Author Toolbox #1: Plotting, Sub-Plotting, and Series Threads

This post was written for the Author Toolbox Blog Hop where we share our new discoveries on the craft of writing, editing, querying, marketing, publishing, and blogging tips. Posted every third Wednesday of the month. For rules and sign-up click here.

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Hi I’m new to the toolbox meme, and I wanted to thank Erika. I read one of her posts and before I knew it I was signing up too. I regularly post about my latest discoveries. When I’ve spent hours root them out, I figure the least I can do is share.

You’ll note I’ve included some links to previous posts. Not because I’m all knowing—we all know I’m not. It’s more of a just-in-case-you’re-interested kind of thing. Enjoy.

This month I’ve being reviewing plotting, sub-plotting and how to drag the threads through a series. Here’s what I’ve gleaned so far.

Plotting:

Plotting seems straight forward to most. A person telling a story around the campfire knows the tension is increasing, and the twist is a surprise from the listener’s reaction.

Not so true when the work is happening in front of a computer. There may be no one but the writer tapping away, throwing in one great idea after another, and topping it all off with a twist or two.  Eventually ending it by blowing the reader away.

Well that’s the plan. Okay that’s usually my plan. Turned out if I don’t do a bit more planning I land up with something else.

So now I come up with a core idea (usually a mystery) that I plot along a three-act structure, striving for one thing—increasing tension and at least one surprise. Without feedback, I have to use my instincts; later, when the time is right, I’ll pick on a few beta readers.

How do I know I’m succeeding?

Once I get all my bright ideas and twists down I write an outline. Please don’t judge me. I do this as a substitute for people around my campfire. Without an audience, I have to be quite critical to get it right. The final copy looks very similar to a synopsis and I’ll use it when I’m querying.

Since this rarely lets me reach my word count, I need to find ways to enhance the storyline. Adding some depth to my supporting cast works by giving them plots of their own.

Sub-plotting:

I guess the biggest question is where does all the tension come from? The protagonist needs to get something done and one person is out to stop them.

Not always.

Personally, if the antagonist showed up on page one in my work and the two of them battled it out, the story is over before it started. As I’m sure you know, mysteries tend to hide the villain until the end.

The supporting cast can fill in for the antagonist and get in the way of achieving the goal… But they need reasons to do so.

One word that always pops into my head is mother. I’m a perfect mother and never annoy my twenty-something son. He never feels I’m interfering or meddling in any way.

But don’t ask him about it, he may tell you the truth. hehehe

So my protagonist always has mother issues. Sometimes best-friend issues and boss issues as well. Keep the list growing and the sub-plots will be plentiful. I’m sure I’m not the only one who noticed that life can get in the way: broken limbs, engine trouble, lenders, borrowers, unexpected ninjas visitors, unemployment, pregnancy, love, hate, and boredom.

Some links:

Series Threads (and the bible):

I write mysteries and very often mysteries lead to a series. With that in mind I try to keep track of people, places and events. The collection of series’ details is called a bible.

Consistency is paramount when writing something over several books. Be kind to yourself and keep track of it all. Unless the mother figure in the book is constantly dying her hair, losing/gaining weight, and shrinking and/or growing. Plan on some kind of reference material.

It can be as simple as bookmarking a special copy of your work to cutting and pasting a special file for each person, place, or event. No one wants to be the person who has to go all their work looking for their mother’s neighbor’s dog’s name because it is suddenly the crux of the next book.

What have I learned?

That only I know the direction my story is going and how exactly I want to get there. Although I seek out feedback, I don’t always take it. I do, however, give each piece of advice serious consideration, knowing the bones of the story really helps me stay on track.

I work hard at being a good storyteller because only a few have been kind enough to read my work. The ones that do deserve my very best effort and I try to put it out there by doing quite a bit of preparation.

What about you? I know you know something I don’t, so share some of your wisdom that gets you through plotting, sub-potting, and series-fact tracking.

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74 responses to “Author Toolbox #1: Plotting, Sub-Plotting, and Series Threads

  1. it sounds like you know what you are doing! Good luck with all of your writing! 😀

  2. Oh wow, so much information!!! Thank you for putting this together. I especially appreciate you going into detail on the series bible. I haven’t had the chance to write a series, yet, but I know I need some way to keep the facts together, and series bibles seemed like so much effort. Now I have a starting point, though!

  3. Great tips! Thanks for sharing! 🙂

  4. Great article! I sat up straight in my chair when I reached the section on how to start a series bible. I’ve been making notes as I go along, capturing them in Scrivener as notes about each character and setting. I need to think about how to organize them and make them easy to reference.

  5. I love witnessing your process and I kind of understand what you mean. Plotting really does sind simple, but it undoubtedly isn’t. I’m far from daring to start such a huge project as a novel, so chapeau for dreaming big 🙂
    But I can’t complain, since I’m not exactly being idle either – just opened a second blog to polish off my English writing skills. Wish me luck 🙂
    Lots of love
    Smarty

  6. Scrivener as has been mentioned. Character profiling including character world profiling in Word. Creating lists. My Bullet Journal–love it, and a new discovery this year.
    Juneta @ Writer’s Gambit

  7. Great tips, I think I need to work on sub-plotting! I keep a Word doc with my book notes so I can easily search for anything when I need it, like an age or eye colour, it’s an absolute lifesaver!

  8. I’d never heard it called ‘the bible’ before, so that was new to me. I have one of those for my current series. Nice post, Anna!

