Resident Write-In Author Lisa Schulman On Plotting

October 26, 2021

Hello Fellow NANOWRIMO-ers!

I wrote my last novel, STOLEN SECRETS, during NANOWRIMO. It was published in 2017 and was named a Sydney Taylor Book Award Notable. I know firsthand how valuable this kick-in-the pantster can be for achingly slow, edit-intensive writers, such as myself.

The secret to success, in my opinion, is in the plot outline. I always go into November 1st knowing all my beats, as outlined in the book Save the Cat by Blake Synder.

Here is my personal summary of the beats, as well as an example of each plot point in a lame, but effective, story idea. (This is SO not my NANOWRIMO idea.)


· A strong visual image that reflects the mood, story tone, or status of the protagonist’s current life.

· Related to, but different from, the Closing Image. Opening=What the world is like at the beginning; Closing=How it has changed.

· It is not in every book or movie, but is an extra visual tool that can set the scene.


· The beginning.

· Hooks the reader!

· Introduces the main characters--especially the protagonist

· Hints at what might be wrong with the protagonist’s life.

· It may show the character’s WANT, but he/she doesn’t always know it quite yet.


· Often said by a character in the story, somewhere in the set-up, but the message/theme is not understood by the protagonist yet.

· It summarizes what the story is about and will explore.

· It has to be carried through the whole story, often through symbolism or events going wrong because the character doesn’t know how to make things right.


· Something happens that gets the story going. Change happens to the ordinary world.

· May be a single event or the introduction of a new character who will change our protagonist’s life.

· The event usually happens TO the character. The character doesn’t make it happen.

· Often you can now answer: What is the story (at least roughly) going to be about?


· Usually it is more than one scene that makes up this part of the story.

· It’s usually a question raised by the Catalyst. Often it can be, Should I do something? But it can also be any question, like, How can I do something? Or What will I do?

· It’s where the character figures out how to get from the surprise of the Catalyst to the decision to act on a WANT in the Act Two beat.

· Not always, but often, the character tries to run away from the call to adventure (but they won’t be able to)!


· Something big happens that makes the protagonist accept the “call to adventure”

· The protagonist makes a decision that’s his or her choice. This does not happen to them, like the Catalyst, but it’s something they do to initiate their WANT.

· Sometimes there is a new setting--a new “world” to signify the “adventure.” Example: Harry Potter no longer lives with the Dursely’s; Instead, he arrives at Hogwarts.

· This event is the bridge between Act One and Act Two. Now we are entering the middle of the story. We will be there for almost 50 percent of the book.


· Often one single scene where a new character is introduced or takes a big part in the story.

· Can be a love interest, a friend, a mentor, or an enemy.

· This new character often will help the protagonist learn the theme/lesson of the story.

· Can be an official subplot.


· “The promise of the premise” is shown here in scenes. Why are you reading this book? Now it is time to deliver that for your readers. Horror story? We need to see lots of dead bodies!

· Often similar to a “movie trailer.”


· Something big happens that is either a “false victory” or a “false defeat.” No matter which, it is a big event or plot twist.

· The B story could make the midpoint happen.

· Sometimes a “ticking time bomb” is added to make the WANT even more important.

· The character must commit even more to their story WANT.

· It heightens the tension and increases the story “stakes.”

· It serves to keep the story from drooping in the longer middle part.


· Obstacles ramp up.

· Often antagonists grow more powerful.

· Everything gets in the way of the character achieving the WANT.  

· Antagonists are often represented by a single character, but there can be several. Could be other characters, weather, or even the protagonist’s flaws itself--anything that gets in the way of success.

· These series of scenes make life increasingly worse as we move into the next All is Lost Beat.


· The bad guys or bad events have really messed things up!

· This is the worst point in the protagonist’s journey.

· They are giving up hope of getting their WANT.

· Also referred to as “the whiff of death,” whether a real death or the metaphorical death of something specific or something believed or a mentor figure (now leaving the protagonist to fend for him/herself.)


· The protagonist has hit bottom. Now they must figure out how to climb out.

· Can be ten pages or can be a single quick scene, but it’s when the protagonist thinks about trying one more time or one more way.

· Begins to figure out the secret to success. Getting closer to understanding HOW to solve a problem.

ACT THREE (“Aha moment”):

· Turns out that what a protagonist WANTs may not be as important as what they NEED.

· The theme moment plays a big part in this beat.

· Because of this insight, the protagonist has an AHA moment and figures out a new idea for the solution to the problem.

· Protagonist commits to trying again.


· The most exciting moment in the story.

· The battle between antagonist and protagonist may start.

· Will the protagonist succeed or fail?

· The protagonist adds in the thematic lesson/Aha to achieve success.

· The story will be resolved one way or another.

· Remember, success does not always have to be happy. Usually character’s win, but sometimes, a win looks less obvious.

· Character arc achieved. That can be a big change or a small change. Any change is good!

(RESOLUTION: Not a beat from the Save the Cat, but I consider it a mandatory beat)

· How are the story lines tied up?

· Not everything gets tied up. Only important events. Subplots resolved either here or right before the finale.

· How does the climax get resolved?

· How can you show the character’s growth?

· The theme is clearer to the reader now.

· Preferably the ending is a surprise, but foreshadowed through the book so it will make sense to the reader.


