Using Scene Trackers and Plot Points to Plan Your Story

Beautiful woman in the magic forest

You might wonder what to insert into my Scene Tracker Template or Plot Point Graph. If you’re a pantser, you know your story by heart and use the tools of plot-weaving instinctively as you go. You might strip needless elements and refine your story as you reach the editing phase. But if you’re serious about being a professional writer, you must study your beloved craft and recognize plot points, character arcs, and other tools of drama.

Here are my methods of outlining:

Scene tracker model (Microsoft Office Excel).

PowerPoint Plot Graph Template (Microsoft Office PowerPoint).

Download files from the Internet at your own risk.

The files make it easy to analyze the dramatic arc and structure of your story.  If you don’t want to plan your draft one meticulously, use my templates as a refresher of your memory before you start revising your second draft. You don’t have to include all the crucial plot points, and your arch can curve up and down several times to surprise your readers.

Think of each significant event in your story as a sequence which consists of:

  • setup
  • complication
  • crisis
  • resolution

Your book is one instance of continual transformation which composes of smaller events (acts), which in turn comprise of chapters and scenes. I like to know my word count, and that’s why I included it in the Scene Tracker. I also keep track of days and months which pass in my book, just to stay level with continuity issues.

Keeping Track of Scenes

Scene= “a part of a play or film in which the action stays in one place for a continuous period of time.”

A scene means a small section of your novel where your characters engage in action or dialogue. They are mini-stories with a beginning, middle, and end. A chapter contains one or many scenes. Usually, the scenes within a chapter are related to one another. If you change location, or the clock of your manuscript moves forward, give the reader a pause in the form of moving into the next scene or chapter.  Scenes are like pearls in a string. Each story consists of these pearls, some small and ordinary, and others big, shining ones which surprise the reader.

Both templates let you add cells/boxes for your key scenes and plot weaving mechanisms.

Great scene beginnings include:

  • Put unusual events in motion
  • Tone-building scene setting
  • Intriguing backstory
  • New, interesting viewpoint
  • Introduce uncertain factors

More information: https://www.nownovel.com/blog/writing-scene-beginnings-grab-attention/

Great Scene endings:

  • Cliffhanger – place your protagonist’s life is at risk or produce some other threat which forces the reader to turn the page and begin a new scene/chapter
  • Revelation –something changes the course of the story
  • Setback– one of your characters should be frustrated about the latest event
  • Reveal a secret–a full secret or part of it to keep the mystery going
  • Question left hanging –teasing the reader
  • Unexpected plot twist –keep the reader guessing.

Character Arcs and the Three Acts

“A character arc is the transformation or inner journey of a character throughout a story. If a story has a character arc, the character begins as one sort of person and gradually transforms into a different kind of person in response to changing developments in the story. “

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Character_arc

Your protagonists and antagonists evolve through character arcs. An excellent way to build conflict is to make the main character unable to overcome an opposing force at the beginning of the story because he/she lacks skills or resources. The main character must change through learning or achieving new capabilities. Let the MC interact with the environment or produce a threat or a charismatic mentor. At the heart of your story lie conflict and change.

Plotting a Novel in Three Acts

“Aristotle plotted in three acts, and almost every story comes with a beginning, middle, and ending. Act One makes up 25% of a storyline, with Act Two taking up 50% and Act Three, the final 25%. The story is divided in half as well, with the midpoint squarely in the middle of Act Two. The first half of a story involves introducing characters, themes, motivations, settings, conflicts, and important elements. In the second half of a story, all its threads untangle.”

Read more about The Six Key Scenes of Aristotle’s Incline and source of the above snippet: http://livewritebreathe.com/how-to-plot-a-novel-in-three-acts/

Plot Points

A plot point is an incident which impacts what happens next. A plot point:

  • Moves the story in a different direction
  • Impacts character development
  • Closes a door behind a character, forcing them forward

Plot points form a whole, each piece informing the event before it and after it.

Seven-point

Image source: https://blog.reedsy.com/plot-point/

Examples of plot points:

Hook: A story must start off strong to keep the reader reading. The Hook is the point that pushes a novel into motion and sets it apart from others.

First Pinch Point: The middle of the story consists of the character reacting to the Big Event and its respective consequences. Pinch Points put the character under pressure.

