Plot Diagrams for Character and Plot Arcs

Creating plot diagrams for character and plot arcs helps you see what’s important and non-important in character and plot progression. It’s a great strategy for developmental editing and helps find the bare bones of your story and your characters.

How to Diagram Your Character and Plot Arcs

Start by drawing the standard plot diagram: two lines, forming a mountain. This will represent the rise and fall of your story, the mountain point being the climax (for the story or character). Keep it simple: this is only diagramming the basic story of your WIP, what everything boils down to.

The simplest way to do this is pen and paper or whiteboard and dry erase marker. If you’d prefer to work on the computer, there are several mind mapping software programs that work well. Though you really only need a program with simple drawing capabilities and text functions, such as OneNote or Paint.

Along line moving upward: exposition, rising action. At the top is the climax, and along the line is falling action and resolution.
simple plot diagram made in Scapple

Next, create a more complex diagram for each character arc and plot arc in your WIP, detailing events, scenes, plot points, etc, that pertain to the particular arc you’re diagramming along the line. Draw it with smaller rise and fall lines to represent when a scene pushes the plot progression forward or pushes it backward.

Line moving upward listing Exposition, cresting at Two Steps Forward, descending to One Step Back, ascending to another Two Steps Forward, descending to another One Step Back, ascending to Climax, where it crests and falls down to Falling Action and Resolution.
plot diagram with rising and falling rising action made in Scapple

You need diagrams for each main plot, side plot, main character arc, side character arc, everything. Make sure it matches what you’ve written, not what’s in your head.

Don’t skip over the small scenes for the side characters or side plots. You need to see how every scene affects the story.

Once it’s all mapped out, study the diagrams and arcs. Ask these questions:

  • Does each complex arc relate to the diagram of your basic story?
  • Is something missing from a character or plot arc that is needed for a final conflict or resolution?
  • Are there too many scenes or steps to a final conflict or resolution?
  • Are there not enough scenes or steps to a final conflict or resolution?
  • Do characters strive for something on their arc diagram?
  • Are there characters without any growth, progression, or regression?
  • Are there characters who don’t contribute or get in the way of the main rising action, climax, or resolution of the basic story arc?
  • Do any of the scenes or character arcs conflict with other character/plot arcs?
  • Do some of the scenes or characters overlap with others and can they be combined?
  • Are there scenes that don’t contribute to a character or plot arc?
Text: Use plot diagrams to map out main plots, side plots, main character arcs, side character arcs, etc. based on your current draft. This will help you see the rising and falling action, what's important and non-important in character and plot progression, identify excess or missing information, and help identify pacing issues.

Studying your manuscript’s bare bones helps you identify what isn’t needed, what’s missing, and what needs improvement. Addressing these issues will help clean up plot holes, unnecessary scenes and characters, and pacing.

What if I already have plot diagrams from my original outline?

If you made plot diagrams as part of your outline before you started writing, do it again and base the arcs on what you wrote in your most recent draft. You want to diagram what you’ve written, not what you meant to write. Compare the two and ask the following questions:

  • Do the diagrams differentiate? Where?
  • Is one cleaner than the other?
  • Does one feel like the plot/character(s) progresses more smoothly than the other? (Smooth as in the pacing is right, not that everything goes well for the characters.)
  • Does one feel more complete? Or does one more have loose ends that need addressing?

Pick the plot arc(s) that you feel has better pacing, plot progression, and character progression. Was it the outline diagram or the one based on your most recent draft?

If it’s the original outline diagram, then you need to see where the plot points and character progression/trials deviated and revise your current WIP draft to mirror its original outline.

If the diagrams based on your most recent draft have better pacing, plot progression, and character progression, then ask the questions in the previous section and use them to address any plot, character, or pacing problems.

Text: Outline your book after you finish writing it. Compare it to the original outline.

This comparison strategy is similar to the comparison strategy in re-outlining your novel, but it works just as effectively in seeing where you deviated and analyzing if the deviation is better or makes your WIP worse.

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