Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor

Plotting for the Organic Writer

Peggy Kurilla
©2003, Peggy Kurilla  

uthors differ on whether to use outlines or not.  S.L. Viehl has created plotting templates.  Holly Lisle uses a one-sentence-per-scene outline.  Diana Gabaldon writes a bunch of scenes in whatever order comes to mind and then stitches them together into a coherent whole. 

None of these methods have worked for me. I've always had difficulty outlining something before I began to write it.  By the time I was done with the outline, no matter how scanty that outline was, I felt like I'd already told the story.  What was the point of retelling it?  And writing with no outline at all was much like the time I tried to make spaghetti sauce without measuring spices—a waste of time on something that turned out unpalatable.

For years, I never completed anything longer than a 120-page screenplay.  That seems to be the limit to what I can carry complete in my head at one time.  While I like them, I don't want to exclusively write screenplays.  I needed some method of plotting or outlining for longer works that wouldn't trigger the "You've already written that" reflex in my brain.  Truthfully, I didn't think there was such a system.

Then I went to Andi Ward's plotting class—and suddenly, I knew how to outline, at least for me.  This is what I've used for my NaNoWriMo Novel, and it's worked so well that I suspect I'll be using it for a while.

Andi only deals with five scenes in her class.  (Okay, I should state here that this is how I understood her class; if this isn't what she intended, the misunderstanding is mine.)  Those scenes are the commitment, three crisis points within the story, and the resolution.  She even provides a spiffy diagram of how those scenes relate to each other—which I promptly copied onto 16x20" paper in thick black marker.  Next to each point on her diagram, I jotted a note for what would happen in my novel, i.e. for Commitment, "David decides he must save Donna from the monster she's dating."  For Crisis Point #3, I noted, "Doctor figures out how to 'ground' David; David is rendered corporeal and therefore vulnerable."  I know this doesn't mean anything to anyone but me; I offer it only as a sample of how little I needed to note down.

With the completed diagram on the wall near my computer, I started writing.  When I came to a plot snag, I turned to that diagram and looked only at the notes for the prior plot point and the upcoming plot point.  What had to happen after Crisis Point #1 to ensure that Crisis Point #2 (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) happened?  And how did what I had already written lead to that point?  It was a kind of reverse engineering, almost the opposite of the If-Then plotting that a scene by scene outline entails.

I found that when I plotted one section in some detail, most of the next section unfolded without much effort, because the path up to and beyond the next plot point was laid out for me.  By focusing on such a small section of the story at a time (how do I convince Donna that Todd is, in fact, not the good guy he appears to be?), I never felt as if I had already told the whole story.  Instead, I was problem-solving at the tactical level rather than the strategic level.  I'm not finished with the draft of the NaNoWriMo Novel yet, but I have made consistent progress on it, and faster progress (even after NaNoWriMo officially ended) than I have on any other novel-length project I've attempted.  This seems to work with my thinking patterns better than other methods, and I offer a summary of the method in hopes that it will work for you, too.


Create a broad outline of your story.  Note only the beginning (commitment), points of rising/changing tension (crisis points) and the outcome (resolution).  These are your touchstones or signposts to keep you going in the right direction.

Start writing.

Solve immediate problems as they occur, with reference to your five-point outline.

This method offers, to me, a blend of the planning ahead that is necessary for completing a novel-length work and the freedom of the organic writer's intuitive writing.  I have the overall plan on paper, but the details in between are still up for grabs.  It may not work for epic trilogies, but for single books it may be worth a try.