Last year, in an effort to be more of a plotter than a pantser (pantser. Noun. Someone who writes by the seat of her pants, using no outline), I read SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder. This book is intended for screenwriters, but with a little imagination and a bit of adaptation, can be used by novel writers, as well.
Except for me.
However, I discovered that one of my already tried-and-tested revision tools could be merged with Snyder’s suggestions which could help me to tighten my story and make sense of the chaos.
I’ve been using Snyder’s system of writing each scene on an index card for a while. It gives me a solid and specific reason to break my entire novel down into scenes — and analyze them — as well as a tactile and visual layout of how the plot progresses. And from there, anything can happen.
This is what each index card looks like:
- Each card must contain one scene and one scene only. And it will be easier to find within your manuscript if you have the page number at the top!
- List every character in the scene. I like to use a different color for each character, so when it comes time to lay out the cards on my story board, I have an immediate visual reference of where every character is – and when one goes missing.
- A short summary of the scene as a reference for the writer only. No one else needs to know what you’re talking about as long as you know.
- Every scene should have a conflict or source of tension. If it doesn’t, flag it, so you can add one. Or delete it entirely. Ouch.
Once I have an index card allocated for every scene in the novel, I lay them out on a story board (thanks, Mr. Snyder, for the term!) according to the three-act structure. Talia has a fantastic summation of the three-act structure in her Sequences and Setpieces post (http://yamuses.blogspot.com/2011/05/sequences-and-setpieces.html) on the YA Muses blog.
Each line on a story board is an Act (or half-act – Act II gets two lines, because the bulk of your story will be told in it.) Snyder dictates a certain number of scenes (and a certain number of pages!) for each act, but remember – he’s talking to screenwriters. We novel writers get a little wiggle room. ACT I may have nine scenes and 60 pages, and ACT III eleven scenes and 55 pages. As long as each scene builds to the turning point or resolution, you’re doing fine. We’re dealing with words, not numbers – it’s the words that matter, no the page count. (Of course, if you have more than – say – twenty scenes and 150 pages in one of your story board rows, you might look at reorganizing and trimming.)
Once I’ve laid everything out, my story board will then look something like this:
Notice the gaping hole in the second half of Act Two. This is because I pantsed my way through my first draft and jumped directly to the climax from the crisis. Having the story board to help me visualize this proved to be invaluable. By using this tool, I was able to move scenes around, figure out where to add new ones, and discover which characters went missing for chapters at a time. I may not be able to plot in my first drafts, but I can certainly work through it in a revision. And even if you are not a pantser by nature, being able to analyze each scene and its position in the story can be remarkably useful.
I’ve been told that there are ways to create index cards and storyboard directly on your computer using software like Scrivener, but I have never tried it and cannot offer any advice. I know that I am a tactile and visual learner, so being able to move the cards around physically truly makes me work better. If you’re more of a computer person and have used such tools, please feel free to add to the conversation. Revision isn’t a static thing – it’s a learning process. Every single time. And we all have more to learn.
I hope this helps! If you need more information on story boards, the three act structure or turning points, be sure to read Snyder’s book, but also take a look at THE WRITER’S JOURNEY by Christopher Vogler and PLOT AND STRUCTURE by James Scott Bell. Whether you are a pantser or a plotter, they will help you look at your novel more analytically, see what you’re doing right and what you’re missing, and give you the tools and the inspiration to move your revision forward.
Good luck, my friends!
Katy Longshore is the author of GILT, a story of friendship and betrayal set in the court of Henry VIII. She has spent time as a cake decorator, freelance travel writer, travel agent, coffee shop barista, bookseller, ship’s steward, construction company contracts manager and Montessori preschool teacher, but has finally found her true calling. After five years in England, she now lives in northern California with three British citizens and one expatriate dog.
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GILT by Katy Longshore: When Kitty Tylney’s best friend, Catherine Howard, worms her way into King Henry VIII’s heart and brings Kitty to court, she’s thrust into a world filled with fabulous gowns, sparkling jewels, and elegant parties. No longer stuck in Cat’s shadow, Kitty’s now caught between two men–the object of her affection and the object of her desire. But court is also full of secrets, lies, and sordid affairs, and as Kitty witnesses Cat’s meteoric rise and fall as queen, she must figure out how to keep being a good friend when the price of telling the truth could literally be her head.