Sketching: The First Stage of Plotting

Confession time – I haven’t plotted a book in over 2 years.

Yes, that’s right.  I said 2 years.

For various reasons, which I won’t try to excuse myself for, my last manuscript took a very long time to complete.  I had good intentions, even started out pulling 1K a day, but things just didn’t work out the way I’d planned.  So here I am, 2 years later, finally querying that manuscript and starting to plot my next.  Yes, I have all those same good intentions, but this time I have one more book under my belt as well.  This means another book of good and bad, tackling dead ends and finding ways out of them, learning my writing strengths and building good habits.  Perhaps this one will go smoother?

But I digress.  This post is not meant as a pep talk or a kick in the ass.  This post is meant to get me moving, and hopefully someone else out there in the same time dimension that I am.  So today we’re talking sketches.

I got the idea of sketching from Karen S. Wiesner’s book First Draft in 30 Days.  If you’re new to writing, or are a pantser looking to turn plotter, this is a great place to start.  The book breaks down the forest into trees, so to speak, which is very important for people like me who think in pieces.  Though I don’t follow everything exactly the way Ms. Wiesner suggests, I found it very helpful in developing my own methods. One of which is sketching.

Sketching in plotting is just like sketching in art.  It’s your first glimpse into what your manuscript is going to look like, more specifically your characters, setting, and plot. Depending on what you write you may use one more than another.  I write character driven stories so my character sketches are pretty elaborate, while my setting sketches are fairly basic.  My plot sketches are almost always developed after I figure out who my characters are; sometimes I don’t have a clue what my plot is until after I define them.

Character Sketches

Character sketches are like a vault that stores all of the important information about your characters.  Mine usually open up with the physical traits:  name, hair color, eye color, height, weight, age etc…  Sometimes I may just list an actor or actress whom embodies that character.  Then I start getting into the social aspects, like their occupation, income level, family status, friends. Anything that gives me a basic image in my head.

Those are the easy things for me to come up with.

Next comes the personality stuff, which I intertwine with past and future.  How did this character become so closed off from the world?  Why does he/she need to change and how?  What conflicts do they face in getting there, both internal and external?  Remember, a person’s past usually defines who they are in the present and can certainly impede whom they want to become.  You need to be sure it all makes sense together.

You can put anything you want in your character sketch; there’s no right or wrong answer here.  Anything that helps you discover your characters.  I usually do sketches for any character with a POV, but some find it helpful to do them for ALL their characters.  I put them all in an excel spreadsheet because yes…I’m that dorky.  I would assume sticky notes work just as good.

Setting Sketches

Setting sketches are similar to character sketches, only — you guessed it — give an image of where your story is taking place.  Are you in a small town or a big city?  On a farm or in a high rise condo?  If the majority of your scenes take place at a farm, jot down what sort of crops are grown or animals are raised.  If it’s in a tiny apartment, make note of what floor they are on (do they hear footsteps constantly?)   These are all details that will help pull your reader into your setting, and shouldn’t be overlooked.

And don’t forget the timeframe and climate!  In my last manuscript, the season became very important to the plotline.  Knowing up front will save you a lot of edits down the line.

Plot Sketches 

And finally – plot sketches.  This is where the backbone of my story begins to take shape.  At this stage I give my story a beginning, turning points, a black moment, a climax, and its end.  This isn’t meant to detail every single second of my manuscript, but more to give me a general direction.  Once I have this defined, I can work on the in between scenes that get me there.  It could be as simple or as detailed as you want at this point.  Mine is usually very vague (as is my explanation), but if you tend to build your plot before your characters, yours could be very detailed.  Just do what works for you.

Between now and my next post, I plan to complete my sketches.  If you’re in the same place as me, give it a try!  If nothing else, you won’t have to hunt for that page where you mentioned your villain’s eye color to be sure of consistency — you can just glance at a file!

Happy Sketching!

Jenna P

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