Midpoint: Perhaps the most crucial plot point occurs near the middle of a story. The midpoint is a critical turning point that forces the protagonist to stop reacting and start acting.

Final Pinch Point: For the second half of the middle, the protagonist experiments with the agency, taking different approaches to overcome the conflict. The protagonist reacts to or acts on pressure and conflict, with middling success.

Final Plot Point: Going into the third act (or the beginning of the end) there is one Final Plot Point. This shows the protagonist at their lowest, having taken a profound misstep among their newfound actions, which drives them directly into the Climax and Resolution.

Resolution: A great story will end on a Climax, Realization, and Resolution, a series of events that bring the story and character arc in full circle. Usually, these revolve around a choice presented to the protagonist.

Source and more information: https://www.nownovel.com/blog/what-is-a-plot-point/

How to Design Plot Points

  • Draw them from your central idea or theme
  • Show desires, motivations, and setbacks
  • Place plot points at crucial structural junctures
  • Create points of no return
  • Create and arrange summaries of each plot point

Tension

Tension is a product of uncertainty and the resulting suspense we feel.

“To take the analogy of watching a tightrope walker, we know they are moving from an A to B of safe ground. Yet between these two points, how things turn out depends on many variables. Their balance, focus, and how they place their feet. And how swiftly they correct any stumble.”

Source and read more: https://www.nownovel.com/blog/writing-a-scene-that-engages/

 

Romance Kills and Some Advice on Wordiness

Romance Kills Out Now

romance_kills_cover_smallA “Heartless” serial killer has brutally murdered three Romance Novelists on the verge of their breakthrough. The victims died after being stabbed through the heart. Why butcher romance novelists? Has someone he cared about hurt the killer?

Three private investigators decide to fight back, and the women meet in colorful, eccentric New Orleans. They must stop this madman before he strikes again, but are they willing to risk their own lives?

Find out and download Romance Kills from Amazon

The story is a collaboration of three authors: Stephanie Colbert, Schuyler Pulliam and yours truly. Each of use wrote the point-of-view of one character. Amber Buford is mine.

If you ponder about teaming with a fellow scribe, read my blog post about co-authoring:

https://rebeckajager.com/2019/04/04/should-you-co-author-a-book/

The Principal Sin of Wordiness

I write thrillers, and the genre hates rambling. You might write fantasy or romance, but believe me: readers want to get on with the plot! To combine straightforward action with the first commandment of an author: show don’t tell becomes a Mission Impossible unless you’re prepared to re-write and re-draft.

When I wade through the early drafts of my stories, I recognize the complex sentence structures. New writers want to stand out and prove their mastery of the English language. Getting rid of wordiness doesn’t mean that your writer’s voice bleaches as you strip the text. Reading George Orwell is a light exercise. He uses odd words at times and lectures about the dangers of totalitarianism, but the text flows. If you love J. K. Rowling or Suzanne Collins, return to Harry Potter or the Hunger Games with your wordiness-spotting goggles on. These famous ladies know how to get on with the plot. They force you to turn the page almost at gunpoint.

Hiring a professional helps the “green” novelist to trace the celebrity footprints, but most editors charge by the word count. Removing the excess description means you’ll pay less for the slaughter of your darlings.

Scan your writing for the following:

  • “Being” verbs. You’ll have to use “was” sometimes, but it slows the pace of your sentences.
  • Passive voice means your protagonist is on the receiving end of the action. Your characters should act: conquer, fail, and rise—not stand around besieged by lazy words. Use strong verbs which engage the reader’s senses, and paint a scene. Marketing masters know their active expressions: https://www.enchantingmarketing.com/strong-verbs/
  • But don’t go overboard. A thesaurus becomes the writer’s best friend at times, but use variation with taste. Dialogue verbs are the usual suspects which point to the use of a dictionary: https://www.nownovel.com/blog/dialogue-words-other-words-for-said/ 
  • (my pet peeve is “snapped” but replacements like: “avowed, beckoned, beseeched or cajoled” make me wince). Use alternative verbs with due respect: https://owlcation.com/humanities/400-Alternative-words-for-said
  • Filler words. Turn to your WIP and cut words without losing the meaning of the passage. Replace them with others who have more punch if you end up with a naked style.
  • Filler sentences. If you say almost the same thing in five sentences, feel free to cut three of them. I fell in love with northern nature as a child. When my books feature the animals or sceneries above the Arctic Circle, I beat around the bush. Know your favorite sin: wordiness is mine.
  • Clichés. These buggers consume space in your writing, and they have zero impact on readers. “Pitch black” inches it’s way onto my pages, but I know to weed it out. Tropes can kill your entire ending, but they possess sentences as well.
  • Unnecessary adjectives and adverbs. When it comes to description, sometimes less is more. A –ly here and there hurts no one, but these bastards multiply if you let them grow.

