August 8, 2016

Plot Charts—How to Wrestle Your Story into Submission

By Sarah Sundin

“My plot is a mess! How can I make sense of it all?”

Do you ever feel that way about your novel? As an outliner, I always reach this stage about midway through the pre-writing. If you’re a “seat-of-the-pants” writer, you may feel that way when analyzing your rough draft.

For me, a plot chart helps organize the chaos. A chart gives me a visual sense of the story structure and helps me see areas that are under-developed—or overdone.

I make a simple table in Microsoft Word or Excel. Each row is for a scene. In the columns, you can track the point-of-view character, date, location, brief blurbs of what happens in the scene—and you can break this down by the novel’s main plot arcs.

This is a sample of my plot chart for the first chapter of my latest World War II novel, Anchor in the Storm, including scenes from both the heroine’s and hero’s points-of-view.

In the first column, use a number or name for the scene. I use the chapter number and a short name for the scene to jog my memory.

POV character
Use a separate column to label the point-of-view character, or simply color-code. I use pink for the heroine and blue for the hero (original). This allows you to see at a glance if your characters get enough—or too much—time on stage.

Date and Location
I include the date since I write historicals and work around actual historical events. Also, if you find a two-month gap between chapters, you might need to fix it. Tracking the location is useful too. Is every other chapter set at the coffee shop? Or have you forgotten to include scenes at your heroine’s workplace?

Plot Lines
I like to break down the chart by plot arcs so each aspect is well developed. I have columns for Arch’s and Lillian’s action plot lines—he’ll be fighting U-boats on a destroyer, she’ll be working as a pharmacist, and they’re both solving a mystery about a drug ring. The middle column is for their romance. I also have columns for their spiritual and emotional journeys, the personal issues they need to work through. You can include columns for subplots unique to your story. My notes probably won’t make sense to you, but they remind me of certain plot or character elements.

When to Chart?
As an outliner, I create this chart in the pre-writing process. It serves as a map as I plan each chapter, making sure I include these elements. This saves me time when editing because the structure is already sound.

If you’re a seat-of-the-pants writer who finds outlines stifling, you may find this process useful during the content edit. Filling in a chart can show you story lines that have been neglected or abandoned, scenes that are fluffy or repetitive, or illogical jumps in character growth.
SarahSundin is the author of eight historical novels, including Anchor in the Storm. Her novel Through Waters Deep was named to Booklist’s “101 Best Romance Novels of the Last 10 Years,” and her novella “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” in Where Treetops Glisten was a finalist for the 2015 Carol Award. For a complete list of Sarah’s books, please see the books page on Sarah’s website: Please visit her at, and on Facebook 

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