The Plot Whisperer: Benefits of Plotting in Scenes

I am triple-fudge-sundae excited to welcome Martha Alderson (aka The PLOT WHISPERER) to The Bookshelf Muse as she sends The Plot Whisperer Workbook: Step-by-Step Exercises to Help You Create Compelling Stories off into the world. This workbook is a companion to the incredibly popular The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master. Martha as you may remember, was featured as a Writing Hero not too long ago.  Here’s Martha on the Benefits of Plotting in Scenes!

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Some writers write by the seat of their pants. Others prefer to pre-plot first, write after. Some write and plot, write and plot, write and plot. Eventually, every writer who sticks with her writing achieves a draft or a partial made up of scenes. The leap from the generative stage of writing scenes to the analytical stage of analyzing what you have written often leave writers frozen or in a tangled heap.

Analyze Your Plot by Scenes

In a scene a character acts and reacts to people, places, and events. In this respect, scenes are the basic building blocks of your story. But, as with any structure, if you have the wrong scenes or if they’re assembled incorrectly, your story can—unexpectedly—collapse.

Before you can create a visual map for analyzing critical story information, presentation flow, and the overall story sequence, you have to have scenes. Likely, you have heard the writer’s mantra: “Show, don’t tell.” Summary tells. Scenes show.

I use the following partial scene from the middle-grade Newbery Medal-winning novel Holes by Louis Sachar, an example for analyzing a scene from my workbook.

Stanley Yelnats has been unjustly sent to a boys’ detention center where the boys build character by spending all day, every day, digging holes exactly five feet wide and five feet deep.

[Stanley] glanced helplessly at his shovel. It wasn’t defective. He was defective.

He noticed a thin crack in the ground. He placed the point of his shovel on top of it, then jumped on the back of the back with both feet.

The shovel sank a few inches into the packed earth.

He smiled. For once in his life it paid to be overweight.

He leaned on the shaft and pried up his first shovelful of dirt, then dumped it off to the side.

Only ten million more to go, he thought, then placed the shovel back in the crack and jumped on it again.

 He unearthed several shovelfuls of dirt in this manner, before it occurred to him that he was dumping his dirt within the perimeter of his hole. He laid his shovel flat on the ground and marked where the edges of his hole would be. Five feet was awfully wide.

 He moved the dirt he’d already dug up out past his mark. He took a drink from his canteen. Five feet would be awfully deep, too.


Scenes that Show Emotion

This scene, as do all good scenes, shows moment-to-moment action in real story time. The reader experiences the work as Stanley does it and learns about the protagonist, not because the author tells us but because he shows us through Stanley’s actions. We learn the protagonist is overweight and can laugh at himself. We learn he has staying power because rather than give up and suffer the consequences he finds a way to break the earth open. We learn he is bright in that he quickly realizes his mistake in dumping the dirt within the perimeter of his hole and immediately rectifies the situation.

The details of Stanley jumping on the back of the shovel blade with both feet, leaning on the shaft, measuring the hole, and taking a drink from his canteen draw the reader into the moment of the scene. The reader attaches viscerally to the fleeting happiness Stanley feels at being heavy enough to sink the shovel a few inches into the packed earth, his despondency when he understands how wide five feet actually is, his momentary success in prying up his first shovelful, and his disappointment in counting “only ten million more to go”––not to mention his despair when he acknowledges the full magnitude of the task in front of him.

Create a List of Scenes

A partial list of scenes from the beginning of the award-winning middle grade novel Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan is an example used in the companion Plot Whisperer Workbook.

The novel is set during the time of the American Great Depression and is about a young Mexican girl, who’s sense of self is stripped when she and her mother are forced to leave their life of privilege in Mexico for an uncertain future in the United States as farm workers.

In analyzing Esperanza Rising, create a list of the novel’s scenes (we only went a couple of scenes past the one-quarter mark and into the middle of the story). For your exercise, list your scenes all the way to the end of your story. Shorten scene titles while still capturing the major plot elements of the scene. Each scene title should take up no more than one line of the following scene list.

It’s not necessary for you to have written all (or any) of your scenes. Just list scene ideas in the order in which you envision them landing in your story. If your book is made up of many small chapters, each one encapsulating a scene, list events in the story by chapter.

The trick to this exercise is not to see how many scenes you can list. Instead, you want to identify and list scenes that advance the story on a multitude of plot levels.

Remember that it may take you several tries before you get the list in an order that satisfies you. For this reason, I recommend using a pencil instead of a pen, so you can erase parts of your first ordering and move scenes around. Also remember that it’s often a good idea to try out this exercise using scenes from a favorite book. The more you practice this analysis and construction, the better you’ll get at it.