  9. Excellent article! I’ve always kept series bibles in binders and this week I’ve finally started typing one of them up. 2,557 words of worldbuilding so far and SO MUCH MORE to go!

  10. Anna – thanks for the great tips, especially on sub-plotting. That’s something I’m actively trying to work through in the current revisions I’m doing.

  11. It’s weird because I have no problem with the plot and structure of my stories. It just comes naturally and easily for me. But I know other writers struggle with it.

  12. Great post. I only think about the beginning, the middle and the end. Oh, and what my MC really hates or fears. Then there are the people AKA characters. I think about them a lot.

  13. It is always interesting to hear another writer’s method. So when working on your series do you end up plotting across multiple books simultaneously or do you focus in on one until it’s done?
    Since I world build through characters I tend to plot across multiple books and then add the pertinent information that spans them to my bible, which is its own Scrivener project. However, when it comes to writing the stories I focus on one at a time to keep it consistent in voice.

    • The murder must be solved; therefore, each book is a stand-alone. It includes open-ended threads, some finishing and others hinting at new beginnings.

  14. It’s interesting to hear about other writers processes.
    I generally get an idea and plough on with no plan. I’m still adding characters a third of the way in, and the plot isn’t finalised yet.
    I love the idea of having a collection of series details. I’m going to develop this, because my trilogy is getting disorganised and hard to keep track of! (I am guilty of being the person who hits ‘Ctrl+F frantically searching for details!)

  15. Lately, I’ve been working with that image – telling stories around a campfire – to help me imagine my audience, to help with the story-telling aspect of writing. 🙂

  16. Great post. Love the sub-plotting.

  17. I’m a pantser, so my plotting consists of knowing point A and point B. Then with some characters eager to go, I just write. Sub-plots are my favorite things to weave in. I love it when they all come together at the end.

  18. I did not know the series details are called a bible, but it makes sense. I have a file with bits and snippets from previous stories that I keep, I’ll have to rename it 🙂
    How do you start subsequent stories and reintroduce the characters/details without writing an info dump?

    • Just like backstory–one sentence at a time. They are slipped when needed, but I write stand alone books. Each genre has its own method of filling in the past.

  19. I create a loose outline for first drafts with the beginning, major plot points, several twists, character motivations, and ending. From there (after the completion of the first draft) I create a chapter by chapter outline that becomes my story bible. It also very clearly shows where pacing and arcs are off.

  20. Loni Townsend

    Awesome tips! I’m a bit of a plantser–planning events, pantsing the outcome–when it comes to writing, but I do have a “bible” so to speak. It’s a Google site hidden from public searches with all of my characters, the calendar (since I write fantasy), the races and their powers, the social structure… all of that squared away on pages for my own consumption. I even have marked out sections to show when I’ve changed plans.

    I really like your links. Thanks!

  21. Great article. Like MC Frye, I use scrivener to keep track of details. I write a series so it’s important to keep track of things over the long run. It’s very easy to forget stuff without a process in place.

  22. Thanks for sharing your process. It so interesting to see how authors plan their novels. It seems like everyone does it differently

  23. I hate outlining. I’ve done it and I’ve even written to an outline once or twice, but truthfully, I discover things as I first draft. But I always have a separate document for notes for a project. And generally a timeline somewhere.

    • I always go off topic and wander around in wild loops far from the core of the matter. Also anyone who’s had a conversion with me wishes I outlined our talk as well. hehehe

  24. Thanks for these great tips, Anna! 🙂

  25. I never made the connection that this was called a “story bible.” It’s what I’m in the process of making right now! They are so tough, but in the long run, my book will definitely be better for it.

  26. Great post, and welcome to the Author Toolbox Blog Hop!I love the idea of creating a “Bible” for a WIP. I did actually create something similar, where I had all of the characters, their descriptions, details like their birthdays, etc., even though the work was a standalone novel and not a series. But, having a document like that can help keep things consistent from scene to scene.

    Thanks for sharing!

  27. I love this! It is tough to create our work when it’s just us at the computer. It feels like we’re writing in a vacuum. We don’t even know if it resonates until much later when it’s actually published.

  28. These are very fresh perspectives. I especially took note of what you had to say about series bible.

  29. That is the first time that I’ve heard the term series bible. Thank you for teaching me this, as well as for the insightful post. I’m so happy you joined the #AuthorToolboxBlogHop, and thank you as always to Erika for being Erika. Can’t wait to read your next post!

  30. A timely reminder that I really should go back at some point (probably sooner will be better than later) and try tidying up my haphazard previous attempt at making a series bible. Thanks

  31. Having a plan to keep track of all of your character details is a must! I like your suggestions on how to make that happen using a “bible.”

  32. I tend to figure out the initial problem and the scene in which the character overcomes that problem and work from there. I’ve found if I do too much plotting, I’m going to throw a lot of it away as new paths occur to me while I’m writing. Thanks for the story breakdown.

  33. Thanks so much for sharing these tips, Anna! I don’t outline, but there’s still a lot of good food for thought here.

  34. I really enjoyed your thoughts. I’m working closely with an author on his next book and noticed a few things that are very helpful. I’ve also been working on a series with him and never knew it was called a bible.

  35. i love the meddling mother metaphor for subplots! that’s awesome!
    and great info and advice for the toolbox – thank you.
    glad i stopped by!
    Tara Tyler Talks

If you're new to writing, ask me anything and if you're experienced, feel free to share what you know. Learning something new in the craft is always welcome.

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