Tag Archives: plotting

3 Wildly Creative Outlines for Writers

 Fiction-Zone: Leaps in Fiction Mastery by Diane Holmes, Chief Alchemist of Pitch University

But I hate outlines!

No, we’re not talking an outline with numbers and letters and 13 levels of indention.  That’s linear stuff.  It’s so old school.

We’re talking about how to harness the power of our nonlinear brains, our creativity, our sparks of inspiration and our leaps of understanding.  How do you make sense of that on paper?

By using wildly creative outlines, of course.

Mind Maps

Most of you already know about mind maps.  It’s a way of taking notes and learning, but also a way of organizing a tsunami of thought (the brainstorm) that’s visual, colorful, and full of POW.

mind map

Tony Buzan camp up with Mind Mapping in the late 1960’s, and his resources are still the best around.   How to Draw a Mind Map.  A sampling of available tools.


A timeline is an invaluable thing for novelists as we often need to know exactly who is doing what in every, single scene, over the entire length of story-time.


In some genres, this is an incredibly complex task, as you’re juggling dozens of characters, each acting independently, over days or even years.

But even more important to the logic of a novel is to capture who KNOWS exactly what at each critical moment in time.  And often what a character thinks he or she knows isn’t even true.  So, based on events so far, what does he or she they know?

Now do that for each character in every scene AND for all the scenes that actually happen off stage.  Often characters are buy plotting against each other and the reader doesn’t see what’s happening, only the effects on down the line.

Well, the writer has to see what’s happening!  We’re not the god of our universe for nothing!

So, for this type of complexity, you need a timeline that allow you to capture overlapping data.

What makes this a creative way of outlining is the way you can visually see how things overlap while factoring in time.

  • Take a look at MIT’s open-source SIMILE widgets, specifically Timeline.
  • Documentation here.  “There is no package to download. These widgets are hosted on simile-widgets.org. All you need to do is link to them in your web page. That’s it.”

IDEA:  You probably have a website (even if you call it a blog).  Create a page that is either hidden or secured by password (very easy to do in WordPress).  Insert the Simile Timeline widget on this page.  Then go to town!

BONUS:  You can use Timelines to try out ideas and see if things work!  It’s a clever way of inserting a new idea, and then tracking the ripple effect that it generates.

The Critical Path

Are all events equally important?  Does every character and every scene hinge on each event or only some… or one?

Welcome to the concept of the Critical Path.

critical path eggs

There are thousands of events in a novel, and yet they don’t all have the same importance (weight), and that’s important to novelists.

Related to the issue of importance is “what must happen in order of this event to occur?” and “what can happen now that this event is complete?”  This is the essence of cause an effect, action and reaction.

It’s these questions that lead you to PLOT.  Plus, in novels these events also intersect with character goals, motivations, conflict, backstory, and so on.

You need to know all this.  But more importantly, you need to play with all this.

Most software that is aimed at finding the Critical Path falls under the topic of Project Management, and uses Gantt charts to visual show tasks.

excel-gantt-chart-MF_large Nothing sucks the fun out of writing more than a Gantt Chart.  And I don’t necessarily recommend this type of project software because of the learning curve.  However, if charts and columns are your thing, go for it.  (A good place to start is to grab an Excel temple.)

Instead, I recommend using your non-technical set of markers, a sense of humor, and a piece of paper.

Here are some examples for inspiration:

The Plot of The Princess Bride via MyLiteraryQuest

(see large here):


J. K. Rowling’s Plot Notes via Jacqui Murray’s WorldDreams:

handwritten plot notes

Finding your plot and critical path using a rug (with horizontal lines) and post-it notes via Jason Webster’s Blog.

postit note plotting

Free Project Management Critical Path software.

More Resources for Creative Outlines:

Mother Of All Visual and Creative Mapping Sources.

Periodic Table of Visual Organization and Maps

clip_image004Diane writes two alternating columns for Freelance-Zone:Fiction-Zone: Leaps in Fiction Mastery and Marketing-Zone:Marketing-Zone: Marketing Yourself and Your Book.

5 Ways to Take Your Fiction Writing from Good to Great (with occasional references to The Princess Bride)

Fiction-Zone: Leaps in Fiction Mastery by Diane Holmes, Chief Alchemist of Pitch University

#1 Learn how to improve.

Have you ever heard the advice to write every day?

There’s something about using your writing muscles every day that can help you stay in the flow of your story and keep you productive.

But don’t just write every day. Write to improve every day.

Yes, that’s right.


Make sure today’s ability to write stories is even better than yesterday’s.

#2 Prove that you’ve improved.

Look at the page you’ve written. 

You want to see real evidence of your new super powers physically on the page, in the texture of your story, in the characterization, plotting, conflict, and on and on.

There are thousands of things to improve.

Your stories themselves should be getting better.  The ideas.  The choices.  The drama.  And the language you use to project the illusion into the mind and heart of the reader.

If you want to be truly great, then it’s not just about increasing your understanding.  It’s about greatness ending up on the page.

