Plotting…OCD Style

Date: Tuesday January 6, 2009
Posted in: Writer's Toolbox

I’ve written about this before, but since I’m in deep (ha!) with REAL MERMAIDS DON’T WEAR TOE RINGS and it’s still fresh in my mind, I thought I’d share some of my plotting process with you guys. This is a system which enables me to write a first draft very quickly and helps to keep my story organized. It may make no sense at all, depending on your individual writing styles, but if you’re anal retentive like me, this might be useful.

I’m not sure if what I do is outline but I do begin with a loose framework when starting off a novel. I don’t typically do it as a one pager, rather, I set up my Word document through the ‘Document Map’ function and build out the story from there. I know that my story will follow this typical flow:

Inciting incident (The big problem)

Plot Point 1 (first obstacle)

Plot Point 2 (second obstacle)

Plot Point 3 (third obstacle-situation is about as bad as it can get)

Climax A(lighting the fuse)

Climax B (watching it burn)

Climax C (kaboom!)



So I set up my Chapter Headers and add a few lines under each to keep track of what may happen where. The attribution of chapters is arbitrary and only an example. I’ve attached a screen shot of RMDWTR so you can see what that looks like.


Chapter 1: Inciting incident: you may want to name your chapters to keep straight
   Write a few sentences about the character’s big problem

Chapter 2: and then what happened…
   Blah, blah, blah

Chapter 3: and then what happened…
   Blah, blah, blah

Chapter 4: Plot Point 1:
   Write a few sentences about the first big obstacle/conflict

Chapter 5: and then what happened…
   Blah, blah, blah

Chapter 6: and then what happened…
   Blah, blah, blah

Chapter 7: Plot Point 2:
   Write a few sentences about the second big obstacle/conflict/worse than the first

Chapter 8: 
   And then what happened?

Chapter 9: 
   Blah, blah, blah

Chapter 10: Plot Point 3:
   Write a few sentences about the third big obstacle/conflict/ worse than all three

Chapter 11: 
   You may go straight from  PP3 to the climax or there may be a building of tension/conflict to bring you there

Chapter 12:
   Blah, blah, blah…

Chapter 13: Climax A
   Lighting the fuse

Chapter 14: Climax B 
   Watch it burn…

Chapter 15: Climax C            
Then kaboom! Write a few sentences about each stage of the climax

Chapter 16: Denouement
   Then what happens?

Chapter 17: Resolution
   Tie up any story threads

Setting all this up in a document map using the HEADER function really helps me navigate the document, both from the initial set up to get the outline down and while writing, since all I need to do is fill in the holes. It makes it easier to skip ahead if I get an idea for a specific scene and having the document laid out, I can pinpoint approximately where it should go within the overall pacing of the story.

This is a loose guide I use for myself. Chapters get added in, merged and taken out while writing, and my initial outline usually changes as new ideas spring up, but it’s the most efficient way I’ve found to both ‘outline’ my story, keep track of pacing and organize my scenes.

And now you all know how anal I am.  Whistle


As I’ve mentioned, I navigate my document with the document map by attributing a header style to all my Chapters which, in turn, designs my document map. The document map pane on the left hand side of my screen is always open and all I have to do is click on ‘Chapter 3′ let’s say, and it jumps to that area of the manuscript. Very useful, saves a lot of time, and gives me a ‘global’ perspective on what could be a very long, unwieldy document.

To set it up, it takes a bit of fiddling and you may already have formatting in your WIP that will show up in the document map. (Check by clicking VIEW/DOCUMENT MAP)

If you want to experiment, save your WIP as a new document. (I don’t want to be responsible for screwing up your oeuvre, ack!)

Clearing all formatting will start you off fresh, but you’ll lose italics, double spacing and the works, so it’s easiest to start this from the get go. For an already existing WIP, hilight the areas where you’ve marked your chapters (i.e. Chapter One) and choose FORMAT/STYLES AND FORMATTING then choose a header style for your chapters. Once you do this for every chapter, it will map it out in the document map and you can take a look at VIEW/DOCUMENT MAP to see what yours looks like.

If you have a bunch of other stuff showing up, I think there’s a way to filter your document map so you only see the header style that you’ve chosen for your chapters, thereby ‘hiding’ the other stuff, but I haven’t looked into that.

I hope I haven’t confused you and also hope this is helpful. Let me know if you try it out!

…If you’re OCD and you know it, wash your hands…

Related post: The Three Little Pigs and Plotting…OCD Style



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This is excellent. I will use it.

Comment by Christina Farley on January 7th, 2009 @ 5:20 am

I love the document mapping! This looks like the perfect solution to keeping a word document organized. Thanks for sharing your method.

Comment by Jenny on January 7th, 2009 @ 10:21 am

This is awesome! Thanks so much!!!

Comment by Angela on January 7th, 2009 @ 3:43 pm

Hi Christina! Let me know how it works for you!

Comment by Hélène on January 8th, 2009 @ 12:34 pm

Hi Jenny, I love the document map function. Saves SO much time.

Comment by Hélène on January 8th, 2009 @ 12:34 pm

You’re welcome, Angela. Hope it helps!

Comment by Hélène on January 8th, 2009 @ 12:35 pm

I love this! Thank you!

