Plotting for the Severely Right Brained

PhotobucketWhen Therese told me that WU would focus on plotting this month, my original reaction was, “Uh-oh.” Plotting is by far the most challenging part of writing for me. However, since I was plotting and carrying out a novella through January, it was a good time to observe the process.

There are several challenges:

–A book doesn’t come to me in a linear fashion.
–I don’t seem to like to know too much ahead of time, but…
–I do require a general structure to work with, one that is flexible but also provides some kind of girding to hold up the characters and ideas and themes and moods I’m working with.

As I plotted and carried out my novella, I realized that my plotting methods are designed for the severely right brained; I am always holding the entire project loosely in my head, a collection of images and emotions and impressions. It feels to me that a story is a living entity, living somewhere, whole and beautiful and complete. My job is to draw it over to the physical realm as authentically as possible. To do so, I’ve created a system of worksheets and plotting rituals that are tools for brainstorming my organic process.

By the time I sit down to write a novel, it has nearly always been bubbling away on the back burners of my imagination for a year, sometimes far longer. I usually begin with a character and a situation, and as time goes by, the book begins to pull itself together, taking a snip of dialogue there, a beautiful room in a magazine, a sizzling steak, a piece of glass, a photograph, and often quite a lot of surprisingly concrete details, like a scarf or a dish or a gesture that is peculiar to one character. Eventually scenes, themes, character arcs begin to emerge. During the brewing period, I don’t write anything down. If the characters, themes and ideas are strong enough, I’ll remember them–sort of a natural selection of the ideas world. (If I do a lot of research, I’ll simply make notes about the materials I’ve read so I can find them again later.) By the time I’m ready to start writing, I will know most of the story (albeit vaguely), main characters, a few scenes including a strong opening image, a major conflict or opposing force, and a visual or a scene from near the end of the book. This is when it’s time to start sketching out the story as it has assembled itself to this point.

That’s plot step #1, sketching out a little bit of the story—beginning, middle, end. For The Lost Recipe for Happiness, I knew it was about a woman chef who would get her own kitchen; that she had a dog and a lingering injury from a car accident of which she was the lone survivor, and that she would, eventually, have to make peace with her life. I knew I wanted to set it in Aspen (because…well, if you’ve ever been there you know it is amazingly beautiful) and that my protagonist was from New Mexico because I am insanely in love with the food of Northern New Mexico and wanted to write about it.

Plot Step #2 is doing a lot of character discovery, because I am largely a character writer, and my plots emerge from internal conflict. I often write bios in first person, lists of 25 things the characters love, or interviews. When I get stuck, I often let the characters write letters to me, to tell me what’s wrong. (India, the protagonist from Lady Luck’s Map of Vegas, wrote, “First of all, my name is so not Giselle.”)

This is when I’ll pull out my stained, dog-eared copy of Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s 45 Master Characters, and start playing with the lists of archetypes to help me pin down the corners of the book map. I write heavily from setting, so that needs to be established and solidified, especially as characters emerge from place. A Manhattan lawyer is not going to be the same character as a judge in Montana.

Through this early stage, I will start building a collage, too. Results-oriented writers find collages a big waste of time, but they help me to discover images and themes. I need to find the colors of a book, which might seem like a strange little quirk, but it helps me understand the mood. Collages are also useful for brainstorming, and then later, connecting myself back to the book if I get lost around Chapter 32. I can look at the photos and remember, “Oh, yes. This is about sisters.”

Plot Step #3 is a worksheet I’ll use once I’ve written about 40 or 50 pages. It is my own combination of the 9-Step Feminine Journey from 45 Master Characters, melded with Christopher Vogler’s 12-step journey. I took what I liked best from each one and mixed them up together. (If your inner 5th grader likes worksheets, you can do this, too.) Again, it’s a brainstorming tool, a way to think about the material in an orderly fashion.

