Have you ever noticed how work can expand to fill the time allowed for it? Rambling plots can do the same. If your short story or novel is wandering aimlessly (or, worse, going nowhere) but you hate to outline, try this trick.
Instead of locking yourself into a rigid structure like those Roman-numerals that intimidated you in school, develop your fictional flow using a calendar. Because even if you don’t know yet exactly how your characters will get to the conclusion, you can define when events occur, depending on what you’re writing: a summer romance, a coming-of-age tale, a multi-generational saga, or an action-packed thriller with the bomb’s timer counting down.
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The first entry of your calendar will be the inciting incident. The last entry will be the resolution. In between, space out the major plot points – setbacks, successes, fresh complications – as your characters strive to overcome their obstacles and reach their goal(s). No fancy details are required, just brief placeholders: buy lottery ticket, lose job, break code. Next, do the same for any subplots.
Try working backward, if that helps, from desired effects to suitable causes. Ah, now the pressure is off: You’re not trying to push forward into the unknown. You’re merely playing the “what if” game within loosely defined boundaries.
This visual representation can also highlight flaws in the story arc. If an issue is resolved the next morning, was the problem feeble or the solution too simplistic? If a climax is months away, do you periodically throw enough fresh fuel onto the narrative fire to keep it blazing? Add or rearrange events to fill bare spots as needed. Consider stretching the entire time frame to allow for enrichment or compressing it to heighten the tension.
Organizing in temporal terms can also help you anchor your story in real time. Do weather, holidays, or season changes play a role? Watch for timing errors, too, like full moons only three weeks apart or a 10-month pregnancy.
Record your “calendar” using whatever medium suits you best: a computer table, handwritten grid, or even a traditional print calendar.
You now have a datebook filled with a series of “appointments” – appropriately spaced narrative dots for you to connect, with plenty of room in between for flourishes of inspiration. And not a Roman numeral in sight.
—Barbara J. Petoskey’s work has been collected in books including The Best Contemporary Women’s Humor, The Bride of Funny-side, and This Sporting Life, and appeared in periodicals such as Cat Fancy, Bostonia, and The Bloomsbury Review.
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