot to put index cards in! I’ve just added that now, point 2 after Donald Maas.

    Yes, that’s right @philippaeast – it’s very liberating to put all these approaches on the table and see that they all ‘work’ even though they’re different. It’s all there for the taking and what works for one writer may not work for another. But also, what works for one writer at one time with one WIP, may not be the best approach for another WIP – Philippa (the author/workshop leader) said she found that some of her books worked better with different approaches, because of the make-up of the plot, the pacing, whatever. Also, you could use different approaches at different stages within the same WIP. You could start early on with a basic form, such as Maas or the plot chart, and then move on to more detail as the work progresses. Or, start with Luhn premise and controlling idea and then if get stuck with the action play around with index cards. I find it all very freeing! In a lovely supported sort of way 🙂

    • This reply was modified 3 years, 2 months ago by KazG.
    • This reply was modified 3 years, 2 months ago by KazG.

    Many, many thanks for this Kaz. Multiple lightbulb moments. As Philippa says, it can make a big difference finding a model that works for you (and indeed, different ones might apply themselves better to different works). I’m trying to structure a novella at the moment, which is obviously somewhat different to a novel, and some of the more screen-focussed examples seem to fit that form well.


    Just brilliant notes.


    I’ve just printed out Annie Neugerbauer’s worksheet to see if it helps me tackle the next round of wip edits. 🙂

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