Monday, April 4, 2011

Story Threads

Draft two is done, and now it's time for one of my favorite editing tools-

The Story Thread Chart

I came up with this technique for my last book. Several readers told me the ending left too many things hanging. What were they talking about? To find out, I jotted down all the little pieces of the story I could think of, and then tracked them chapter by chapter. Turns out I dropped nearly half of my story threads somewhere along the way. See those pink scribbles? Those are loose ends. No wonder the ending felt unsatisfactory!

After my next draft, when I made sure each story thread had some kind of resolution, readers told me the ending was everything they had hoped for.

To make a story thread chart, take a piece of poster board or a large sheet of paper. Down the long side, list chapter numbers. Across the top, list major story elements. Since Sue has been analyzing The Hunger Games I'll use that book as an example. For Hunger Games, you might list The Games, The Capitol, Katniss' District, Gale, Prim, Peeta, Haymitch, Careers, Other Contestants, Food and Supplies, The Arena, Training, Sponsors, and Rue. You could pick out more if you want a more detailed chart, or fewer if you want to focus only on the major story lines.

Next I use something I learned from Robert McKee's Story, and assign each of these elements a pair of conflicting values. For The Games, it's life/death. For the Capitol, freedom/slavery. For Haymitch, well, let's say helpful/useless. For Peeta, ally/enemy and friend/lover. These values can flip from one to the other multiple times throughout each story thread. At first Haymitch seems utterly useless, but then later he is the key to Katniss and Peeta's survival. The life/death struggle to get food and supplies begins on page one and goes on throughout the book. And even though the Capitol has Katniss enslaved for the whole book, at the end she asserts her freedom by refusing to play by their rules. 

After setting up the chart, skim through each chapter and make notes in the column under each story thread. Track where each thread begins and ends, how it develops, and how the values change. Step back and take a look at the big picture, see everything picked apart and spread out.

And then the fun begins.

At this point I get out some colored markers and pretty soon my chart looks like a complicated football play. Move this here, change that there. Should this story thread start sooner? End later? Does it need another twist? Here's a slow spot, what story thread can bring in more tension? How can I draw more story threads into play at my climax?

When I'm done, I have a plan for structural changes in my next draft. The chart is also a handy reference when I mark up my manuscript for revision. If I want to go through and only mark changes on a single story thread I know what chapters I'll find it in.

I'm not saying this method is any better than a bubble map or a plot line chart or any other graphic representation you might make of your story. But it works well for me. The way I see it, trying a new way to look at a story, and spending time thinking about it, can only make it stronger.


  1. I'll have to try this. It sounds like a winning strategy! :-)

  2. Awesome! I am working on conflicting values for characters right now! It's hard, BTW. I like you're idea of plotting the threads. Did you use this after your draft(s) or before you started writing?

  3. The first time I used it was after I'd struggled through six drafts and didn't know how to save my poor story. It made all the difference in shaping up my plot and making the ending work.

    For my new book, I'm using it after draft two. I was pleased to find that most of my story threads are in good shape - after doing the exercise for a previous book my brain now thinks in terms of story threads and I tracked them in my head as I went along. I've picked out four threads that I want to strengthen, and I plan to make a pass through the manuscript for each one.

    I would not try making this chart BEFORE drafting. For me, it is more of an analyzing tool.

  4. What a great idea! I'm very afraid of those lost threads.

  5. That's what I was thinking (after the drafting. I will tuck this away for use later! Thanks! :)

  6. What a super cool idea. I like the analyzing aspect for a finished book. I'm putting it on my revision list. :)

  7. It's also a handy reference tool. When I'm doing my housework and I suddenly think of something I want to change, I run to my chart, skim down the story thread until I hit the scene where the change should take place, and I immediately know what chapter I should turn to.


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