As I’m finishing the first revision of my work in progress, I’ve stumbled upon the concept of plot charting — which I wish I had stumbled upon before I started writing this novel in the first place.
Plot charting isn’t exactly a new concept. Most of us are familiar with Aristotelian three-act narrative structure from grade school. Or used to be, until we escaped school and promptly forgot about it.
In 1949, though, Joseph Campbell published The Hero With a Thousand Faces, a fascinating analysis of Jungian archetypes and how they fit into a narrative monomyth — that is, a single plot structure that’s common to all of our stories.
Campbell’s work mostly languished in academic circles until it got a ringing endorsement from one George Lucas (yes, that George Lucas), who cited Hero as one of his most important influences for Star Wars. Thus was born an amazing PBS series (The Power of Myth with Campbell and Bill Moyers, filmed on Lucas’s ranch), an edition of Hero with Luke Skywalker on the cover (really), and a lot more interest in plot structure formulas from professional storytellers, mainly screenwriters.
Screenwriters saw the promise in plot charting quickly. But it took, it seems, a book called Save the Cat by Blake Snyder to get the attention of fiction writers. Even though Save the Cat is written for screenwriters, its accessible style and distillation of Campbell’s monomyth into a formula for selling screenplays has won it a lot of fans among fiction (and even nonfiction) writers.
The basic idea is that, as with the hero monomyth, a story can be charted out using the same structure. Certain common events — “beats,” in film jargon — happen in every narrative, in the same order, and take up the same proportion of the total story. For example, every story has a “dark night of the soul” beat, a moment when things are at their worst for the hero.
The attraction for fiction writers is obvious: a universal template for every plot. Not only that, but a template you can use before you even start writing. Such a tool has the possibility of saving scads of revision time, and might even help you avoid pursuing narrative dead ends — or entire story ideas to begin with. Got a beat without any scenes? That’s where your plot hole is. Got most of your scenes in Act I and hardly any in Act II? Your mission is clear.
If this idea sounds attractive to you, the best thing is to buy Snyder’s book. But you can get a good basic rundown of the beats on Tim Stout’s website. Jami Gold has put together several helpful worksheets for plotting using different charting systems. If you need a refresher on Campbell, here’s a good place to start. You can even get a template for Scrivener that follows Snyder’s beats.
Feeling a little unsure about cramming your creative process into a generic plot structure? Ken Levine shares your concerns. And he makes some good points. As fascinated as I am by plot charting right now — even as someone who’s going to use it as a revision tool — I agree with Levine on two points.
First, plot charting can be a great place to start — but don’t feel so constrained that you stop listening to your muse. And second, every great plot starts with a great character: someone who’s conflicted, wants something badly that’s hard to get, has the ability to act, and embodies potential for meaningful change. If you start with a character like that, your story will largely take care of itself.