More information: https://writeitsideways.com/working-past-wordiness-for-fresher-writing/

The Action Scene

Wordiness destroys your action and adventure. The tempo of combat must be quick and tense. Perhaps you studied the art of fencing before you posed the villain against the hero in swordplay. You feel obliged to describe every gesture with due finesse and detail.

Rid excess wordiness from your action:

  • Avoid writing a character’s mundane actions.
  • Avoid having your characters’ seem to’ or ‘proceed to’ or ‘decide to’ or ‘begin to’ do something.
  • Say it once, say it well. Don’t teach your reader to wield the rapier, show him the cut-throat combat, and place your hero in danger.
  • Remember to engage your reader’s emotions! The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To Character Expression will help if your words run dry.
  • Use your writing software’s find-function to track repetition. If you find forty instances of “was” in one chapter, you have a problem. If you use a fancy verb and repeat it too near the first occurrence, you destroy the impact.
  • Omit ancillary words and phrases: sit down- omit the down.

More information: https://www.maloneeditorial.com/novel-wordy-7-ways-tell/

My previous blog post on writing action: https://rebeckajager.com/2019/05/24/how-to-write-realistic-action-sequences/

Be Merciful to The Newborn

Evolution has developed writers into a cruel bunch. We flog ourselves without mercy, especially when we re-read our text. This phase can put an end to your writing career if your superego takes control. Let the first draft overflow with wordiness: get the book out of your head and onto the paper. When you revise your second or third draft, take care of tautology with due ruthlessness.

How to Write Realistic Action Sequences

woman boxer boxing isolated

Whether you write thrillers or fantasy, you’ll engage your Main Character in battles for life and limb. Nothing beats experience when it comes to describing a sequence of near combat. Take classes in Jiu Jutsu or Krav Maga if your hero uses his body to stand up for himself. You don’t have to engage in a Mixed martial arts cage fight to know how it feels. The beginner’s course in any martial art will help you sort out a few basic questions. I watch clips of Michelle Waterson or Ronda Rousey to learn. The MMA and WWE sports are different from Hollywood fight scenes. The fighters bind each other, and the straight punches which reach the opponent with a thud/smack belong mostly to the movies.

Rebane Nordstrom- my MC in Unholy Warrior, fights dirty and my book features some iconic Russian Systema moves to evade an overpowering assailant. I asked my Defendo instructor to attack me- the things we go through to write! Don’t worry, he went easy on me, but I never forget to raise my hands to shield my chin after that. One hit to the jaw and: lights out. Only in Hollywood do people get hit in the head with a metal pipe and go on kicking. In real life, you’d earn a visit to the ER with a skull fracture and a brain injury.

There’s nothing wrong with creative freedom. If you have dragons and magic in your book, what stops you from inventing new fighting skills? Forget realism but remember a few basic rules which help your readers relate to your MC: the danger is an inherent part of raising the stakes. You must allow your hero to be weaker than the opponent at times.

My MC loses a fight in the crowded, narrow cell. Here’s an excerpt from Unholy Warrior:

“There’s no need to pick up a fight, Miss Nordstrom. Stand down and spare yourself from a beating,” Weisser said with a matter-of-fact voice.

Rebane ignored him and targeted the next man who stepped in: a stumpy, wide-shouldered guard who opened his telescope truncheon with a swift hit. He drew his arm back to smack her, but Rebane evaded with a simple Systema move: stepped aside and nudged him. As he folded on the bunk, she delivered a hook into his kidney and wrenched the truncheon from his grip.

