Charting Fates

Have you seen JK Rowlings plot chart for the Harry Potter series? It’s incredible. A great visual of just how many plot lines she managed to interweave without crashing.

Tolkien had a similar plot chart for Lord of the Rings. I saw it in person at the EMP last year, and I wanted to squeal in sheer delight. It was amazing! He had exact dates on each event for each person and each plot line, painstakingly hand-written on a sheet of paper. Beautiful.

I went home that day inspired. I was going to plot like Tolkien. I was going to make a chart, and write out all the minute details, and it was going to be perfect.

Except that, instead of the train-schedule precision of Tolkien, my chart turned into a total train wreck.

I finally gave up on the chart and reverted to my usual method of plotting: a loose outline, mostly chronological, of the big turning point events. I had tried the chart, but it just didn’t work for me, so I shelved it.

Except that then, I got halfway through my novel and realized that I was spending as much time hunting through previous chapters, trying to figure out time frames and event sequences, as I was actually writing. It was incredibly frustrating, and I found myself wishing with all my heart that I had managed to get that stupid chart to work.

And then I realized: it was not too late for the chart.

I had been so caught up on the chart as an initial planning method that I wasn’t thinking about how useful it was as an editing help. And so, after this moment of clarity, I approached the chart once more with some trepidation born of my previous failure.

And guess what? It was a lot easier to make a chart out of something I had already written than something I was just beginning to plan out. After a couple hours’ work, I had mapped out my written chapters in a clean, crisp OneNote table. With the plot laid out in front of me at a glance, I dashed through the last half of the book at double speed, no longer slowed down by constant checking and rechecking of dates and times and sequences. Not only that, I realized that there was a point in my book where I had crammed about three days’ worth of hours into one day. Kind of an important thing to know going into editing mode.

The perfect method of planning a novel is an elusive beast. I’ve never written two novels the same way, because I’m always figuring out some new way to improve my process. But I can tell you for sure, this post-draft plot chart is here to stay in my plotting method.

Do you use a chart in your planning? How do you keep all your plot lines straight in your head?


  1. I haven’t started charting anything beyond simple outlines. However, I’ve built an entire fantasy world for one of my series, and I really need to start a timeline for it. I have two complete first draft books, a short story and am working on a third first draft novel. All are from different parts of the fantasy world, but some of the characters will make cameo appearances in further works, so I really need to get on the ball and get some timelines done, so I know what’s going on.

  2. Last week I was struck with clarity and brilliance. I knew exactly how I wanted to write this novel in a way that would be excited to write and exciting to read. And I charted the crap out of it. I’d share a picture, but there’s a whole column that’s still empty. It feels good though, and I think necessary for me, to see the ending point. To see it all on one page. Last year for NaNoWriMo I tried writing an outline first and that didn’t really work for me. I had all of these scenes bouncing around that I just wanted to get out. So I did. I got out 50,000 words of scenes. And now this year I took about 10,000 of those words and plugged ’em into this book – after writing the outline. I think what I’m learning about my process is that if I’m excited about something, I should write it down and not get too worried about organization, as helpful as it is. There’s always time for that later, and I think it’s the kind of thing that makes itself known when it’s needed. Like when you realized how much time an outline would save and I realized how much fire an outline would light under my butt.

    • You know, that’s so true. There have been times where I’ve squelched my excitement in the interest of doing it “right,” and I’ve regretted it every time. The fire of creativity knows no rules. ๐Ÿ™‚ That’s awesome that you got such a good outline charted, though! It does feel really good to see your whole plot laid out in front of you.

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