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Martha Alderson, aka the Plot Whisperer, is the author of The Plot Whisperer Workbook: Step-by-Step Exercises to Help You Create Compelling Stories
– a companion workbook to The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master (Adams Media, a division of F + W Media). She has also written Blockbuster Plots: Pure & Simple (Illusion Press) and several ebooks and dvds on plot, including a dvd for writers of children’s and young adult novels. As an international plot consultant for writers, Martha’s clients include best-selling authors, New York editors, and Hollywood movie directors. She teaches plot workshops to novelists, memoirists, and screenwriters privately, at plot retreats, through Learning Annex, RWA, SCBWI, CWC chapter meetings, at writers’ conferences and Writers Store where she takes writers beyond the words and into the very heart of a story.

As the founder of Blockbuster Plots for Writers  and December, International Plot Writing Month, Martha manages an award-winning blog for writers, awarded by Writers Digest 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012. Her vlog, How Do I Plot a Novel, Memoir, Screenplay covers 27 steps to plotting your story from beginning to end. Find her on Twitter, and if you like, add her workbook to your Goodreads list!

 

About BECCA PUGLISI

Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.
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Bratty
8 years ago

As a pantster I am always looking for a good explanation of how to plot. I see people tout story boards but they just leave me cold. I see people use character worksheets but they make my muse freeze. I’m looking for a good understanding of how a plot works, a real reason to use it, so that my brain will not feel like it’s just trying to conform without knowing why.

Traci Kenworth
8 years ago

Sounds like a promising book!! I do my books scene-by-scene and try to link them like a puzzle. This method works quite well for me. I’d be interested to see what this book could add to my arsenal of writing weapons.

Erica
8 years ago

I now plot scenes whereas before I would “pants” it. It feels good to have a roadmap and it still allows room for freedom but I would like to learn more tips to help with each scene.

Plot Whisperer
8 years ago

Thank you, Deb Atwood, for your kind acknowledgement in the blog post interview!

I’m blurry from writing all day.

Reading everyone’s comments brings things back into perspective and has a very calming influence on me.

Thank you!

Ben Holewinski
Ben Holewinski
8 years ago

Can’t wait. Ordered Saturday Delivery thru Amazon then went to Office Max and got me a 4’x6′ poster board to hang on the wall that I will be able to reuse 😀

Got a rough outline of my story but plan to go step-by-step with the workbook and guide on Sunday (Fantasy Football draft tomorrow afternoon!)

Gayle C. Krause
8 years ago

I don’t normally plot my scenes. They seem to come naturally, but I’m thinking leaning how to plot by sense might make my writing an easier task.

Would love to win this giveaway. I’m not too old to learn a new trick!

Woof! Woof! 🙂

Heather Marsten
8 years ago

I am focusing more on scenes but can use some help in the plotting of scenes. This workbook sounds helpful. Have a blessed day.

HM at HVC dot RR dot COM

Deb Atwood
8 years ago

Hi Martha,

The best of luck to you in this new endeavor! I’m looking forward to digging into your new work. I gave you a little plug in an interview I did last week with Roxanne Crouse: http://somuchtowritesolittletime.com/2012/08/20/interview-with-moonlight-dancer-author-deb-atwood/.

Best Wishes,
Deb.

Urban Milkmaid
8 years ago

Love this idea. I have the Plot Whisperer and recommend it to all my writer friends. Thinking about the different factors – antagonist/protagonist/emotional journey in each scene gives a richness to the entire story. Thank you!
Lisa.Pedersen2011@gmail.com

mirapeix
8 years ago

i’ve got a plot arc but need some minor ones to make my draft a bit toothier…my contact info for the drawing is mmeri.sol@sol@gmail.com! pick me – i’m broke, getting a divorce and have two drafts for books that could get me outta poverty–yay!

Jennifer Jensen
8 years ago

I have a general plot when I start a project, then flesh it out after I get going. But I’ve done something like this before – took my WIP and put each scene on an index card and plastered the living room wall! It let me see what was missing, as well as where I had lost a balance between plot lines and character involvement. And it got my husband into it, even giving me some input!

That said, I don’t do it as much as I should. I’d love a copy of the Plot Whisperer workbook to help me stay on track. My email is:

jennifergarvinjensen (at) gmail (dot) com.
Thanks so much!

Plot Whisperer
8 years ago

Ah, you got me, Gillian. Tears in my eyes. A full heart. Thank you for your kind words.

Sounds like you’ve found a rhythm that works for you and by that I mean you’ve found a rhythm that keeps you writing and that builds an inner strength and passion and make the experience fulfilling.