“Writing is finally about one thing: going into a room alone and doing it. Putting words on paper that have never been there in quite that way before.”
–William Goldman, author of Princess Bride

#3 Surprise yourself.

It’s easy end up in the proven land of “things that work.”

So surprise yourself with things that shouldn’t work but do.  Come out of left field.

Create your own Cliffs of Insanity.

#4 Take risks, even when you think you’ll ruin everything.

There’s awfully good traction you can gain from playing out on the bleeding edge, where you could “ruin everything.”

If you start to panic too much, your friends will calm you down.

Then do it anyway.  Could be a pretty good scene.

From Which Lie Did I Tell?: More Adventures in the Screen Trade, William Goldman talks about “that one scene” in When Harry Met Sally:

”What you cannot imagine now is the shock value of that scene.”

Some scene, eh?

#5  Learn how not to worry.

Sometimes all that improving and risk taking is scary.

But, really, all you need is a giant.

And you’ll be fine.

Need more Princess Bride-inspired writing advice?

Read  JulieD’s “Have Fun Storming The Castle – Writing Lessons From The Princess Bride.”

Bonus:  Nice article about the process of converting visitors (or even potential readers) into customers (such as book buyers).

“Conversion statistics, rodents of unusual size and the finest swordsman that ever lived” Posted by: Scott Tuesday

clip_image004Diane writes two alternating columns for Freelance-Zone:Fiction-Zone: Leaps in Fiction Mastery and Marketing-Zone:Marketing-Zone: Marketing Yourself and Your Book.

1 Ice Pick, 1 Gun, & 10 Scene-Level Insights

Fiction-Zone: Leaps in Fiction Mastery by Diane Holmes, Chief Alchemist of Pitch University

FX Network’s Justified is a modern day Western, inspired by Elmore Leonard’s books and created by Graham Yost.   It’s some of the best writing out there, and you can learn a lot by following along.


Today, I’m featuring writer and creator, Graham Yost, director Michael Dinner, and editor Bill Johnson in a video on what it takes to create one simple scene.

Why?  Mastery, baby.  That’s why.

One thing that’s dang hard to communicate in writing fiction is how to have a “sure hand” in storytelling.  Well, here are 10 takeaways from these Big Guns on what it takes to put together a killer scene.

The catch? When you write novels, you have to be the writer, the director, the editor, and all the actors.  Just you.  So cowboy  up.

Justified episode: The Gunfighter (301)

Bad Guy: Fletcher Nix (Desmond Harrington), stone-cold killer for hire (or just because he wants to).

Good Guy: Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), a deputy U. S. Marshall, enforcing justice in his backwoods hometown of Harlan, Kentucky.

Raylan’s Girlfriend: Winona Hawkins (Natalie Zea), the woman he loved, left, and came back to.

Hint:  Someone’s gonna die.


1) Parallel Scenes.

There’s cool power in crafting parallel scenes, where action, dynamics, and story repeats.  When it comes to the second time around, the reader/audience shows up knowing (and dreading) what’s going to happen.  She has insider information and expectations that make for a juicy payoff.

2) Recognize a good idea, even if it isn’t your own.

3) Orchestrate the action like a dance.

Do it by the marks until it flows, 1, 2, 3.  Then let it rip.  And remember, every character has his own rhythm.

4) It’s not right until you feel the electricity.

There’s an electricity that happens when things get real and the camera’s roll.  Everything else is just practice.

5) What’s he gonna do next?

It all comes down to powerful characters watching each other’s behavior, figuring out what’s gonna happen.

6) People develop a shorthand with each other, complete each other’s sentences.

This is also true of characters.  They remember what happened when they met before.  They develop a shorthand based on personality and experience.

7) Have a concrete idea, but look for lucky accidents.

You’ve got to be confident enough to throw it all out the window,  because you found something even better.

8) Show the wheels turning inside your character’s head.

Make it visual.  Turn strategy into action, nuance, and the twitch of a muscle.

9) Look for moments that work beautifully.

That right there.  That’s the moment you want.

10) Give context and grounding, like the sound of trucks going by.

The sound of a truck can create the reality where it’s possible, just maybe, for a killer with an ice pick to lose.

Write on.

clip_image004Diane writes two alternating columns for Freelance-Zone:Fiction-Zone: Leaps in Fiction Mastery and Marketing-Zone:Marketing-Zone: Marketing Yourself and Your Book.

5 Way To Turn a Dreadful Scene Into a Winner

Fiction-Zone: Leaps in Fiction Mastery by Diane Holmes, Chief Alchemist of Pitch University

Does your scene suck?

There, there, Overly-Dramatic Literary Peep.  I hear your whimper, and, I– 

Hey!  Quit banging your head on the table.  Enough already.  It’s hard to type this column when the table keeps jumping backward a half inch at a time.

Much better.  Now one of the best things about writers is that we’re so darn perfectionistic and so seldom satisfied even if we reach it.  That’s what keeps us humble.

But if we’re going to get past the dreadful, we’ll have to move from drama to solutions. 

Here are the 5 easiest ways to mend a dreadful scene:

1.  Give your character a job. 

No, I don’t mean a career or a way to make money.  I mean, give your character a job in the scene, something she or he needs to accomplish, get done, or prevent.

