There are enough things to worry about when you are writing or revising a novel. Here is an easy method to keep track of your plot, spot gaps or identify where exposition is needed and manage the flow for maximum drama.
You can do it in a notebook, a word doc, or, if your story is complex, I suggest recipe cards. The only rule is you have to think of your story in scenes or events rather than chapters.
Write a line or two summarizing each scene, with critical detail only:
- Dick likes Jane.
- Jane likes Dick, though Jane is married to Joe, who is a scary psycho.
- Jane tells Dick to rent a motel room. Jane has sex with Joe before she leaves so he won’t be suspicious.
- Joe was already pretty suspicious, but now he is sure. Luckily he installed a tracker on Jane’s car. Now he puts his shotgun in his trunk.
- Jane and Dick are about to get busy in the motel room. They feel safe, never mind that both their cars are parked out front and there is only one motel in their town and it’s on the main drag.
- Joe arrives at the motel. He is wound up, his mouth is dry. He gets his shotgun and goes around to the soda machine in the lobby. The machine rejects his dollar bill, he goes crazy and starts banging the soda machine with the butt of his shotgun and yelling at the clerk.
- Jane and Dick hear the noise and look out the window. Jane sees Joe’s car. “Oh no! We have to get out of here.”
- Jane and Dick bolt out of the motel and into their cars. Dick actually pushes Jane out of the way so he can get out the door first.
- Joe finally gets a can of Sprite. He guzzles it happily, holding the can carefully to make sure the logo shows. He asks the terrified clerk what room Dick is in, then walks over there, frowning that their cars are gone.
- Joe kicks in the door, but they are gone.
- Cut between Dick and Jane driving fast on the freeway.
- Joe searches the room. He knows Jane was there because the free color TV is still on and the show is “The Bachelor” and Jane loves that show and watches it every Friday night.
- Joe stops on the way home and buys a pizza to take out. A couple of cops come into the pizza shop. “Hi Joe.” “Hi Max.”
- Jane puts on pjs and climbs into bed, quickly switching on “The Bachelor”. Car lights show through the window.
- Joe walks in carrying the pizza. “You remembered ‘date night’” Jane gushes.
- Joe smiles the scariest smile you have ever seen.
Probably you will have a B story, maybe a C story. I suggest you summarize them individually, then you can combine the cards for the overall flow. Then you can mess around, moving cards is a lot easier than cutting and pasting and making alternate versions and then reading over the whole section.
Now when you read my little narrative, you will realize that you will want to cut 13 — Joe buying the pizza. It’s far more dramatic if you see the car lights and don’t know if Joe is still in his psycho jealous mood. When I read it, I decided to add the cops in the pizza shop, just for fun they know each other.
By working this way you don’t get distracted by narrative or dialogue or typos. You can read the entire flow of your story and make sure it works — and if it doesn’t, you can pretty easily see where the gaps are, or things you need to cut/replace, events you need to set up earlier (maybe you want a scene where Dick and Jane meet at their office). Also I left a mistake in the summary, see if you can find it.
While I don’t believe that plot is the most important thing in a novel (Chandler said that a good mystery is one where the ending is torn out and you would still read it.) it is still important enough to get it right.