Vogler’s Journey is very male oriented, beginning with a “Call to Adventure,” wherein the hero of the tale is presented with a quest. Since I write women’s fiction, that isn’t always the best model for my books. The Feminine Journey begins with a shattering of the ordinary world, which dislodges our protagonist from her safe and familiar world. Women, speaking very generally, want to create and sustain communities. Most of my characters seem to be seeking to build a life that has meaning within the context of community, making sense of the shattering in their lives. I also like Schmidt’s list of seven issues, examples of common problems characters grapple with, including facing fear, facing guilt, facing illusion.

Plot Step #4 is the synopsis. Once I’ve done that worksheet, I have enough information to write a synopsis, which is required to show my agent and publisher what I’m doing. If it were not required, I would probably skip this step. It is by far my least favorite thing in writing. It often feels like I’m rushing the development of things that I want to leave to discovery, but that’s the reality. I’ve learned to live with it, and I don’t suppose I’ve suffered all that much.

From the synopsis, I write a rough list of scenes, just one or two sentences for each one, and only for the next 50-75 pages at a time.

Plot step #5 is discovering the Principles of Antagonism.

This step comes about midway through the book. I never know exactly when, but there will come a day when I feel suddenly lost. It’s a long way from the start and that initial enthusiasm, but still a long way to the end.

This is when I pull out one of the geekiest writing books of all time, Story, by Robert McKee, and turn to the chapter on the Principle of Antagonism. It deals with story values and themes and how to use their opposing and contradictory values to structure a novel. His diagram is like a box divided into four squares, with the positive value in the top left corner. In the top right corner is the contrary value, below that is the contradictory value, and then my favorite part: the negation of the negation.

So, using McKee’s example:

Freedom                   à                  Restraint

Slavery perceived                 ß        Slavery
as freedom.

It’s always easy to get the first two—Love to Dislike to Hatred. But what’s the negation of the negation there? What’s worse than hatred? It’s hatred masquerading as love. It takes it to a level that is a lot more interesting than the simple formulas of the first three. By examining the current themes in my work-in-progress, I usually discover I’ve not gone as deeply as I must to fully explore whatever idea I’ve presented. My novella deals with the idea of having faith in things we can’t see. The contrary is doubt. The opposing value is lack of belief. The negation of the negation is something like faith revealed as lies (which is why we revile hypocritical priests and pastors so very much). Once I recognized that, I came up with a denouement that was much more powerful than the one I originally planned.

Play with it. I notice this one little exercise can do more for my plot than almost any other thing. Being aware of it helps me to find the places to play up the corners of the chart and increase the tension and worry in my reader.

Plot step #6. Put it all away.

Once this bit is done, I gather all my worksheets and character sketches and all my careful notes, and put them away in a folder. I’ll track my progress by keeping the simple scene list at hand, printing out a new copy every time I make big changes (and usually, I just keep it open on the computer so I can refer to it as necessary) but I rarely look at any of the rest again.

How about the rest of you?  Anyone else an organic plotter? Do you have tricks like this to share with us?

flickr creative commons photo by anthony thomas




About Barbara O'Neal

Barbara O'Neal has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life, which landed her in the Hall of Fame. Her latest novel, The All You Can Dream Buffet has just been released by Bantam Books in March. A complete backlist is available here.


  1. says

    Very interesting post! I’ve just ordered a couple of the books you mention – 45 Master Characters sounds especially relevant to the way I write.

    (I pre-ordered Ray’s book at the same time.)

  2. Vicky McAulay says

    Thanks for sharing your process. I’m still strugling to find a method I can live with, but I can see myself adopting a few of your tricks.

  3. says

    I, too, am very right brained, and you’ve given me a lot to think on here. I’m definitely going to give customized worksheets a try and I may look into the Schmidt book as well.

    Thanks for a great post, Barbara!

  4. Jamie says

    Wow! What a great post! I’ve been feverishly reading and RE-reading all the posts this month as ‘plotting’ seems to be my Achilles. Although each post has offered great advice, this one seems to hit home for me on all points.

    “I am always holding the entire project loosely in my head, a collection of images and emotions and impressions”
    This describes my brain! It is so nice and refreshing (not to mention encouraging) to know that someone else begins a story EXACTLY AS I DO!
    Thanks so much Barbara for this post!

