A Thought On Scrum And Story Plotting

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

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

Plots, Pants, And Flows

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

Writers have heard this over and over again.

Some people are plotters, detailing out their stories before writing.

Some people are pantsers, charging ahead writing with little or no outline.

Some people are “plantsers” walking a line between both.

Though these are convenient ways to classify writers, they’re limited. These classifications are much like the classic and oft-mocked D&D alignment chart – interesting originally, but restrictive in the end. Are any of us one of the above all the time, in all of our writing?

As of late I’d struggled with my latest novel – I tend to more of a “plotter,” but it hadn’t quite worked for me. At the same time, pantsing or “plantsing” didn’t work for me either. I felt disconnected from my work, my writing lacked an intimacy.

This had rarely happened with my nonfiction work. Indeed, it seemed I could step into that work with ease for the most part. This wasn’t surprising, as I’ve done mostly nonfiction the last decade – a second novel being a challenge presented no surprise.

So as I meandered towards a solution, I decided to replot a troublesome chapter. This suddenly awakened my imagination, that intimate connection with one piece of my work to the exclusion of all else. Everything felt alive.

Then, I took a look at authors I knew with both challenges and lacks of challenges. Those who had trouble with their works had lost a connection with it, from not liking it to fearing audience reaction to not caring. Writers with few troubles felt an intimate connection to their work – it could be love of characters or joy in “mechanizing” a story, but it was intimate.

My rewrite of a single chapter felt more intimate. That told me what I’d been missing – I’d let so many things distract me from my work. Replotting a chapter reconnected me.

Looking at my past works I could see when works had been easy, I had a sense of intimacy and connection. I had made books on potentially boring subjects and had been absolutely enjoying it. I write many worldbooks and those involved a well-polished system, and it’s fun.

So let’s stop thinking about pants, plotting, and “plantsing.” Let’s ask what methods keep us connected to our works and intimate with our goals. Maybe one time we plot, maybe one time we “pants,” and another time we do something else.

If you’re not feeling connected to your work, then it’s time to switch up how you do things. Who knows, you might invent an new way to classify writers we can all misuse . . .

Steven Savage


(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

As I charge forward more or less on A School Of Many Futures, I find myself feeling constrained at times. I have these awful moments of feeling trapped in my work, weighed down.

You may recognize a similar experience in writing my first novel, where I talked about how Big Rocks, ideas I was afraid to abandon. This is a similar feeling, but more distributed, not quite as bad as last time. So what happened?

The more I looked it over the more I realized that this time around there were less big constraints, but a kind of feeling of being confined. It wasn’t that I was attached to anything particularly, but more that as I wrote I’d wonder if I should change something, or redo something. Every change made me worry more about six little things, and I wasn’t sure how to respond.

So in true Steve Fashion I decided to analyze what was going on and apply (you got it) Agile methods.

I had a pretty good book outline, created iteratively (I applied a mix of my own methods, Agile, and the Snowflake Method that is slowly evolving into my own method). I had my arcs thought out, from big pictures to character trends, and it felt very “alive.” I could have written the thing as I plotted it and had and a decent book.

But as you know, writing always reveals changes and new trends and flaws. Even nonfiction results in discoveries, and fiction writing usually involves all sorts of surprises and inspirations. Writing is engaging and you don’t just find flaws – you find new ideas. Those still produced discomfort as I had to change things – but I wasn’t butting up against Big Rocks, more . . . the whole plot in general.

So Agile to the rescule.

A plot is essentially a backlog – which in most Agile practices is a prioritized list of “stuff to do.” In Agile practices you keep a backlog and take the most important things off the top and do them. At the time, you’re always reshuffling and modifying the backlog as you find things out.

There was my answer. I had “over-structured” the backlog, with scenes and elements locked down and I wasn’t willing to change or reshuffle them. I had them broken down pretty good (thus no Big Rocks), but I wasn’t ready to make changes. I was clinging to a structure, not parts of the structure.

So what I did was Deplot the novel, making the plot outline “lighter” and easier to shuffle and modify. Here’s what I did.

  1. As I had plotted the novel interatively, I had outlines of it at different levels. I took “one step back” from my master outline to an outline of arcs paced to chapters. Imagine a spreadsheet that has chapters listed horizontally, arcs vertically, and rough ideas of what happens for each arc in each chapter.
  2. I treated each chapter as a collection of elements to include, but did not plot individual scenes. I used my old full outline as a guide for ideas, but it was mostly “get from A to B within this chapter.”
  3. As I wrote a chapter, I would make notes on other chapters to look at in a second pass, and as things changed, I’d make notes and modify my various arcs.
  4. I made sure the scenes fulfilled certain purposes and arcs, and reviewed how well they did their job.

This was liberating. Last novel I escaped my “Big Rocks,” being dragged down by giant plot chunks I refused to modify. This novel I was stuck stepping on little plot bits here and wasn’t willing to reorder my big pile of small parts.

So simply, I deplotted my book. I made my goals a bit more abstract. I gave myself room.

This was really liberating. I started writing a lot faster. I had a good note system to review. I rethought major arcs easily. All I had to do was step back a bit more.

The big takeaway here, I think, is that you may indeed need detailed ideas and plans to write. But there’s a level of asking how much you need to plot out the order and sequence and elements. In my case I found that the book was best broken into chapters with arcs, and that would contain elements of other arcs – but as I wrote I’d find the best way and took notes on other insights for later.

So when you plot out your books and lay out your books, ask yourself when you stop defining the level of detail of your work. Leave yourself the room for discovery that you need. It may differ between different books (my nonfiction works far differently) but find what works for you when.

There are other insights to discuss later, but this is one I wanted to address.

P.S. An additional note, I also found certain scenes and elements were very definitely not changing when I stepped back – not so much Big Rocks but things that just felt “right.” When blocked I wrote them out of order to get my mind going – these were things that were “just right” and I probably ought to explore them more.

Steven Savage