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?