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Step One: Plot

A quick note before we get to Step One.

The first three steps are like the holy trinity of plotting: Plot, Main Character(s), Climax. (Or to put it another way: Road, Traveler(s), Destination.)

I work on any of these three when I’m starting out, or even all three at once. I’m starting with Plot for this experiment because everything else ties into it, but if you would like to go ahead and brainstorm about your main character or the climax (aka the end of your story where cool stuff happens aka the Ultimate Final Showdown of Badassery™), you go right on and have fun playing in your new sandbox.

Now, onward!

For Step One, we’re going to be deciding the private, personal, and public changes that will form the core of your story; determining which of these is your central change; and looking for the supporting changes or subplots that flesh out your story.

In my post Plot = Change, I talked a bit about recognizing the central change of a story and how I diagram changes.


Subject: Beginning → End
Lord of the Rings

One Ring: Discovered → Destroyed

Let’s look at the movie Avatar (the blue aliens one, not the terrible, horrible, no-good, very-bad airbender one).

WARNING: HERE THERE BE SPOILERS. You have been warned!

To recap, Avatar is a movie about a paraplegic soldier (Jake) who travels to an alien planet (Pandora) where he gets to mentally ride around in a hybrid human-alien avatar Because DNA That’s Why. He’s mentored by a scientist (Dr. Augustine) studying the local inhabitants (Na’vi). He eventually falls in love with a local (Neytiri) and leads the native inhabitants to rebel and kick the humans off their pretty, psychic planet.

So, from the beginning of the movie to the end of the movie, what are the main things that change?

Pandora has been invaded and colonized by humans. → Pandora is freed from the humans.

Jake Sully is human, soldier, loyal, follower. → Jake Sully is Na’vi, Toruk Makto, rebel, leader.

Neytiri distrusts/hates Jake. → Neytiri trusts/loves Jake.

Dr. Augustine dislikes Jake. → Dr. Augustine is friends with Jake.

Tsu’tey dislikes Jake.→ Tstu’tey and Jake call one another “brother”.

There are others. These are just the first few that come to mind.

When I’m creating plots, I look for three changes to start with: private, personal, and public. (This comes from Plot & Structure  by James Scott Bell, who is pretty much the guru of storycraft. I highly recommend his books if you’re looking for more references on plotting.)

You know that saying “change starts within”? That’s what we’re going for here. The private change that occurs inside your main character enables the personal change that affects your main character’s personal life which leads to the public change that affects your character’s world.*

Let’s look at Avatar again. If you diagramed personal/public/private changes, you might wind up with something like this:


Pandora: colonized by humans → freed from humans

Jake: human → Na'vi

Jake: loyal to humans → loyal to Na'vi

This is a pretty simplistic summary. Plotting is definitely more art than science. There will always be multiple ways of looking at the same story, but you get the idea here.

Now, can you spot the central change? Remember that the central change is what kicks off the story and what closes the story (usually, but that’s a post for another day). Avatar has a pretty clear central change.

The movie begins with Jake leaving Earth, alone, after the death of his twin brother.

The movie ends the moment that Jake is permanently transferred into his avatar body, surrounded by the Na’vi and with Neytiri at his side.

Central Change

Jake: human → Navi

You could even diagram it as:

Jake: alone → family

Again, you may perceive the changes differently. That’s okay. When you analyze a completed work, there are so many different layers that work together that it’s hard to narrow a change down to a summary of just a few words. When you’re writing a story, however, coming up with ideas in this style gives you a jumping off point to build your own layers.

So this week for Step One, look for those three main changes in your story, public, personal, and private. One of those changes will be the central change.

(Hint: it’s usually the public change, but it could be the personal change, as you can see in Avatar. I won’t say it’s impossible for it to be the inner change, but it’s unlikely—the inner change is the catalyst that allows the personal and public changes to happen, and usually it’s complete before the story’s climax.)

Also look for supporting changes: characters who change their attitudes or beliefs, who become friends or enemies or lovers.


  1. Public, personal, and private changes
  2. Which is your central change? Think about how your story begins and ends.
  3. Subplots

I’ll see you on Friday for the WWM Weekly Wrap-Up! And maybe we’ll finally have a definitive answer from our concept poll. Until then!


*This does not mean that the public change has to affect Life, The Universe, and Everything, to quote Douglas Adams. It just means that the public change has ramifications for people or places that the main character has no personal attachment to. In The Lion King, Simba’s reclamation of Pride Rock is a victory for him (private), for his pride (personal), and for all of the animals who were suffering because of Scar’s greed (public).

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Plot = Change

Today, a brief word on what I mean when I talk about plots.