The second guard leaped at her, and her baton slammed into his thigh above the knee incapacitating his leg. His attempt to punch her missed and he slumped on the floor. Guards number three and four bumped into each other in the narrow doorway. The duo hesitated when they saw the injured guards writhing on the floor. They exchanged glances before the bigger one rushed forward. The sequence seemed to amuse Weisser who leaned against the wall.

Rebane backed up until her shoulder blades met the cold cement and lodged herself between the washbasin and the bunk. She tried to leap over the bed and go around the attacker, but her pelvis hit the washbasin, and she crash-landed over the blankets. The bigger guy managed to grab her shirt. She extended her left hand, and the bony base of her palm cracked his nose. He fell on the floor as blood gushed into his cupped hands. The next man got kneed in the stomach. Rebane lost hold of the truncheon while she grabbed his neck and mashed her knee up repeatedly.

The master alarm went off and filled the corridor with a deafening noise. A swarm of men toppled her, but she managed to kick nuts, thighs, and shins. She scratched the faces which came near enough and bit into the flesh of a hairy forearm. Rebane didn’t let go until a crowd of hands and knees pinned her to the floor and forced her jaws open. The first blow landed at her shoulder and watered her eyes. A jackboot stepped on her diaphragm. Tears forced out when she squirmed and battled for air. It took just seconds for her to lose the fight.

“Stop!” she screamed when the violent hands tore her clothing and fists pounded at her ribs.

A boar of a man sat on her stomach and growled into her ear. Rebane spat at him which only angered him more. Weisser’s voice toppled the screams and the commotion. He grabbed the boar by his fatigue collar and tore him away from Rebane, but the next madman mounted her and banged her head against the cement floor.

Choose Your Weapons

A baton can do terrible damage at the hands of a skilled user, but when you get threatened with a knife, the stakes assume a different intensity.

One cut can bleed your hero out, or sever a tendon (which means your arm or leg becomes useless). Blocking someone wielding a blade isn’t simple. Books and videos offer help to a writer. I like to refer to Combat Knives and Knife Combat by Dietmar Pohl & Jim Wagner, but you can find great resources on Youtube as well. If you want to get the hang of sword fights, join a Kendo club or try some Medieval martial arts the European way.

At Arm’s Length

One trick I like to use when I write a battle is grabbing anything at arm’s length in the setting and throwing it at the opponent. This is an essential skill in writing action: you cannot omit the environment even if you don’t want to utilize foreign objects.

Consider these elements:

  • Are your opponents facing each other on an open field or in a tight space?
  • What dangers are present besides the assailant(s)? Can traffic or avalanche kill the hero?
  • What can the MC use to his advantage?
  • The season: darts of wind-hurled snow can stop you from seeing, and the wind will raise clouds of sand. It’s hard to escape in knee-deep snow, and a sweaty combatant is difficult to grab.
  • The time of day: will darkness provide cover or the sun blind you? The atmosphere of the fight is vital!
  • Escape is always an option: can the MC run without being hit in the back by a bullet or an arrow? Remember to zig-zag, which makes the bad guy miss.
  • Can the heroine speak her way out of a threatening situation? Both escape and avoiding the battle altogether are the wisest options if you listen to my Defendo instructor.
  • Use the element of surprise: a trained soldier will see the punch coming if you draw your arm back before you strike.
  • Every kick and punch must be backed up with the rotation of the torso and the weight of your body. There is the correct and the wrong way to do this.

Examples From Hollywood

Charlize Theron, Atomic Blonde, The Stairway Fight Scene:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XarGS1AeEcE

Charlize uses everything she can grab, and the sequence has guns, knives, hot plates, and whatnot. She also fights multiple assailants that are stronger than her.

If you need a fast tempo, watch Matt Damon as Jason Bourne: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UFnmq5PPScA

Or Daniel Craig as 007: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z7kFoR4m1Y0

Both clips have high energy, and I love the moment when Daniel Craig watches how the attacker dies.

The last clip is from the Kurt Russell movie Breakdown. A car chase evolves into a duel between a semi-trailer and pickup truck. The fighters wield multiple weapons and the use of the deadly bridge, in the end, is a stroke of genius: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3ovVlk6jCBY

Don’t Overdo The Details and Mind The Players

Know the capabilities and weaknesses of your hero/heroine before you tap your fight scene. My MCs (so far) are women who get attacked by opponents with a larger mass. Evasive movements allow them to strike back and to go for the opponent’s sensitive parts. When it comes to the laws of physics, a force has both magnitude and direction. If your knight is a big guy, he’ll use his mass as a blunt force weapon. Wearing armor and yielding the long sword is hard work, especially if you’re trying to stay on top of a galloping horse at the same time.