· Optional beat, but can be effective to show character or world-building growth.

· A visual image that serves as a metaphor for how the story has changed.

· Must be different from the opening image, which symbolizes what is wrong with the world.

And now for a (lame) story…

Opening Image:

If pollution is the main problem in this story, the opening scene might be an image of a beach with old McDonald’s wrappers blowing across the sand. A bird swoops down and pecks at it. The wrapper gets stuck to its beak. This is a visual metaphor for the damage caused by pollution. It’s thematic. Similar to foreshadowing.


The protagonist walks along beach and sees the trash. He picks it up as he goes. Then he sees a neighbor throw a paper cup out of her car. He tells her she shouldn’t do that and she slams the door in his face. (Now we know what is wrong with our protagonist’s world! Lousy, narcissistic, polluting neighbors!)

Theme Stated:

“You have to be in power to make any changes around here!” another character says to your protagonist, preferably about something indirectly related to your story so it doesn’t come off as preachy. Now, though, our protagonist doesn’t think of himself as a leader at all, so he doesn’t pay any attention to these wise words.


The mean, unhelpful mayor approves a law getting rid of fines for polluting. Now your character is upset! This kicks the story WANT in motion. He wants to keep his town clean of garbage.


Will he convince the neighbors to keep the town clean? He tries to speak up at a town council meeting, but everyone rejects his ideas. He is not a good speaker and can’t communicate what he means very well. The answer to this debate question is: NO! The debate question can be anything, like: Will he fight or won’t he? Or, will she steal the apple or won’t she? Will they have enough courage to fight the bad situation?

Act Two (the beginning of the middle):

He goes to the state legislature and tries to get them to make an executive order, overriding the mayor, but they tell him that in their state, each town gets to make their own laws, sorry! Our protagonist has done something to initiate his want, but alas, it’s not that easy….

B Story:

Our protagonist becomes friends with a motivational speaker, who speaks at universities about her passion: Negotiation through Communication. Throughout the story, this friend helps our protagonist learn people skills, and she also demonstrates how being in a powerful position as a teacher/speaker can influence other people to make better choices. These are all lessons our protagonist will need to know as he progresses through the story.

Fun and Games:

Why did readers even pick up this particular book? Because they want to see a fight between our protagonist (the Underdog) and the town’s folk, you decide. So here you might show a bunch of scenes where he tries and fails to reason with his crazy neighbors. If it’s a comedy, make it funny. If it’s a drama, make it real. If it’s a horror story, have the neighbors swing axes! 


While out walking, he finds an injured bird, choking on plastic. He manages to save its life, and it becomes his pet. He recommits to saving the town from pollution by coming up with a smart idea to let kids come see his new animal. He hopes he can then explain to them the harm of pollution. This example is a positive midpoint, but it will be a FALSE VICTORY (more will happen later that isn’t good). A midpoint can also be a FALSE DEFEAT, where your character has to act to fix something bad, but it won’t mean the end of his journey. Regardless, he will have to commit even more to his goal to rid the town of pollution, because he still won’t be close to achieving success. A midpoint is usually a pretty big event in the story.

Bad Guys Close In:

The mayor fines your character for having kids come look at his new pet, because the mayor says he doesn’t have the proper business license. What?! His crazy neighbor throws all her trash on his front porch. His girlfriend breaks up with him because he spends more time thinking about plastic than her! Obstacle after obstacle gets in his way.

All is Lost:

Someone tries to get revenge on him by poisoning his new pet bird. At the same time, the mayor tells our protagonist to leave the town; he causes too many problems! Our protagonist feels like he is going to lose this battle. He is out of ideas.

Dark Night of the Soul:

Your character needs to dwell on what’s just happened. Is all hope really lost? He doesn’t want to leave the town! He begins to think if there could possibly be a better idea. He has to dig deep to figure it all out.

Act Three “Aha”:

When he walks by a poster mentioning the next election for mayor, he has an AHA moment--If one can’t change the way people act as a citizen, maybe as an elected leader, he can have more power in creating town laws. His original WANT now becomes a NEED. The need, in this case, is to become a leader.


It’s time for the big election. Your main character vs. the mayor. There is someone else running for office, too, but few know that person. Everyone gives a speech, and our protagonist does an amazing and persuasive job. People vote. Now he must wait to see if he won or not. Sadly, to his great surprise, he loses. (Note: It’s best to make an ending unpredictable!)


Though he has lost, he has swayed the winning new incoming mayor (who beat the mean mayor.) She was impressed with our protagonist’s passion for the environment and asks him to be in charge of it. He has learned not to try to change too much at once—so he starts by making a very small change, which is to put recycle trash cans on every corner. Also, his pet bird has recovered from the poison. Our protagonist decides to make his pet bird the town mascot, to the delight of all the kids. He now can make laws that will impact the environment. People respect him.

Closing Image:

Your main character has a meet and greet at the now pristine beach. We see him shaking hands with citizens in his new job, with the mascot bird, healthy and happy, sitting on his shoulder. Success! In this case, he got what he WANTS (too keep his town clean) and what he NEEDS (to be a leader and make a bigger difference.) Notice how the opening image is related to this closing image. Now we get a glimpse of what is right with his world!


Prolific plotting, people! See you all soon at The Wandering Jellyfish Bookshop very soon.