In a word, a plot is change. That’s going to be the one of the key things to remember. Books have lots of plots, lots of changes, but typically they’re all twined together into one larger plot, like smaller strands woven into a braid.

When I’m plotting, I try to look for the central change that will be the heart of my story. (And I also make a very real effort to KISS—Keep It Simple, Stupid—because this is one part where getting down to the nitty gritty details too early in the game will drive you six kinds of bonkers.)

I like to diagram changes like so:

Subject: beginning → end

Usually the central change of a story is defeating the Big Baddie. Here are some examples from popular stories.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Quirrel/Voldemort: undercover at Hogwarts → defeated (temporarily)
Star Wars: A New Hope

Death Star: threat → destroyed

I say that the central change is usually defeating the Big Baddie because plots are like ogres and onions—they have layers. So, looking at Lord of the Rings, if the central change were defeating the Big Baddie, the diagram would look like this:

Sauron: threat → defeated

Don’t get me wrong. Defeating Sauron is a major focus of Lord of the Rings, but it’s not the central change. The central change starts the book and ends the book*. Sauron has been a threat for hundreds of years (thousands of years? I’m not up on my Middle Earth timelines), but Lord of the Rings doesn’t start way back then. It doesn’t even start with the Battle of the Last Alliance. It starts in the Shire.

It starts when Bilbo leaves the One Ring to Frodo. It starts when Gandalf realizes exactly what “Bilbo’s funny magic ring” really is.

Lord of the Rings

One Ring: rediscovered → destroyed

And the central change doesn’t have to be defeating evil at all. Toy Story’s central change is about Woody and Buzz’s relationship.

Woody + Buzz: rivalry → friendship

That central change influences other secondary changes, like being separated from Andy → being reunited with Andy, or Buzz believing he’s a real space ranger → accepting he’s a toy (and being okay with that).

So next time you’re reading a book or watching a movie, take a moment to consider the beginning of the story and the end of the story and see if you can spot the changes—in a character’s personality, the environment, society, politics, the possibilities go on and on—and consider how they influence one another.

Think of it as an exercise for your writer’s brain. The more you do it, the easier it will get, and the more ideas you’ll have for your own plots.


*Lord of the Rings gets special mention because the central change—destroying the One Ring—doesn’t end the book. There’s an entire hobbit-only adventure at the end where Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin have to retake the Shire, because Saruman is a vindictive old word-I’m-not-allowed-to-say-in-front-of-impressionable-youth. If Tolkien had consulted modern writing instructors who favored the One Plot To Rule Them All approach**, they probably would have told him to cut that section entirely, put it in a sequel, or find a way to save the Shire before defeating Sauron, just to neaten up the structure. I guess the takeaway is that if you’re good enough at what you do, you can tell the rules to go hang.

**There are books that have several central changes which all happen in a kind of overlapping structure, but Lord of the Rings doesn’t really fall under this umbrella either since it’s 95% Destroy the Ring and 5% Reclaim the Shire. I’ll discuss this more later, but for now we’ll focus on books with just the one central change.***

***I may be overdoing footnotes a bit. I regret nothing.

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The Results Are In! (only not really)

Okay! The moment you’ve all been waiting for!


It’s a tie.

*squints at poll*

Well… a good rule of life is always be willing to roll with it when something unexpected happens. We’ll just alter the timetable a little bit.

The poll will be open through next Friday, and we’ll see what happens then. If it’s another tie, concept will be decided by coin toss or… something. Snail racing, maybe, or some kind of tarot reading. (We can have another poll to determine how we’ll decide the previous poll—POLLCEPTION.)

In the meantime, since we don’t have a concept yet, I’ll just do Step Zero and Step One together for next Friday’s Writing Wrap Up. In the meantime, I’ve got a post ready, Plot = Change, that will be a good introduction before we get to Step One on Monday.

Until next time!

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Step Zero: Concept

Step ZeroThis isn’t a step, per se. I mean, if you write, you’ve probably done this part nine-hundred eighty-nine thousand five-hundred and sixty-two times. (Approximately.)

Step Zero is finding a concept.

Concepts are easy. Concepts are those little wisps of creativity that drift into your brain and make your inner muse sit up and go YES. Most writers have these multiple times daily, even if they don’t recognize them when they happen. Some refer to them as plot-bunnies (as in “ideas that breed like rabbits and gnaw on your brain”).

A lot of the time they start off with “What if?”

“What if there were magic powers in space?” (Star Wars.)

“What if an ogre, not a prince, saved a princess from a dragon?” (Shrek.)

“What if toys can move around but only when we’re not looking?” (Toy Story. Also, some of my nightmares. We won’t wade into that particular mental swamp…)

Sometimes it’s just a mental image – person, place, thing, what-have-you, and you build a story to expand that image.

