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Plot: Finding the Threads (or: How to Eat an Elephant)

Cheryl's Musings: Plot: Finding the Threads (or: How to Eat an Elephant)

Cheryl's Musings

How to Thrive on the Writer's Road


Plot: Finding the Threads (or: How to Eat an Elephant)

Last week, fellow YA author and blogger Julie Musil wrote a terrific post on how to use a spreadsheet analyze and improve your novel’s plot: Performing Plot CPR. If you haven’t read it, check it out. In this post, she provides a framework for getting the big picture of your work in progress so you can see what works, what doesn’t, and what you can cut without regrets.

Photo courtesy of GollyGforce on Flickr Creative Commons

I, too, am deep in the rewrite process—and rewriting a 300-page novel, even one that’s already been through multiple rounds of rewriting and revision is an elephant-sized task. When I try to take on the whole thing at once, it’s easy to get overwhelmed.

However, there’s a time-honored technique for tackling any immense task or problem: divide it into smaller pieces and work on one at a time. Julie’s post explains one way to identify individual story elements where you can focus your efforts, and I want to share another technique: tracing individual story “threads” to make sure that each progresses smoothly and logically throughout the book.

After all, how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

What is a story thread? Any information, relationship, or sequence of events that unfolds gradually during your book. For instance, in my rewrite I’m tracking the following threads:

  • Cass’s conflict with Jen
  • Information about the research station and its history
  • Backstory and explanation for the paranormal element
  • Romance element between Cass and Jason
  • Unfolding (and often conflicting) information about how Cass’s parents died

In order to analyze these individual threads, I create a list with the following information for each chapter:

  • Information revealed/changes that occur
  • Resulting emotion/attitude

Sometimes I need to track more information, in which case my list becomes a spreadsheet, where I add one or all of the following columns:

  • Single-phrase chapter summary  (for ex: on boat to Rodger’s Island, reveals reason for visit)
  • What the character now believes (if the thread pertains to a mystery or unfolding information)
  • What the character now desires

I find this technique particularly helpful for complicated plots, or for a book where I’m so familiar with plot and backstory that I might not notice when I leave out key information.

What story elements do you track when rewriting? Any more tips to share?

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At July 18, 2011 at 7:38 AM , Blogger Andrea Mack said...

Cheryl, I find it really helpful to break things into smaller chunks, otherwise they do seem overwhelming (and I'm not just talking about writing here, I'm working on cleaning up my basement). I've also been finding with revising that sometimes it helps to concentrate on just one element at a time, like fixing the narrator's voice, rather than try to fix everything at once.

At July 18, 2011 at 7:49 AM , Blogger Julie Musil said...

Cheryl, thanks for the shout out, and thanks for this great post! Your process is great, and I love the way you examine each thread. What a great idea.

At July 18, 2011 at 7:53 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a great process! I am so impressed by you and Julie. I simply just try to machete my way through things :) Perhaps I should use a similar one bite at a time strategy.

At July 18, 2011 at 7:55 AM , Blogger Unknown said...

This is awesome as always! Bookmarking it. Oh, and...I blogged about you today :)

At July 18, 2011 at 8:21 AM , Blogger Kelley said...

Well said. I always say things along the same lines when people have editing panics. It's SO easy to get overwhelmed so it's all about easily manageable bite-size chunks :)

At July 18, 2011 at 9:06 AM , Blogger Loree Huebner said...

Great post.

I just did this, and I'm in the final read through.

I did it a chapter at a time. I read and reread behind me to make sure that it all strung together. For me, POV was the problem. I had written this novel 5 years ago when I didn't know any better. The story is good but too much head hopping.

At July 18, 2011 at 9:30 AM , Blogger Cheryl Reif said...

I'm glad this resonated! Thanks for sharing some of the "threads" you all track during a rewrite. Andrea, voice is a big one for me. I don't think I really "get" my character's voice until I'm nearly through the first draft. Lorree, thanks for the smile--I have a similar novel from earlier in my writing journey with way too much head-hopping. I'm hoping to go back to that one later this year. I'm actually working on POV in my current rewrite as well, because I'm making the switch from 1st person present to 3rd person past. I've found that I can't rewrite plot at the same time as I'm switching POV and tense or I get confused :).

Julie, thank YOU for the inspiration! Your post was terrific--definitely bookmark-able.

Houseoflaoch, there's definitely a time and place for using a machete, too. Sometimes that's what you need before you can FIND the threads to untangle. :-)

Hi Charissa--I'll head over to check out your blog! It's a perfect break from that rewrite :)

At July 18, 2011 at 10:56 AM , Blogger Nancy Kelley said...

One of the things I watch in rewrites is the structure of each individual chapter. Is there an opening, conflict, turning point, and resolution? In theory, every section of a novel should contain all those major plot elements. Obviously, the resolution isn't complete or the readers wouldn't need to finish the book. However, there should be some conflict that drives every scene/chapter, and if there isn't... *snipsnip*

At August 11, 2011 at 10:36 PM , Blogger Cheryl Reif said...

Hi Nancy, sometimes I feel like I look at my wip through different colors of lenses--I can see plot structure, setting description, character development, and dialog, but not all at the same time. You've described another important "lens": how is each scene moving the story forward? Thanks for sharing!


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