In fact, give all your characters jobs.

In my experience, authors often kick-off a scene by dropping a character “somewhere” and then waiting to see what happens.  So, a whole lotta characters show up places and don’t know what to do.

Hence, nothing happens.  (Except for a dreadful scene.)

Solution: Job.

2.  Capture your character’s attention.

Sometimes characters just start noticing anything and everything, and thinking about it at length. 

They reminisce at the drop of a hat (or at the drop of an overused expression).  They wander around, equally delighted by everything they see and hear, just thinking and  free associating.

What you need is a sharp whistle to get their attention and to command them to do the scene assignment.

  • Sometimes the sharp whistle will be another character demanding attention. 
  • Sometimes it will be an ongoing plot problem that shouldn’t be forgotten about for one second. 
  • And at other times it will be blood.  Blood always does a good job and focusing a character’s attention.  Just a hint.

Solution: Sharp Referee Whistle.

3.  Get Rid of The Dialogue Swamp

If your scene sucks, I can almost guarantee you that your characters are bogged down in dialogue. 

They have to do something, right?  And they can’t just NOT talk, can they?

Yeah, yeah, but the pull of the dialogue swamp is pulling them under.  Sometimes, giving them a job will solve this problem.  Sometimes, that sharp whistle will do the trick.

But if those two don’t work, you’re going to have to realize that the entire dialogue stream has to change.  You won’t just write yourself out of it.  You’re stuck.

So go back to where the dialogue started, and have one of the characters say something totally startling, something so riveting that the other character stops dead in her tracks and says, “What?!”

Now you’ve got something to talk about.  You also diverted your characters before they reached the swamp of average, go-nowhere dialogue.  Instead, you’re on the firm ground of dialogue that matters.

Solution: “Say, What?!” Dialogue

4.  Cut it.

Seriously. If it can’t be fixed, why not write a new scene? Yes, a better one.

Snip. Snip.

Solution: Do Over.

5. Find The Passion.

Got a rise out of you, didn’t I?  You say, “But I CAN’T cut this scene?!”

Okay, that’s more passion than you have in your entire scene, and that’s what’s missing.

Give your character something to care so much about that she’ll fight to the death for it.

Yes.  In this scene.

Solution: Kick-Ass Passion.

That’s if for today.  And, here, have a tissue.  It’s time to write.

clip_image004Diane writes two alternating columns for Freelance-Zone:Fiction-Zone: Leaps in Fiction Mastery and Marketing-Zone:Marketing-Zone: Marketing Yourself and Your Book.

5 Strange (But Helpful) Tips for Writing A Great Novel

Fiction-Zone: Leaps in Fiction Mastery by Diane Holmes, Chief Alchemist of Pitch University

#1 Learn to recognize a really great idea.

Most writers have lots of good ideas.  Workable ideas.  Ideas that seem interesting and full of promise.  But most writers have very few GREAT ideas. Showstoppers. Strokes of pure genius.


Learning to recognize the difference between a good idea that is probably publishable and a great idea that could launch a bestselling career is a pretty neat skill to have.

So start training yourself to rate ideas, plot points, twists, and all the ways that plot conveys story.

Try using a 10 point scale, where 10 is HOLY COW, and 5 is what you see in most published books.

Shoot for a 10.

Now do the same when you build your characters.

#2  Learn to wow 2 people on every page.

You and your reader.  You haven’t hit wow until you are amazed at what you wrote… and so is your reader.

#3 Write to devastate your characters (and your reader).

Don’t be neutral.  Don’t be small.  Don’t pull your punches.  Don’t relegate trauma to off-stage.

Show us the mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical blood of your story, right on the page.

Let us know that this story matters.  Not just in this sentence or paragraph, but in the nuclear fallout of every scene after that.

#4 Don’t do the work for the reader.

One of the greatest joys as a reader is…

  • piecing together the subtext of what your characters are scheming,
  • following the threads of meaning to the awful truth,
  • understanding (or speculating about) the repercussions of ever single action, every word spoken, and
  • drawing awful conclusions about what is to come.

There is tendency for writers to rob readers of this joy by spelling out every motivation, every piece of backstory, every conflict, every thought as if the character has spent years in therapy and now understands “the universe” with startling clarity and clinical detachment.

Stop that.  It sucks the fun out of reading.

It’s annoying to have everything explained in a sanitized “sound bite” before we, the readers, even know we need it.

#5 Build to a staggering conclusion; deliver even more.

Don’t let yourself off easy.  Build a powerful ending, and then blow the doors off that.

Readers have already seen al the powerful endings.  Whatever it is that you’re writing, your reader has read a hundred or so books just like that.

Do more.  Pull it off like no one has done before.  Reach into the guts of your story and rip out all the meaning and power you can.  And then take it all the way home.

clip_image004Diane writes two alternating columns for Freelance-Zone:Fiction-Zone: Leaps in Fiction Mastery and Marketing-Zone:Marketing-Zone: Marketing Yourself and Your Book.