How I Outline Alternating Story Plots

Organize plot and pacing for books with multiple storylines.

“Your story is like bread dough,” the captain said. “It just grows every time you tell it.”

If you want to read the original story of the Lady in the Gray Taffeta Dress, you can find it in Ghosts Along the Brazos by Catherine Munson Foster.

I never forgot the captain’s compliment or his delighted grin. We were standing on the bow of a steamboat resting on the river of East Columbia, Texas. My hair was stringy with olive oil, I‘d mixed in to make it wet. My dress was torn, the front gaze tripping me when I walked around the railing to perform “The Lady in the Grey Taffeta Dress.”  It’s a favorite legend of a real woman who lived in modern-day East Columbia, Texas. While the woman’s name and life details remain in mystery, I stayed within the frameworks of the traditional tale, though I played with it, developing the woman’s personality and outlook. (If you want to read the original legend, you can find it in Ghosts Along the Brazos, by Catherine Munson Foster.” Link: https://www.amazon.com/Ghosts-Brazos-Catherine-Munson-Foster/dp/B0006CU41W The captain was right about one thing: My stories always grow.

My current series revolves around a fictional kingdom called Sentarra. My books cover both the slave who colonizes the original country and a set of princes who inherit competing thrones several hundred years later. It’s two separate series, but they depend on each other. In my current series, I have one storyline for a slave taken into captivity, another for his wife left behind, and a smaller one for his friends looking to get into the country and the mistress of his estate looking to get out. There are a lot of plots that weave together, veer apart, and cross paths. I’m three fourths of the way finished and I feel lost in my own tangled threads. It’s time to step away from the pages and detailed plots and look at the overall pacing and structure.

 

  • Here’s what you’ll need:

    I love working with sticky notes. They only allow a bare-bones plot, keeping you focused on the main points of each chapter. But you can add notes behind your plot notes to track all the little details you want to include without getting overwhelmed. Sticky notes also give you a way to see your entire plot at once so you can check for pacing issues and gaps.
  • Sticky notes
  • Pen or Pencil
  • String (optional)
  • Clips (optional)

Step One: Define Your Main Plot 

Write the basic plot points onto the card, allowing each card to represent an entire chapter. Don’t worry about details or subplots right now—just list the basic sequence of events that your main character will be experiencing. It should look something like this: 

Character A: beginning, conflict, build, climax, conclusion.

Create one row of notes for each storyline in your book. This will help you see if they are well-developed and balanced.

You can have as many cards if you need, but simplify the outline as much as you can. The cards are to jog your memory, not dictate the entire developed story. Now, do you have a second main character? A sidekick with a subplot. If any other character will have chapters  from their point of views, put the story on sticky notes below the main character. Even if a side character has a developed sequence of events that will take a portion of your pages, add them but for now, keep the plots next to the character they concern. So now your outline should look roughly like this:

Character A: Story Notes

Character B: Story Notes

Step Two: Check for Pacing and Plot Holes

Are there any major chapters missing? Does your main character have more chapters than the others, and if so, is this what you intended? Once you‘ve seen your squares lined up, are there more events than the total amount of chapters you’re comfortable writing? If so, don’t panic. Look for events you can combine into an existing chapter. If you still have too many, look for story bits that repeat concepts. If your character is training for two sessions, can he have a conversation #1 and action #2 in the same session? Are there any events you are including so you can reveal a small, but important plot point? If so, can you work that bit into an existing chapter without working an entire chapter around it? Or are there too few chapters? You will probably add some as you write and discover plots you want to develop but if it concerns you, consider which subplots you can include. Remember, you can have as few or many chapters as you want, but the structure check will help you see if your story will run out of steam or if your saga will run away with you and turn into a fifty-chapter dragon.

Step Three: Plan Your Outline

After creating separate rows for each of your storylines and subplots, combing the story into its proper order.

Now that you know who is doing what where, it’s time to arrange them into your story’s order. Put your events in the order they happen and pay attention to the character’s viewpoint. You can even have different colors sticky notes if you’re writing from multiple points of view. 

Do they flow well from one to the other or does the pattern seem like it will jar your reader? If so, check for chapters you could write from a different viewpoint without marring the flow or ruining your plot. Don’t stress over this point. It’s all right if your main character has more chapters, just look for clumps that feel concerning.

Step Four: Step Back

Seriously. Get a glass of water or refill your tea cup. Now think out your story while following your notes. Your plot line may change as you write—that’s normal and just fine. Often writers feel like over-plotting ruins their flow, though others prefer to outline each chapter detail before they start their draft. I tend to outline more during my revision stage when I know what story I’m trying to tell. I personally use my storyline as a reminder of what I want to write, not as a roadmap that can’t must be followed, even if a better idea comes along. Let your brain work however it best processes. But use this moment to check in with yourself. Does this outline feel right?

Step Five: Add the Things You Can’t Forget

Now is the time to think of smaller details you want to make sure are included in your book. Are there clues, background details, or important items you need to incorporate? Write on separate sticky notes and put them behind the note for the chapter you want to include them in. You can place smaller stick notes in front, if you want to see them all at once, but it will quickly clutter your board. If you place all the detail notes behind the chapter notes, you can take down the clump as you write your chapter or summarize your outline so you’ll know everything you want to include – but won’t feel overwhelmed looking at your basic plot.

Step Six: Write Your Novel

Keep your notes on a physical line clipping them together if you want to see the entire storyline at a glance. Or you can use them now to write your outline in Scrivener or whatever system you use. If you have 20 or fewer chapters, consider purchasing my Journal for Writers. It’s called “Act Like a Writer” and will guide you in creating character-driven novels by tracking your writing, developing characters, and creating locations. (Sorry, epic fans with 20+ chapters. Your version isn’t out yet, though it won’t be forgotten, because I need it too. If you’re really raring to get started, send me a note about getting the PDF copy and you can print out as many chapters and character sheets as you need.)

 Are you feeling better about your story? Writing is scary, I know. It takes courage and perseverance, but now when you sit down, you will know what goes on to that blank page and why it’s important to your story. Now you’ve just got to take a deep breath, remember that every word you pen will make you into a better writer, and give yourself permission to write. I believe in you. Now come on. Let‘s quit procrastinating and go write.