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Monday, October 21, 2013

The 10-Minute Plotting Trick You Need Right Now

So you’re sitting down to work on your next (or first) novel when it suddenly hits you: your plot isnt working, youre bored, and/or you’ve got no idea what’s supposed to happen next. What do you do when a story is falling flat?

Whether you are a careful plotter or a happy pantser, this happens to every writer eventually. And let’s face it, it can really deflate your word count (not to mention your enthusiasm). Let me share a simple trick I like to use that I call Hit Point Outlining.

Label a blank document with numbers 1 through 10, or one for as many chapters as you think the story will have. Don’t worry about getting this exact. You can add/subtract later. Beside each number, you’re going to list the main “hit point” for that chapter, meaning the main conflict/obstacle/excitement that will drive events. Every chapter must have at least one. Right? Right.

The first and last chapters tend to be easiest, so do them now. Go down to #10 and jot a quick sentence summarizing the ending you’re visualizing. (If you’re a strict pantser, you may have no idea what this is yet. That’s okay—save this step for later.) Now do the same for #1, remembering to focus only on the “hit point”. For instance, instead of saying “Johnny drives to his new job, meets the budget-conscious boss, and breaks the new $20k copy machine,” skip right to “Johnny breaks the $20k copy machine his first day on the job”.
A "Hit Point" outline I did using Scrivener

Go to #2 and write just the hit point of the next chapter. Then move on to #3. At some point, your ending will either hit you if it hasn’t already, or else you may think up something better. Add it beside the last number. Just before that, write up the “hit point” that will become the book’s big climatic moment. (For some, this big moment WILL be in the final chapter, with a scene break for the denouement. That works too.)

You may find yourself coming up with more than one “hit point” per chapter. That’s fine! Add them. If along the way you realize you need more wiggle room to get from one conflict to the next, go ahead and insert in-between chapters. At some point, your list will meet in the middle, and you’ll have your completed Hit Point outline. Congratulations! I can generally get a ten-hit-point list done in about ten minutes, give or take.

While this may be a far quicker outlining method than the First this happens-then that-then another-and after those method, but this is a powerful tool. What this type of outline does is create a highlights-only overview to ensure every chapter drives plot and generates interest. It aids pacing greatly as well, because you’ll be able to see at a glance where the highs and lows are. Where too many lows string together, adjustments may be in order. I also find this way offers a better guide map for crafting than some other outline tricks I (still) use, since this focuses on where a chapter needs to wind up rather than how it should start out out. Oh, and did I mention you can also...

Use Hit-Point Outlining to Fix a Finished Manuscript!

Incidentally, this is a great trick to use after the fact on a troublesome draft you’re editing. If the completed book seems boring, flat, or otherwise questionable, fill out a Hit Point outline for it. This may reveal enough about the overall plot to identify the right spots you need to shuffle, add conflict to, or otherwise jazz up.

Happy plotting!

On Mondays, I gab about pretty much whatever’s on my mind! For more gab, please join me on Twitter. I love talking to people!

J. Rose Allister is the author of more than twenty-five books, primarily romance and erotic romance. A former editor and submissions director, she now works as a mild-mannered hospital secretary by day, naughty writer by night.

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