As a writer, I’m always on the lookout for innovative plotting techniques that might improve my output or help me put together a story faster. Recently, I’ve been especially focused on how people structure their books, since that’s one of my weaker areas and I want to see if it can work for me. I’m not a natural plotter, but I think it can give my work a level of structure that can improve it and also prevent me from starting novels that I don’t finish-both of which are worth trying for.
I really did think I knew most of the techniques out there, and surveyed a bunch of them in my recent Prepping Your Novel post. Almost all of them are based on the concept of beats, acts, or breaking your story down into scenes, and I had pretty much settled on the idea that all plotting methods were variants of the beat/act/scene approach.
Then yesterday, I found something that blew my mind- another way.
The Phase Method is a method pioneered by Lazette Gifford, and she explains it on her website like this:
Phases are written out as key phrases that will bring the next set of lines — the next action — into focus. This is not a scene-by-scene outline, but something worked out in much shorter sections. A phase can be clues to dialogue, if that’s what the section’s focus is centered around, or it might be a little bit of description, or a set of actions… anything that will make the story move another few hundred words. Usually a ‘phase’ will only run from twenty to fifty words in the outline.
In simplest terms, what she’s doing is turning the story into a series of small chunks with each phase representing a series of key ideas,images,words and thoughts that would take up about 200 words of the actual text (or more, depending on the length of the work). That might be a scene, or it might just be a piece of a scene, but it’s reduced to a point-form item that almost sounds like stream-of-consciousness thought. She gives the following examples:
1. Tristan in the room aboard the ship, resting, thinking about going home, feeling the world changing. It feels like traveling between realities, without any of the work. (28 words)
196. Voices call him back. Mother — What the hell is that? Get your bows ready! Praise Gods for her. She never wavered, never panicked. Kills the creature. Lehan? Open the door. Takes a moment, and then the door flies open and he is knocked back. (46 words)
197. Wounded! Not bad. Bad enough to put you down! You knocked me down. Didn’t have to kick the door open. What was that? Anyone know? No one does. Others take bows and torches to scout the trail near the village, but not far before light. (46 words)
So, as you can see, it’s really abstract, but at the same time captures the essence of what she thinks will happen during that phase. (See what she turned each of these phases into on her website above to compare.) These are almost like micro-story-beats, or (forgive me) story heartbeats! With each phase capturing the essence of a single pulse of the story. Using this method, she also claims to have managed to bang out 10,000 words/day, because the essence of each scene is already finished.
You can read the rest of the details on her website, but I have to say this is an innovative approach to the story outlining process and one I intend to experiment with. I love using point-form lists (which this is structured around) for planning and organizing, and its both abstract and concrete at the same time in a way which I think might work with my own style. It’s definitely not an approach for everyone, but I think it could be quiet helpful for people who tend to think in more image-based or dialog-based terms.
Plus, to me, it looks like a kind of raw story poetry. Which has a beauty all its own.
This is a little more organized than what I used for “The Age of Adventure” but somewhat similar. I’m going to give it a thought and see if I can modify what I’m doing for it.
I would set mine up with:
Chapter: – All the Beats.
The Backstory/Seeding part is important for me because I’m always trying to have some aspect of filling in information from previous chapters, and seeding some mystery for the future or foreshadowing something to come.
I live by the JMS dictum “All scenes have to push the plot forward or develop the character”. While he did say this about script writing, I don’t see why this has to not also include novel or short story writing.
I disagree with JMS about a few things, and one of those is the “or” between what needs to be developed, it should be “and”, as in “all scenes need to develop plot AND character”, so should pretty much everything else that’s part of the story. Every word and action shows who the characters are, so it’s all connected.
Actually, I never worry much about seeding and backstory when I’m planning or plotting, I find it tends to work its way in naturally during the actual writing process. (Unless we’re talking major plot points, which of course have to be set up.) I’ve always been a scene-by-scene planner, though, so that’s why I find this approach so fascinating. I think it will take a bit of getting used to, but could work for me.