Space Age

Plan your novel with space-age techniques

By Sean Vogel

Most professional writers use plotting techniques, such as a synopsis, outline, or storyboard. However, these techniques lack the ability to quickly verify pacing and ensure the peaks and valleys of the plot and subplots complement each other.

I wanted an efficient way to verify my structure in order to improve the story flow while also reducing the number of times I had to “go back” and add items earlier in the story. For a new method of planning my novel, I looked to the stars, or at least to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

In addition to writing, I am a department manager for a large aerospace company. I find techniques used to schedule spacecraft construction can also apply to story structure. If a company bolts on a propellant tank before wiring the harness, they have to “undo” their work, driving expenses and delays. The same can happen in writing when you continually return to earlier sections of the book to add in characters and plot points. To verify the project development timing, the aerospace industry uses a one page summary master schedule. This document provides a framework that visibly demonstrates the connections and order of key events.

To create a one page master schedule for my novel, I draw a main plot line along the top of a sheet a paper. I use Microsoft PowerPoint but this process can be performed manually or with other graphics software. Using a traditional three-act structure, I list the inciting incident, Act climaxes and if necessary, mid-point hooks. After I finalize the central plot, I repeat the process for each subplot and character arc. How many subplots your novel has is entirely up to you. For Celtic Run, I have three subplots and protagonist arc that support the overall storyline.

This generic and miniaturized version of a master schedule demonstrates the concept of drawing the plots and intertwining the rise and fall of each climax. The real master schedule for Celtic Run consumes an 8.5×11 sheet of paper with each symbol accompanied by a bullet such as; “Discover treasure map.”

Using the master schedule as a framework, I then apply a traditional storyboard or scene index process. If designing a 30-chapter novel, I would nominally plan 10 chapters for the first Act, 15 for the second, and 5 for the third Act. Based on the sample master schedule, I would know I needed to include the main plot and subplot inciting incidents within the first ten chapters, with the tenth chapter serving as the Act 1 climax.

With the master schedule pinned to my wall, and the corresponding scene cards stacked on my desk, I am armed with the necessary tools to begin writing. This space-based process helps ensure your pacing is solid, storylines interwoven to engage the reader, and setup-payoffs are properly sequenced.