A Thought On Scrum And Story Plotting

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As you are painfully aware, unless you have never heard of me, I’m big into applying Agile to creative methods. Writing nonfiction, however, has eluded me – but I may have had a useful breakthrough.

First, assuming you somehow didn’t know anything about me beyond my name, an explainer. Agile is an approach to projects that emphasizes adaptability, adjustment, communication, and not-overdoing. It’s most common variant is Scrum, which I practice in my career as a Scrum Master – which surprisingly is not a minor He-Man villain, but a kind of process improvement enabler.

Second, if you wonder who I am, I’m obsessed with creative improvements and development. I kinda write on it a lot – so I like reconciling creativity and Agile.

But as for taking Agile, specifically my beloved Scrum, and applying it to fiction? I’ve been challenged. First, let’s take a look at Scrum.

  • Scrum at its very basics is this:
  • A backlog of stuff ranked in order of importance – these are called Stories.
  • One takes a timeframe (called a Sprint), takes a certain amount of stuff from the backlog, and does it. Sprints are usually the same size, and usually have themes – they produce deliverable results. You focus just on the Sprint.
  • At the end of the Sprint, you re-evaluate your work, apply lessons, and do it again.

Scrum sometimes is extended in various ways. One of my favorites is “Epics” – groups of related Stories. There are also various scaling methods and so on.

On one level, you can see how Scrum may help a writer. A story is orderly sets of distinct things – events (organized into scenes). But writing is also very unpredictable; it’s certainly not a simple 2D backlog as things change. Plotting is challenging as well – with so many arcs, etc. a simple list of “write this in order” doesn’t seem to work.

This has troubled me over and over because I like writing, I like Agile, and I’m too hard-headed to give up reconciling writing and Scrum. I also want to plan my book – but I overplan it and have to back away – something Scrum could help with.

Then it hit me – this can be done. Here’s how – grab some notecards or spreadsheets.

Write down your major story arcs. There will probably be about 10-30 of them if you go into fine detail (I usually assume each character has 1-3). These are your “Features” – big bundles of events that are kind of their own tale. Think of it this way – your story “Features” several story arcs – but I’ll call them “Arcs.”

In each Arc, write down the main things that need to happen in order. Remember order – not chronology. This isn’t a timeline of “X happens in Y month,” this is a sequence. In Scrum, these are called “stories,” but for the sake of clarity, I’ll call them “Events.”

Now you have major story Arcs. In each are major Events that need to happen, which will probably either be scenes or part of a scene. Now how do you plot this out?

Simple – we use Sprints. Sprints become Chapters.

Now we have a way through.

  • Create one Sprint for each Chapter. If you have no chapters, perhaps pick an arbitrary number (I recommend ten or twenty, easy to get a percent complete). I’ll just call these Chapters.
  • Take the Arc that spans the entire tale, and sequence out its Events spread among Chapters – take your best shot and when they would happen when. Make notes as you do so.
  • Now, take another Arc and do the same – choose one of the larger ones. As you do this, you may start switching around some Events from your first effort – that’s fine.
  • Next, take one smaller Arc and place out the Events in the various Chapters – it probably won’t span the entire set of Chapters, of course. While you do this, re-sequence the Events – figure what order they happen in.
  • Finally, just do this for all of your Arcs until, adding and adjusting and rethinking. Take plenty of notes as well, scenes and inspirations and ideas are going to come to you. Also, remember, everything should be in the order of occurrence.
  • Eventually, you have a set of Chapters, containing Events, that fulfill Arcs.
  • You’ve just created an outline for your book using Agile – in a kind of mutant Scrum using different terminology, and slightly violating the idea all Sprints are the same duration (hopefully they won’t be).

By the way, note how easy it is to switch things around if you change your mind? Move one event up or down to different Chapters? Yes, very easy – because you have a rough idea of what order things happen in, but you’re not locked in – it’s all still pieces.

When you write the Chapter, then you can plot out the specific scenes. Take the particular Events, recheck their order, group them in scenes, and go. Why plot it in fine detail until you’re ready?

I used some similar ideas when plotting my current novel – but then overdid it – and as soon as I did, things felt less fun and fluid. The reason? I thought too far ahead. When I “Deplotted” it, it worked much better. Novel after this one, I’m going to try this system (unless I invent another).

Know where you’re going and in what order. But decide on the specifics when you’re ready to write them. That way, you can react to what has to be done, not have your mind three chapters ahead, and two chapters behind.

Steven Savage