Gillian Noero
8 years ago

Martha Alderson is a living, breathing example of what she teaches – not simply the structure of plotting, which she does brilliantly – but the resilience of getting it done, working out the energetic markets and plot points, RE-working(!)them again… I first saw Martha on her earlier youtube videos and the positive, even-tempered way she dealt with all the constraints of making a video out-of-doors (noise / wind /people)taught me so much about digging deep to find the patience and resilience I need to do the plotting process, then to review the plotting process, then to re-do the plotting process, then to see how the character’s faults change the plotting process and to do it all again. So thanks to Martha Alderson for teaching plotting so well and also for teaching Writer Backbone and Stamina along with it! Best, Gillian
gnoero(at)gmail(dot)com

Ben Holewinski
Ben Holewinski
8 years ago

Are there digital copies of The Plot Whisperer Workbook available anywhere like on your blog? I don’t see a kindle edition on Amazon. I looked at Barnes and Nobles and 1 store had 1 copy but someone must have ordered it online for pickup because it is currently on hold :\

I would love to get a hold of the book ASAP. I’m in Wisconsin in the Milwaukee area so if you know any bookstores that may have it I would greatly appreciate finding out where I can get a copy asap.

Only other option is Saturday delivery through Amazon but I’d love to get my hands on a copy today 🙁

Margay
8 years ago

I kind of swing between intense, in-depth plotting to barely sketching an outline. I wish I could strike a balance between the two and come up with a better system.

Margay1122ATaolDOTcom

Ann Herrick
8 years ago

Wow! Great plotting tips! Thanks!

Wanda
8 years ago

Love Martha Alderson’s advice! The workbook would be a great help to me in my writing!

Plot Whisperer
8 years ago

How fun to catch up here!

I often find that the difference between a beginning writer and one that’s a bit further along is that a beginning writer is mostly oblivious to many of the concepts we’re talking about here. Beginners write for the pure joy of writing.

The longer you write, the more conscious you become of your reader and the more you appreciate how little you know and thus, find yourself on a constant quest for help with the craft.

For an update about the Mega-giveaway blog tour for PWWorkbook, stop by my home blog — http://plotwhisperer.blogspot.com/

Ruby Johnson
8 years ago

I am a fan of Martha’s books. Wonderful information. Thanks so much for your post.Looking forward to winning, but if I don’t I will get your book anyway.

Denise Grier
8 years ago

What a wonderful post! Thank you so much for this great wealth of information.

Anonymous
Anonymous
8 years ago

Some really interesting points raised here. I do tend to plan my scenes in advance because I want to make sure that all the complexities of the plot fit together – however it’s usually a very basic outline and I certainly don’t plan individual scenes to this depth.

In a minute I’m going to get out my manuscript and analyse a few of the scenes. I’m bound to find blocks of text that don’t show as much as they could and I think this kind of analysis will be a great way for me to edit my work. Thanks Martha!

Mike K.
mikes_a_legend@yahoo.co.uk

Christopher S. Ledbetter

I used be a hardcore plotter, but have since moved into a hybrid plantser approach. I do however still *see* my novels in scenes like a movie almost. I’d love to read the Plot Whisperer to see how I can incorporate such #awesomeness.

Chris Ledbetter
Cs_ledbetter@yahoo.com

Christopher S. Ledbetter

I used be a hardcore plotter, but have since moved into a hybrid plantser approach. I do however still *see* my novels in scenes like a movie almost. I’d love to read the Plot Whisperer to see how I can incorporate such #awesomeness.

Chris Ledbetter
Cs_ledbetter@yahoo.com

Christopher S. Ledbetter

I used be a hardcore plotter, but have since moved into a hybrid plantser approach. I do however still *see* my novels in scenes like a movie almost. I’d love to read the Plot Whisperer to see how I can incorporate such #awesomeness.

Chris Ledbetter
Cs_ledbetter@yahoo.com

Stina Lindenblatt
8 years ago

I plot scenes, and I have The Plot Whisperer book. Wow, there’s a workbook to that! Dangerous news for a craft book junkie. 😀

Please add my name: stinalindenblatt (at) shaw (dot) ca

Anonymous
Anonymous
8 years ago

Cool article! I’m much more of a pantser, but I’m realizing the benefits of charting the story’s course a bit ahead of time. This sounds like a neat tool for me to try!

Toss my name in the hat, please. And thanks for the giveaway!
-Emily
emily_reynolds(at)hotmail(dot)com

Amanda Stephan
8 years ago

I’ve used outlines that are similar to this idea, but I’d love to hone the steps and become better at it. Thank you for the opportunity to win this – I’ve add all three books (the workbook, the paperback, and the emotion thesaurus) to my wish list. Yep. The one hubster will be seeing for Christmas! Sneaky, aren’t I? 😉
Amanda38401 at gmail dot com

Morgen
8 years ago

I’ve read the Plot Whisperer book, and I have another of Martha Alderson’s books. I’d love the workbook to illustrate her techniques. I’m still a little confused on some things. I haven’t tried to plot scenes, and I expecte it would help me write more if I did.

morgen.marshall@gmail.com

Morgen
8 years ago

This comment has been removed by the author.

Anonymous
Anonymous
8 years ago

I tend to outline at the end, but I do struggle with plot. Gingersjohnson at gmail dot com