Comment by Nora on January 8th, 2009 @ 4:13 pm

You’re welcome, Nora. :-)

Comment by Hélène on January 8th, 2009 @ 5:19 pm

[...] your novel? Well say thanks to @inkyelbows who tweeted this tidbit by Hélène Boudreau in her post Plotting OCD Style. I loved this article so much I printed it out and intend to use a modified version for my second [...]

Comment by lunch hour links for writers – 10/7/09 « helluo librorum on October 7th, 2009 @ 7:14 pm

This is excellent. I make spreadsheets on Excel but I like your chapter outlines and will use it next book. Thanks for sharing.

Comment by Rebecca Ryals Russell on October 11th, 2009 @ 8:37 pm

[...] then, I plot…and outline… No comments [...]

Comment by Hélène Boudreau » NaNoWriMo Walk and Write on October 13th, 2009 @ 7:11 pm

[...] psst…,  if this looks a bit like my plotting outline…it is…why re-invent the [...]

Comment by Hélène Boudreau » Synopsis writing in 9 easy steps… on October 15th, 2009 @ 11:09 am

Document map! Excellent. I’ve never taken the time to figure it out, but what a great idea. This will help me tame my upcoming NaNo novel. Thanks for the tip.

Comment by Shonna Slayton on October 15th, 2009 @ 12:55 pm

The document map helps me jump from chapter to chapter with the greatest of ease….


Comment by Hélène on October 15th, 2009 @ 5:52 pm

[...] idea for the beginning of my second novel. I was also in love with Hélène Boudreau’s post on Plotting OCD Style. My idea was a great opportunity to work with Hélène’s typical story flow headings that begin [...]

Comment by another take on the synopsis « helluo librorum on October 19th, 2009 @ 10:48 am

How did I not know about the Document Map feature? Would make things so much easier.

Comment by Kathleen (kapybara) on October 20th, 2009 @ 1:57 pm

I had never used the document feature. Didn’t have an inkling of how to use it. After learning from you I took a manuscript, needing revision, and went through it and redid each chapter as you showed.
Wow! What a difference. I can hop around quickly as you said without time consuming scrolling. Also, after writing notes on each chapter, I think this will be a great thing to use when writing a synopsis. Thank you so much!

Comment by Catherine A. Winn on January 26th, 2010 @ 11:30 pm

That’s great, Catherine! I’m so glad this has been helpful for you. Happy writing!

Comment by Hélène on January 28th, 2010 @ 6:02 pm

[...] wanted to expand a little bit on my previous post regarding plotting. I base my method on ‘the Rule of Three’. The theory being that the pacing of a story [...]

Comment by Hélène Boudreau » THE THREE LITTLE PIGS and plotting…OCD Style on March 1st, 2010 @ 7:13 pm

[...] Hélène Boudreau » Plotting…OCD Style – October 8th, 2009 | Tags: blogging, brainstorming, ftc, guide, howto, ideas, market, marketing, nanowrimo, plotting, publishing, querying, reference, Reviews, writing | Category: Writer's Life, Writer's Resources [...]

Comment by Moonlit Glade | Writer’s Resources for October 5th through October 8th on March 21st, 2010 @ 5:27 pm

[...] Hélène Boudreau » Plotting…OCD Style – [...]

Comment by Writer’s Resources for October 5th through October 8th « Waiting For Fairies on March 21st, 2010 @ 8:50 pm

[...] like that. So this time, I want to use a technique I found by author Hélène Boudreau in her post Plotting OCD Style where she talked about using a document map to plot a novel. This is a tremendous tool, and I [...]

Comment by plotting the next novel « helluo librorum on May 11th, 2010 @ 9:10 am

[...] I mentioned in a previous entry that I had two ideas I was kicking around for NaNo: one that was just a seed of an idea and one that was more fleshed out. I went with the seed. It just felt right. Now, rewind to earlier this year. My SCBWI chapter had a run of talks about scene and structure and there was a lot of talk about the benefits of plotting out your novel before you write it. (For a crash course in plotting, check out Hélène Boudreau’s blog, “Plotting… OCD Style“ [...]

Comment by ‘Fess Up Friday: Surprises « An Exaltation of Larks on November 5th, 2010 @ 1:39 pm

[...] I write it. Some of my favorites are The Snowflake Method, the Save the Cat! Beat Sheet, and Helene Boudreau’s Plotting…OCD Style . I even took the best of these and made my own spreadsheet, which I call my Novel Roadmap. I had [...]

Comment by A Map of my Writing World | Society for Misinvention on June 30th, 2013 @ 5:49 pm

Hey, you have a very similar method of plotting as the one writer Adron J. Smitley created, which helped me with my writing tremendously:

CH1: Introduction
CH 2&3: Catalyst
CH 4: Effect/Reaction
CH 5: Leaving Home
CH 6: New World Stumble
CH 7: Fun & Games
CH 8: Old World Contrast
CH 9&10: Midpoint/Reversal
CH 11: Reaction/Action
CH 12: Villain Attacks
CH 13&14: All Is Lost
CH 15: Dark Debate
CH 16: Rally the Troops
CH 17: Battle
CH 18&19: Climax
CH 20: Resolution

Comment by Michael Conroy on November 8th, 2013 @ 5:37 am

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