Patricia Sargeant, author of sensual, suspenseful romances

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The W form of plotting
By Patricia Sargeant-Matthews

This article first appeared in the April 2001 issue of Write from the Heart, the newsletter of the Romance Writers of America Inc.®'s Central Ohio Fiction Writers chapter.

As Central Ohio Fiction Writers member Donna MacMeans explained during the March 2001 meeting, the W form of plotting your novel is an exercise to help determine your novel's turning points. You can then use those points to graph your books.

She first learned of the W method of plotting from a Romance Writers of America tape titled "You take the high road, and I'll take the low road."

"Once you understand the W plot, you can see it in virtually every movie and book," Donna noted. "It is just a way to visualize necessary turning points and how they affect the action. If you can visualize how the plot will turn at key elements of the book, it makes writing toward the turn much easier."

In addition to using the W plot, Donna incorporated the 12 stages from The Writer's
by Christopher Vogler to illustrate plotting turns. As described in The Writer's
, the 12 stages are:

1. Ordinary world
2. Call to adventure
3. Refusal of the call
4. Meeting with the mentor
5. Crossing the first threshold
6. Test, allies, enemies
7. Approach to the inmost cave
8. Ordeal
9. Reward
10. The road back
11. Resurrection
12. Return with the elixir

Donna used the movie "The Wizard of Oz" to illustrate how the 12 stages interact with the W plot. "The Wizard of Oz," which Vogler also uses to illustrate his 12 stages, begins in the ordinary world of Dorothy, Aunty Em and Toto. The second stage, or call to adventure, occurs when Toto bites the neighbor/witch.

The 12 stages of the journey and the descent of the W continue as Dorothy at first refuses the call to adventure. Her mind is changed for her later, though, and she runs off with Toto - only to get caught in a tornado.

"Once you accept the call to adventure, everything goes wrong," Donna explained. "That's because trouble is far more interesting than when everything goes right."

The first turning point in the W is the change of plan. This coincides with the fifth stage, crossing the first threshold. In novels, this point or stage usually hits around chapter three. In "The Wizard of Oz," this is the scene in which Dorothy finds the Yellow Brick Road.

The Yellow Brick Road was supposed to be easy street. However, to sustain your readers' interest, you cannot make your character's journey easy. Show your character trying to overcome tests and hurdles during the journey. This advances us to stage six, tests/allies/enemies.

"You need to keep throwing obstacles in their path," Donna said. "For every two steps forward, the character takes one step back."

Using "The Wizard of Oz" to illustrate this point:

  • Dorothy finds an ally in the Scarecrow. They're pelted by apples.
  • Dorothy and the Scarecrow find an ally in the Tin Man. The group is then attacked by fireballs.
  • Dorothy, the Scarecrow and the Tin Man find an ally in the Lion. They experience a setback when they fall asleep in the poppy field.

The obstacles increase in intensity until the story reaches the second turning point in the W, also called the point of no return.

"The plot dramatically takes a turn in another direction. Where love flourished, now a huge obstacle challenges its existence. If the heroine was safe before, now she is in deep danger," Donna explained.

In "The Wizard of Oz," the point of no return occurs when flying monkeys carry off Dorothy. Prior this point, friends have surrounded her on her mission; now she must continue alone.

"Before, she could always decide to forgo capturing the witch's broom and instead live with the munchkins," Donna elaborated. "Due to her capture, this is no longer an option."

The story races forward to the third turning point in the W - the climax or "black moment." In the black moment, Dorothy thinks she has escaped the witch's castle, only to be cornered on a high precipice. In a romance, it is important the heroine take the action to save herself from the black moment. Indeed, that is the whole point of the book. The heroine must stand up to her worst fears and conquer them, just as Dorothy did by throwing a bucket of water on the witch.

The distance between the second turning point (the change of plan) and the third turning point (the point of no return) is disproportionate to the distance from the point of no return to the black moment, creating a skewed W.

After the black moment, the action turns again to build to the final resolution when all loose ends are tied up. In The Writer's Journey, this is the equivalent of returning with the magic elixir. In a romance, this is also the acknowledgment of true love between the hero and heroine. Both know that their love is strong enough to stave off life's obstacles.

Donna challenged the group to find the W in their own works and see that adequate pitfalls and obstacles exist to keep the book exciting.

"I've described the W plot in many, many critique letters to beginning writers trying to help them add structure to their story plots. The feedback has been the equivalent of a light bulb suddenly switched on," Donna said. "(Plotting on the W) is a way to visualize those elements we all knew had to be included in our book somewhere; we just weren't sure where."

Text and photos copyright 2006 by Patricia Sargeant-Matthews

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