Look at the franchise that’s evolved around the concept of “immortal alien traveling through time and space in a blue police box.” (Doctor Who.)

So for this week, I want you to pick your concept.

Choose something that makes your heart go pitter-pat, preferably something that’s been setting roots in your brain for a while, with some lovely plot ideas and characters already sprouting from it, since we’re going to tap into all that stored-up creativity. (Studies have shown that letting ideas stew for a little while—within reason—does help the creative process. See? Procrastination has a purpose.)

Once you have your concept, I want you to brainstorm.

People, places, plots, doesn’t matter. Get out a big sheet of paper or your brainstorming tool of choice—computer, Post-Its, bathroom mirror and a dry-erase marker (highly recommended, try it!), what-have-you—and just go nuts. Do this periodically over the next week, but be sure to collect all your ideas in one place for easy reference, either in a file on your computer or in a single notebook, however you want to do it. The key words here are one place and easy reference.

And as promised, I will let you choose which concept I’ll be building from during our experiment. You can cast your vote at the bottom of this post.

These concepts have both been through the brainstorming stage and are ready to head to the next level. Your choices are:

  • Nanoia: modern day Earth, a girl allergic to computers, giant lizard warriors from outer space (here to eat sushi and kick tail, and they’re all out of sushi), and a nanite virus threatening all mankind.
  • Aivia: Earth subjugated by mind-controlling aliens, a girl with psychic abilities, flying armor with shiny-glowy wings, and did I mention the mind-controlling aliens look like elves? (Sort of… if you squint.)

(These concepts are the intellectual property of Yours Truly, who will be well and truly put out if the next blockbuster and/or bestseller is based off of one of these choices.)

So, Concept and Brainstorm. We’ll reconvene Friday where I’ll announce the poll results and show you my own progress on Step Zero. (Of course, you’ll still have until Monday to finish up your own homework before we move on to Step One: Central Change.)

Until next time!


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The Great WRITE WITH ME! Experiment of 2017

WWM17Hey, pssst, want to help me with an experiment?

I’ve been trying to finish a book for… well, we’ll ballpark it at “forever”. I’ve done outlines and sketches and maps and the roughest of rough drafts, but nothing complete and polished and (probably most importantly) publishable, and my skull is getting a little crowded at this point. Something’s gotta give—preferably not my sanity; I’m saving that for a special occasion.

On the other hand, I’ve also had a bunch of people write me asking for tips on plotting and characters and the ever-popular “where do you get your ideas?” I’ve tried writing blog posts to explain some of the alphabet-soup-in-a-blender that is my brain’s creative process, but that’s hard to keep going because there’s inevitably this awful feeling of “Why Am I Standing On A Soapbox How Did This Happen This Was A Terrible Idea MUST HIDE NOW.

(I never claim that the way my brain works makes sense. It is what it is. *sigh*)

Here’s the experiment. I’m going to write a book, and I’m going to show you how to do it, too, from concept to plot to outline to the rough draft and, if all the assorted gods and goddesses of literature are with us, maybe even carry it all the way through and wind up with something publishable at the end.

And here’s the fun part – I want you to Write With Me!

I’ll explain each step, why it’s important, and show you how all the different parts fit together… because if there’s one thing I could study forever, it’s why certain stories are so popular. I love picking plots apart and seeing what makes them tick.

I’ll also introduce you to some of my favorite tools and resources along the way, possibly add in some more detailed articles about the nuts and bolts of word-craft, and maybe (definitely) spice it up with pictures of my cat, free of charge.

(Her name is Velcro. YOU’RE WELCOME.)

So… this isn’t a soapbox. (Hear that, brain? No soapboxes here!) This is more like me sitting at a table with my notebook open, and there are plenty of chairs and notebooks ready and waiting for anyone that wants to join in.

So have a seat. Get out a pen. Let’s write!

Cautionary Disclaimer the First: I focus mostly on fantasy/sci-fi commercial fiction, the kind with an Evil Being that must be Defeated so the Hero can achieve Happily Ever After. You know—Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, that kind of stuff. My methods may work for other kinds of fiction, but I’ve never tried it personally, so I don’t know how it would fit. You’re certainly welcome to take it for a test drive if you like!

Cautionary Disclaimer the Second: Pantsers beware. The entire goal of my system is to create a detailed outline of interwoven plotlines that can then be expanded into a full draft. I like to think of outlining as pantsing in a very efficient way, with customizable bullet points, before you get weighed down by 50,000+ words, but your mileage may vary. Fair warning!

(Plotters… you’re going to love this.)