How to Fill the Gaps in Your Plot

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell
Got the following email the other day:

Dear Mr. Bell,

I recently finished reading your books Super Structure and Write Your Novel From the Middle. They’re awesome, and have taught me a lot about how to better structure a novel. I’ve now sketched out my current novel with the Super Structure beats and feel like I have a solid framework. But the problem I’m running into is filling the spaces between these beats with enough scenes to create a full novel. I’m using Scrivener’s index card feature to write out my scenes, but my poor corkboard looks awfully sparse. 🙂

Do you have any tips or suggestions on how to come up with enough plot to make a whole book? (This is actually a recurring problem for me. I struggle with plotting terribly.)

It’s a great question. Today’s post is my answer.

In Super Structure I describe what I call “signpost scenes.” These are the major structural beats that guarantee a strong foundation for any novel you write.

The idea is that you “drive” from one signpost to another. When you get to a signpost, you can see the next one ahead. How you get to it is up to you. You can plan how, or you can be spontaneous about it.

Or some combination in between!

Now, those who like to map their plots before they begin writing (like my correspondent) can map out all the signposts at the start. But let me give a word to the “pantsers” out there: Don’t be afraid to try some signposting yourself! Because you’ll be doing what pantsers love most–– “spontaneous creativity.” Indeed, signposting before you write will open up even more story fodder for you to play around with. That’s how structure begets story. That’s why story and structure are not at all in conflict. In fact, they are in love.

So let’s discuss those gaps between the signposts. How do you generate material to fill them?

  1. The “white hot” document

I discussed this recently in my post about chasing down ideas (under the heading “Development.”) This is a focused, free-association document. You start with one hour of fast writing, not thinking about structure at all. Think only about story and characters, and be wild and creative about it. Let the document sit, then come back to it for highlighting, new notes, and more white-hot material.

A few days of this exercise will give you a ton of story material and fresh ideas (hear that, pantsers?). Then you can decide on what’s best and where to fit it.

  1. The killer scenes exercise

One of my favorite things to do at the beginning of a project is to take a stack of 3 x 5 cards to my local coffee palace and jot down scene ideas as they come to mind. I don’t censor these ideas. I don’t think about where they might go in the overall structure.

When I have 20 or 30 cards, I shuffle them and pull out two at random, and see what this plot development this suggest. Eventually, I take the best scenes and place them between the signposts of Super Structure.

It’s also a breeze to do this in Scrivener, because that program works off an index-card style system. I create a file folder called “Potential Scenes” and put my cards in that file. The added benefit is that I can actually write part of the scene if I want to and it’s all associated with the index card.

  1. The dictionary game

I have a little pocket dictionary I carry around. When I hit a creative wall, I may open the dictionary at random and pick the first noun I see. I let my mind use that word to create whatever it wants to create, with a little nudging from me toward the actual plot.

  1. The novel journal

I got this idea from Sue Grafton, who is someday going to break out, I’m sure. She keeps a journal for each novel.

Before she starts writing in the morning, she jots a few personal thoughts in the journal––how she’s feeling that day, what’s going on around her. Then she begins talking to herself about the plot of her book. She works things out on paper (or screen).

This is a great way to talk to your writer’s mind and figure things out. Ask yourself questions about plot gaps that need to be filled or strengthened. Make lists of possibilities.

When I wrote my drafts in Word I used to create a separate document for my novel journal. Now that I draft in Scrivener, I make use of one of its nifty features: project notes.

You can float a notes panel over your Scrivener window that is dedicated to your project. Here is what that looks like (click to enlarge):

Try these techniques (you too, pantser) and you’ll be pleased at how the material piles up. Then it won’t be a matter of wondering what to write, but what to leave out!

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19 thoughts on “How to Fill the Gaps in Your Plot

  1. Great post! I tend to do a lot of this in my head, then (as a friend of mine puts it) ‘let the boys in the back work it out’. I call it ‘letting it percolate’. I have some writing friends who are having problems with filling out their plots, though, so I’m going to share this with them.

    Thanks!

  2. When working on the “white hot” document under the DEVELOPMENT file. Do you suggest having a separate page for different aspects like: Plot, Character, theme, ect. or just a single page with everything on it.

    • Good question, Ryan. My answer is no. On the white-hot doc I want it to be free-form and jumbly. I am writing fast, so I don’t want to have to analyze where this thing or that thing might go. I want to be able to follow an idea at a moment’s notice. When I come back to the document the next day, I read it and highlight the parts I like, then begin to riff on those parts, within the document itself.

