Guest Post: Plotting Your Story

There are many ways to plot or plan out your story.

Photo by Heather Demetrios-Fehst

Photo by Heather Demetrios-Fehst

There are those who loathe the mere mention of the word “plan.” These writers saddle up their yak, swig down a healthy dose of goat rum and head out on the trail, determined to see where the road takes them.

Some enlist NASA to construct elaborate charts and complex calculus equations to create their entire story structure. No surprises, no room for miscalculation.

And, of course, there are a zillion in-betweens. What I’m offering, is a flexible method of looking at where your story has been and where it is going. This is not my invention, nor is it mine alone. I’m just sharing. And I call it….wait for it…..wait. for. it….


Get yourself a bunch of index cards, majority of one color with 10 of one other color. For example, I use white cards because they are easier to write on/read, and 10 blue cards.

In order to give yourself a destination, and some roadside way stations, you are going to break the story up into quartiles. Otherwise, there’s a darn good chance that you are going to steer your yak into a ditch and lose your story in a goat-rum induced delirium.

This is where you use the colored index cards. Lay them out thusly…(and what’s great with index cards is that you can lay them out on the floor, the dining room table, the deck of your yacht, your wall, your neighbor’s wall…)

Quartile 1:

  • Inciting Incident – Kicks the story off
  • First Plot Point  – The Point of No Return – Big jolt, creates the narrative journey. This is where the core of your story is.

Quartile 2:

  • Reaction to First Plot Point
  • Pinch Point – Concrete reminder of antagonistic forces at work
  • Second Plot Point – Midpoint of story; major twist

Quartile 3:

  • Reaction to Second Plot Point – Protag becomes proactive vs. reactive
  • Pinch Point
  • Third Plot Point – Twist; set up the climax

Quartile 4:

  • Climax
  • Resolution

Now…don’t panic. It is ok to NOT have these answers yet, or any idea of what that scene is going to entail. I’ll save scene dissection and understanding for another post (and I lectured on understanding the quintessence of your scene, and building your story scene by scene, for my graduate lecture at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, in July). For now, just write on the card what its purpose is (so you know where it goes in the overall arc). If you have sketchy ideas, put them on the card. These are your mile markers.

Then, using your main stack of index cards, you begin to layout scenes. Each scene is a card. Whatever gets you from one “blue” card to the next, allowing cause and effect to move the story. If this, then this…Don’t feel like you have to know them all right now. Just place those scenes you do know and as you begin to write, as you begin to look at how the story is progressing, you can add or delete as needed.

That is the beauty of the index cards. You can move them around. It gives you a flexible visual layout and allows you to play with the progression.

I like to think of them as lily pads, floating on the pond that is your story.

Each scene allows your reader to walk across the surface of your story and reach the far bank. Give your readers a purposeful path.

Headshot JoeJoe McGee is a children’s book author from southern New Jersey. He is a graduate of the Rowan University Master’s Writing Program and The Vermont College of Fine Arts Master’s of Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults program. Joe is a former airborne Army officer, the father of three young boys, and a writing instructor at Rowan University. His debut picture book, PEANUT BUTTER & BRAINS is forthcoming from Abrams (2015). He is currently working on a middle-grade novel and several picture book revisions.




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15 responses to “Guest Post: Plotting Your Story

  1. I love the “don’t panic” reminder! Thanks for these great suggestions. I recently posted a picture on Twitter of all my chapters spread out over the living room floor in stacks and my tiny dog “helping” make sure they were in the right order… 😉

  2. Thank you! I recently attempted a software tool, to help me plan my current WIP. Disaster – at least for me. I know others who are wild about it. I like the idea of actually touching the index cards and moving them around. Doesn’t feel like as much of a commitment with this type of flexibility; therefore, revision feels more like “play.”

    • Play is a great way to put it! It should be fun, it CAN be playful….it should definitely not be stressful (although sometimes that’s unavoidable, but we can do what we can to alleviate that). And yes, that tactile interaction with the cards is huge! Thanks for your reply. 🙂

  3. Nice formula layout – thanks!

    • You are very welcome! I think it gives a healthy mix of basic structure with enough wiggle room for discovery and exploration through writing. Hope it helps. 🙂

  4. Thanks for sharing this, Joe. Love it; saving it; gonna use it!

  5. Pete Magsig

    The wall of my office looks like that. There is a technique in software development (which I was an early pioneer of) that uses index cards for planning big projects, as opposed to stuffing your plan in documents and spreadsheets and planning software you can’t touch or play with. “Make it like Kindergarten” was what one of my gurus told me. Big cards. Big letters. Move it around. Look at it. Touch it. Tell a story with it… the technique is called Agile development and the cards are generally called Story Cards. It’s way more fun to do it with books than software, though… or so I’ve found.

    • Pete, I love that line, “Make it like Kindergarten”
      And yes, that visual/tactile engagement of the story can do so much. Like you said, “Move it around. Look at it. Touch it.” I think that’s a very important part of the process. Thanks for your comments/reply!

  6. Please go back in time & post this a year ago. That will save me a boatload of grief. Thanks in advance (or would it be thanks afterward since time travel is involved?).

    • Penni, I am currently working hard to develop my time travel device (As a Whovian, I can assure you that I would like nothing more). When it is completed, I will certainly see what I can do to post this a year ago. 😉 Thanks for reading!

  7. Great post, Joe. I’ve heard of laying out the quartiles and various plot points, but no one’s ever said I don’t need to know what they are yet! That’s where I always get stuck. So, thanks, I’ll give this a try. Today. Maybe it’ll get me off my yak and clear out the goat-rum delirium. PS I’m in the three young boys club too.

    • Hope it works/helps! And don’t get rid of the goat-rum entirely…you have three boys. Might need to keep it handy for sanity’s sake. 😛