  5. says

    Your opening description of your style of working sounds just like me, so I’m going to have to give this all careful thought. Thanks!

  6. says

    “I am always holding the entire project loosely in my head, a collection of images and emotions and impressions. It feels to me that a story is a living entity, living somewhere, whole and beautiful and complete. My job is to draw it over to the physical realm as authentically as possible. ”

    I like this alot. I also like exploring the negation of negation. It makes the story more sophisticated and multilayered.

    Fantastic post, Barbara.

  7. says

    Whew, glad I’m not the only who sees the story as a whole. I set up a grid with four columns: Chapter (a rough idea of what I want to happen–an illusion of control since the character usually make it happen their way), His POV, Her POV, Outside Conflict. Whether I use the grid or not depends on how the characters take the scene and run with it.

  8. Janelle Schneider says

    Barbara, this is exactly what I needed today.

    It’s been a frustrating morning. I’ve done lots of planning (sort of like you do) on the novel, but today I’m on page 1 of chapter 1. The words are just eeking out. I’m wondering if I were a “real” writer, would this be so hard?

    Then I read your column, and I realized it’s OKAY. I *so* “hold the entire project loosely in my head …” which makes it very frustrating in the early stages of the rough draft. I have to turn this “entire project” into individual words.

    No wonder the words are just eeking out!

    PS/ After reading your column, I went and wrote 1500 words in about an hour. Amazing how much it helps to get the “failure monkey” off my back!

  9. says

    McKee’s process reminds me of a tenet in Buddhism that gives each of the four noble qualities its “far enemy” (or opposite) and also a “near enemy” which is a bit like your “hatred masquerading as love”. So in the Buddhist scheme of things, Compassion’s far enemy is cruelty, but its near enemy, which is much more subtle, is pity. The interesting thing with these, I think, is that they fool the person whose psyche they inhabit more those around them.

    I think I’ll have to print this post out, Barbara, and re-read it on a long bus trip I’ll be taking next week:-)

  10. says

    Good to know I’m not the only one who has that whole project in her head. This might be what makes me a little scattered at time, especially when my brain is bursting with details I haven’t yet written down.

    Hooray on the 1500 words, Janelle! That’s great. I love “turning the ‘entire project’ into individual words.” Never thought about it exactly like that before.

    Satima, thank you so much for the application of the four noble qualities. That helps me take all this a little deeper. So much to think about.

  11. says

    I really enjoyed your post, Barbara. I was intrigued by the idea of using opposing and contradictory values in your plotting. I’m still trying to figure it out though. So “guilt” is a theme in my story. Feeling guilt. So if guilt is the value, the contrary value would be, maybe…feeling “justification”? And the contradictory value would be true “innocence”? And then the negation of the negation would be….um, feeling innocent when you’re really guilty? But I already know that. Did I just already look deeply enough or am I missing something and not finding that deeper negation of negation? I love the idea–just don’t know my shades of meaning well enough, I guess.

  12. says

    Alina, you start with the positive value, rather than the negative. Innocence is the positive. The contrary would be….discomfort? Dismay? Small crimes? Then to guilt as the contradictory.

    And guilt masquerading as innocence, yes. I’m feeling on a gut level that you could take that deeper yet, but am not sure exactly what that would be without being in your plot with you.

    McKee has a lot of examples in his book. You can probably get it in your library.

  13. Vera Smetzer says

    I love it – just exactly what I need this morning! I am printing this off and taking it to work aside my plot this morning… something not quite there yet but I know it will come. I am always thrilled when the characters are talking… and I am collecting those snippets of dialogues and scenes just before sleep or just before I wake or in the car… all of this, I consider plotting. Very organic. LOL

  14. says

    Thanks, Barbara! Unfortunately my local library co-op has none of these books available. I’ll try to get my hands on McKee’s book some other way. But until then I’ll keep playing with those values and see what I can come up with. Great food for thought and I appreciate it!