In the receiving end of the blows, anatomy, and physiology come into play. If your book takes place in the Middle Ages, knowing the common battlefield injuries helps you understand the weapons of the era. Find out what a beating causes to the human body. The method isn’t used as torture for nothing! The physiological side becomes increasingly important if you write murder mysteries and the key leads come from the killer’s ammo and the ME’s autopsy report.

Letting the reader glimpse a hidden world is a standard trick in the thriller and mystery genres. For example, the usual “slitting of the throat” in Hollywood style isn’t the way to go if you’re a commando sneaking upon a German guard in WWII. I was quite proud of myself when I wrote the “correct” way. However, my training as a Radiographer caused me to overdo the anatomy lesson. No one wants to know if your MC cuts the external or internal carotid artery of the victim with her knife! When your knowledge broadens, the temptation to write detailed descriptions (which get in the way of action) increases.

Don’t Teach The Bird To Fly Or The Fish To Swim

If something comes naturally to your character, use it. Remember Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man (1976)? The movie shows him running from the start and in the climax, he outruns the Nazi’s henchman. The film is a classic thriller for a reason. I never looked at dentists the same way after Laurence Olivier’s excellent performance as the Villain Dr. Christian Szell. Dustin Hoffman excels as well, and the film has terrific control of tension build-ups and releases all the way through.

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Image: Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man (1976) by Paramount Pictures.

The fight-or-flight response is automated because it helped animals survive the challenges of evolution. The symptoms, which even the most battle-hardened hero experiences, offer a writer many ways to put the reader into the skin of the character:

  • Acceleration of heart and lung action; you breath faster and your heart gallops
  • Paling or flushing, or alternating between both
  • Digestion slows down or stops- long-term stress causes harm
  • General effect on the sphincters of the body (urinary tract and bowel)
  • Constriction of blood vessels
  • The liberation of metabolic energy for muscular action
  • Dilation of blood vessels for muscles- the blood gets directed to the places which you need for resistance or escape.
  • Inhibition of the lacrimal gland (responsible for tear production) and salivation- your mouth becomes dry, and you cannot release tears
  • Dilation of the pupil
  • Relaxation of the bladder- you need to pee, or you wet yourself
  • Loss of hearing- you don’t remember everything afterward!
  • Tunnel vision (loss of peripheral vision)- anyone who has experienced this knows what I’m talking about
  • Overactive or overresponsive reflexes. Adrenaline or noradrenaline facilitate preparation for violent muscular action.
  • Uncontrollable shaking or shivering

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fight-or-flight_response
The subjective experience of danger is unique. Don’t forget to describe the character’s emotions. Remember, the fight-flight reaction impairs some senses and enhances others. The emotional response is delayed in most cases. Allow your heroine to deal with a traumatic memory afterward as she heals from her wounds. The rule of action-reaction, remember?

The natural capabilities of the MC help him deal with a surprise attack. You can train your hero until basic moves flow from his muscle memory—this method is used by law enforcement and the military. But anyone who has experienced a traumatic situation knows the phenomenon of freezing. The same person can fight successfully on one occasion and freeze on the next.

“Fight flight freeze is a description of our responses to threat. In recent years, the fawn response has been added. To fight is to confront the threat aggressively. Flight means you run from the danger. When you freeze, you find yourself unable to move or act against the threat. With fight and flight both unavailable to you, you may find yourself hiding from the danger. Fawn is the response of complying with the attacker to save yourself.”

Source: https://www.betterhelp.com/advice/trauma/

The aftermath of freeze or fawn makes coming to terms with what happened harder, which could be a starting point for your MC’s internal conflict.

Further resources on how to write the pace of action and build tension:

https://www.nownovel.com/blog/writing-action-story-good-pacing/

https://thewritelife.com/writing-action-scenes/

https://writeitsideways.com/7-tension-building-tips-for-writing-action-scenes/
Continue reading “How to Write Realistic Action Sequences”