Friday, April 4, 2014

The Laundry Line: Story Structure

In last month’s installment of this novel planning series, I moved onto story structure, discussing the big-picture methods I find most useful. I work through each, ending with a handful of major plot points. This is a great way to start. But then I delve deep. Like oil drilling deep.

Because my ultimate goal is to create a scene-by-scene beat sheet, which incidentally, is why this series started where it did.

When I began, I assumed you had your kernel that you’d popped into three disasters because you can’t plot a novel if you don’t have an idea! But before we could get to structure and beat sheets, we needed to go through the steps: writing exercises, inside and outside story, characters profiles and the wound and a want, and setting.

With all these elements in place, we can fill in that beat sheet, right?

Not quite.

Because we now need to start thinking about the smaller picture. To ease us into this idea of breaking down our bigger plot points into bite-size scenes, I want to share an analogy that hit home for me: the laundry line.

Picture a wide open space, green grass on the ground, puffy white clouds in the sky. The sun is shining down on a backyard clothesline. One tall pole staked in the dirt on one side, a matching one on the other, and a long, straight rope in between.

Think of the first pole as your opening scene. Think of the second as your ending scene. And the rope is your story. Start “hanging” your plot points on the laundry line. Your inciting incident goes somewhere very close to that first pole. Your first “disaster” goes 20%-25% of the way in. Your midpoint dangles at 50% and your third at 75%. Do you have a climax yet? If so, stick a pin on that line at 85%-90%.

Step back and take a look. Start thinking about how you get from each element to the next. Think about the characters you’ve fully developed by doing character profiles. Think about the setting that you’ve placed these characters in. Think about their wounds and their wants that form the inside and outside story. Think about the points introduced last month like Story Engineering’s “pinch points” and the fifteen Save the Cat beats. Put all that hard work you’ve done so far to use by figuring out what additional big scenes you need to get the story to work, to go from disaster to disaster.

Start hanging them on that line and stringing them together. And don’t worry, you can move them around. But get them up there so you can see them. If a small scene comes to you, great, get it up there too. But for now, concentrate on the bigger milestones. We’ll get to the small ones next.

This is a great way to, literally, visualize your story taking shape. You can do this by hand on a long scroll of paper (rice paper or butcher paper works well); with physical index cards; with online programs like Scrivener. There are even apps for smartphones that mimic index cards. Or you can list them in outline form in a notebook or in a Word file. Do whatever works for you.

I’m a bit old school and I like the index card method. I sit at my dining room table and start filling out card by card and arranging them in a row. Standing there, watching my idea actually become a story is exciting and fulfilling — a reward for all the effort I’ve put in just “thinking.” But that thinking is why this clothesline method works as well as it does. I find once I start writing scenes on those cards, my hand can’t write fast enough. I’ve internalized who my characters are and where this story is going. The physical writing of one scene sparks my brain to move to the next and the next. When I get stuck, I do some laps around the house.

Free-Write Synopsis

Let me deviate here for a second, because there’s another technique I use right about this same time: I “free write” a long synopsis. Not one of those one- or two-page synopses we all dread. This is for my eyes only, which takes the pressure off. In truth, the order here varies. Sometimes I take my hook, my three disasters, all my other prep work on characters, etc., and dive right into this synopsis. Other times I wait and do the laundry line/index cards first. I can also be writing this simultaneously while working on the index cards. Figure out what works best for you, and like me, that may change from story to story.

In order to create this synopsis, I take the plot points and bigger picture scenes I have so far and simply write — anywhere from five to fifteen pages. I write down the opening image (which I decided on when I worked through last month’s Save the Cat method), expanding on it, sometimes even writing a very short scene with dialogue. I then plug in each plot point I have so far and start writing between them. It’s almost a stream-of-consciousness type of writing. I let my mind wander, and the synopsis is often full of questions. Would the character do this or that? If she does this, then later, what about that other thing? I don’t worry about answering these questions. I don’t worry if the thread doesn’t make complete sense. I let myself go tons of places and explore every random idea that comes to me — any and every route that can take me from one plot point to the next. If a full scene comes, I write it. If dialogue comes, I write it. I don’t stop myself until I’ve written that closing image (which again I decided on thanks to the Save the Cat exercise) and exhausted myself and my brainstorming.

(Side note: this “free write” synopsis that I did when plotting Becoming Jinn ended in a final closing image and what I thought would be the last few lines of the book. You know what? Those lines in my initial synopsis are still the final lines to my book, post my revisions, post agent revisions, post editor revisions. They’ll be the ones in the final, published book. Pretty neat, huh?)

The Clothesline

After I complete this long synopsis, I then go back to my index cards. I print out this rambling story my brain has strung together and figure out what parts should actually make it into the book, highlighting them and crossing out the others. The ones that stay, I then hang on my laundry line. I start with the big scenes and then add the small ones. I then do the same exact thing with each of my subplots. I plot the subplot disasters, free write the subplots into that synopsis, and then get those subplot scenes onto index cards.

Each time I hang something on that clothesline, I assess what comes before it and what comes after it. I make sure I have a transition into and out of each item pinned to the line. For the subplots, I figure out if they are evenly spaced and spread throughout the novel, appearing at intervals and not all clumped together.

Are all of these scenes complete, fully fleshed out? Absolutely not! There very well may be a card that says “need interaction with XYZ” or “need romance scene here.” But the very notion that I know something is needed makes sure it will eventually be inserted, and inserted in the right spot. This makes the initial writing and the subsequent revisions a heck of a lot easier. I’m not trying to find room to jam something missing into an already finished manuscript. I plan for it at the start (even if, at the start, I don’t know exactly what that “romance” scene will be).

I continue to hone my long synopsis, often it will reach forty pages or more. I leave my index cards on the table for as long as it takes — days, a week, two weeks, three? My husband and I have dinners in front of the TV while my story haunts me from the dining room, calling me to add another card and another and another. Until my entire story, main plot and subplots, is laid out before me.

It is then that I can translate this into a beat sheet. Which I’ll discuss next time.

Lori Goldstein is the author of Becoming Jinn (Feiwel and Friends/Macmillan, Spring 2015, sequel, Spring 2016). With a degree in journalism and more than 10 years of experience, Lori is a freelance copyeditor and manuscript consultant for all genres. She focuses on the nitty-gritty, letting writers focus on the writing.


  1. Nice write-up! Being able to write creatively is something not all of us are capable of. Count yourself blessed because you have a talent. Getting into the mood in writing does not have a set of rules to follow. ‘To each his own’ is what people say; however, a list of suggestions wouldn’t to write a story

  2. Great write-up! Writing is a talent, and it must not be wasted. As with everything that we had been entrusted, we should let it grow and share it with the world.> self development books