Gail Z. Martin: Plotting out the Plot


Reign of FINALOutlines are great, but I have discovered a new power tool when it comes to plotting—flow charts.

Publishers like to see a synopsis and a detailed outline. These help a lot, but I’ve found that when I really get into the nitty-gritty of writing, they often are too high-level to point me in the right direction. In a 600+ page epic fantasy with multiple point-of-view (POV) characters and interweaving plot threads, it can get difficult to keep straight who is doing what to whom.

Enter the flow chart.

Mine are pretty simple. I use either several pieces of legal-size table paper taped together or a white board. I start with chapter numbers across the top, and the names of the POV characters down the left side. Then I note who is doing what in each chapter. Usually, one character owns the POV for a particular chapter, so that makes it a little easier. When I’m done (do this in pencil!) I can see where the holes are. For example, I may see that one character has hogged the POV for several chapters in a row, while we haven’t heard from another character in way too long.

If I decide during a rewrite that I need to add more scenes, the flow chart is my best friend. I can see exactly where to insert the new material so that it helps, rather than hinders, the narrative flow. And if I decided to move things around and change the sequencing, the flow chart helps me keep it all straight.

Not only that, but the flow chart also gives me a visual representation showing how much is left to write. So when my inner child starts asking, “Are we there yet? Are we there yet?” I can point to the flow chart and supply the answer.

Flow charting like this also helps with collaboration. My husband is my best go-to brainstormer. With the flow chart in front of us, it’s easier to have productive “what if?” sessions, because we can see the plot unfolding in front of us. It makes it a lot easier to punch up the action in a slow part, or insert some eleventh-hour flash of inspiration and not muck up everything around it.

My flow charts aren’t pretty, and they don’t follow anyone else’s rules, but they get the job done. There’s no wrong way to do it, so if my format doesn’t work for you, feel free to do it however it makes sense for you. But if you find yourself getting mired down mid-book, flow charting just might help you get out of the weeds and back in the game!



Gail Z. Martin is the author of Ice Forged in The Ascendant Kingdoms Saga and Reign of Ash (Orbit Books, 2014), plus The Chronicles of The Necromancer series (The Summoner, The Blood King, Dark Haven & Dark Lady’s Chosen ) from Solaris Books and The Fallen Kings Cycle (The Sworn and The Dread) from Orbit Books. Gail’s new urban fantasy novel, Deadly Curiosities, debuts from Solaris Books in June, 2014. Iron and Blood, a Steampunk novel, will be published by Solaris in 2015. She is also the author of two series of ebook short stories: The Jonmarc Vahanian Adventures and the Deadly Curiosities Adventures. Find her at, on Facebook as Winter Kingdoms, and on Twitter @GailZMartin.



5 comments to Gail Z. Martin: Plotting out the Plot

  • Sticky notes and white boards!! That’s what I use. When Sarah and I plotted our novel, we used sticky notes on a blank wall in the dining room where we wrote. We also used a white board. We put each scene on a stickey note, and wrote what happened. We’ve got 2 pov characters, so each got their own space on the wall (one one a wall, one on a white board). Then we looked, like you did, to see where there were gaps, or where things didn’t make sense. We used a slightly tweaked version of Carrie Ryan’s 3 act structure that she posted here a while ago. This helped us track the emotional arc of the story. We were able to see big gaps not just in things like “wait, this character hasn’t been around for like 6 scenes!” but also “this character isn’t evolving emotionally, and then here, he’s supposed to be different! Ack!” It was really useful. Large white boards. Multi-colored pens. Sticky notes. Invaluable tools. 🙂

    Reading this made me also conclude that for my current WIP, I should get out the white board. (I’ve just been using a legal pad, and I think I need the visual of a white board.)

  • Love this idea. It’s been years since I wrote epic fantasy with multiple POV characters, and it will probably be at least a couple more before I get back to it, but when I do, I’ll consider this approach. Because the outlines I do now for my single-POV urban fantasies won’t work with multithread storytelling.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Plot threads. At the time of my first big revision of my WIP, I was living in a small, crowded apartment, so I laid out 4 long pieces of yarn (3 for each of the primary MCs and 1 for everything else) on my kitchen floor, and wrote all of my scenes onto slips of paper with rolled scotch tape to stick them to the yarn. Then I started swapping them around and adding paper slips for new scenes where things were missing. Then I translated the final results to an Excel sheet with characters across the top and chapters progressing down (for some reason my brain rebels against understanding time flow in a horizontal direction).

    Not sure what the best approach is for my new project since the plan is for single POV, but I like Pea_faerie’s idea of breaking things up between the different types of arcs! As usual, the internal arcs make more sense to me at the start, and I need to make sure the skeleton of external plot I add in is good and strong.

    Yay for visual aids to this wordy medium!

  • My husband is my best brainstorm buddy, too. Not that friends aren’t great, sometimes, but he knows how I think, so I often don’t even have to explain what I’m hunting for when we start bouncing ideas around.

    My outlines are so messy nobody but me can read them. I was working on one today during a meeting on my own time when no one could possibly think I wasn’t paying attention to anything else 😀 and I realized it looked like nothing more than a page full of scribble.

  • Razziecat

    OK, I confess that I cringed when I saw the words “flow chart.” Then I read the whole post and darned if it doesn’t actually sound like it could work for me! I’m revising something and having a little trouble visualizing the story as a whole; I’m going to try a flow chart of some sort to see if that helps. Thanks, Gail! 🙂 And Hepseba, I love your plot thread idea, too!