  3. After a week at Left Coast Crime, I’m finally getting back to the WIP–and TKZ. (BTW, according to Laurie R. King, the term “pantser” should be replaced with “organic writer”). This post gives concrete methods for what I generally let happen in my head, like BJ. Right now, my next signpost is too far away, and I need to get a couple more added.

    • Thanks, Terry. I’ve also heard pantsers call themselves “intuitive writers.” I find that a tad misleading, as if those who brainstorm structurally are not intuitive or organic. My view is that there are efficient and inefficient ways to be “organic.” I like efficiency.

      • Yes, and there’s no law that says you have to do ALL your writing “organically.” The other term presented (and this was at the very informal closing where the keynote authors were responding to questions and humor reigned) was “organized” and further described as “anal.” Faye Kellerman said sometimes she was pure organic, and sometimes she had a “very tight rectum”. It’s whatever works at the time.

  4. What helps me in filling in the index cards with scenes is an exercise I learned from Mr. Bell’s, ‘Plot and Structure.’

    Per his instructions, I did scene cards on ten novels in the genre I wanted to write. POV character’s name on top left, scene number top right, and a brief 2-3 sentence description of the scene. After studying these 500-600 individual scene cards, the shrouded fog of plot and structure was mysteriously lifted.

    But what I found to be most interesting was following another piece of advice given by Mr. Bell which was to study these scene cards as flash cards. Kept them on the nightstand and before I’d go to sleep, I’d pick up a stack from a novel and go through them fast. Looking at each one just long enough to provide a mental image of that scene in my mind.

    The interesting part came when I was struggling with the last third, last quarter of my novel. I knew how it was to end, had a vague idea of the scenes, but wasn’t sure of their composition, their order.

    I flash carded through a novel and that night I dreamt of how to finish my story. The scenes came in order and in very brief glimpses just as I had studied the other scene cards. I woke up, scribbled it down on the notebook kept next to the bed and finished my story with those scenes in that order. I found it amazing that those scenes came to me in the exact way I had studied via the flash card method. Thanks, Mr. Bell

    • Wow, MG! Thank you so much for that! You did the work, and it paid off. I especially like that you put the “boys in the basement” to work at night. Magnificent!

  5. Great ideas, Jim.

    MG and BJ referred to what you’ve discussed in some of your books and here at TKZ – “the boys in the basement” I believe you credited that phrase to another writer who will breakout.

    I think the discussion with “boys in the basement” has been about SOLVING plot problems, rather than filling plot holes (plot holes on the road between sign posts, hmm). But this morning I awoke with memory of a crazy dream last night. It didn’t solve any plot problem. But as I started adding to the beginning and the end of the scene, I suddenly realized it was something I could add to the sagging middle of my current story.

    This could certainly be part of the white hot document and the novel journal ideas you presented. Those boys in the basement are really multi-talented.

    I read MARKETING FOR WRITERS WHO HATE MARKETING this past week. Thanks for writing the book. You have cured my OMD (obsessive marketing disorder) anxiety.

    • Thanks, Steve. Glad to hear that little disorder has been addressed!

      And don’t you just love what dreamland often gives us? Sometimes we have chase it around the block a couple of times. And when we catch up to it, maybe it’s not something we use after all. But many times it is and the chase is well worth it.

      Time for a nap!

  6. I did something similar to MG. I took a couple of JD Robb books and went through page by page, noting how and when she introduced characters, plot points, backstory, how she built stakes, etc. Both books were already very familiar to me but the page by page review was very revealing and informative. I learned a TON about structure and story development.

    I always look forward to and enjoy your Sunday posts Jim!

    • That’s how I learned, too, Sheri. When I got serious about becoming a writer I went to my local used bookstore and bought an armload of King, Koontz, Grisham. I read with purpose, asking myself, Why am I turning the page?

      Thanks for the good word!

  7. This kind of ties back to the journal posting earlier this week ~ there’s a great book, WORKING DAYS: THE GRAPES OF WRATH JOURNALS, that follows another “up and comer,” John Steinbi, as he charts/starts-n-stops his way through the journey of the Joads.

    The entries included brainstorming as well as events and such during the writing efforts, some of the ideas making print, others explored beforehand and “discarded” before complicating things further.

    • Thanks for reminding me, George. I know abut the book and want to take a look. I have a great book containing Agatha Christie’s plot notes and journals. Fun stuff!

  8. Twas s’posed to be John STEINBECK ~ (I gather y’all figures that out on y’all’s own~)

    Durn Otto Phil~ 😐

  9. Agreed. I work this way, too. Call it “marinating.” Later my subconscious starts playing it back like a movie scene and I transcribe, not worrying about POV, tense, etc. Sometimes i cannot write fast enough.

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