Updated: Nov 18, 2018
You’re a writer with a great idea for a story. You’ve started writing and were off to a fantastic start, but now you’re stuck; your characters are fizzling, your plot is stagnating, and you can watch your story’s structure melting before your eyes. Could a plot wheel be the solution you’re looking for or should you continue to write by the seat of your pants?
What is a plot wheel?
Plot wheels, or story wheels, are old tools authors use for the creation of minor details as well as to help their stalled work progress. Prolific writers such as Erle Stanley Gardner, who wrote 82 Perry Mason novels, have used the technique originally made popular by crime writer Edgar Wallace.
They’re even used to teach elementary school students how to write a story and keep track of narrative structure – but let’s be honest, most of us have forgotten about them over the years. Some like me are quite content to continue repressing these little wheels of horror. For those of you who dare to remember, Reading Rockets provides a story wheel lesson for teachers.
That said, plot wheels serve their purpose for writers best when they are used to add detail to a story rather than to reverse-engineer one; in other words, these plot wheels are not your grade school story wheels, even if they resemble them.
Why use a plot wheel?
A plot wheel can help writers move their stories along and discover issues with what they’ve already written. By using a few “spokes” of the wheel to cover each of the three Acts of a story and the parts of each Act that drive the story forward, a plot wheel can serve as a big-picture alternative to a story outline, at least at the beginning stages of writing.
A story wheel can also be used to create compelling characters with believable motivations, which will ultimately impact the overall plot.
For example, every story has an antagonist and protagonist. Most stories are written from the protagonist’s point of view; after all, the protagonist is typically the most likeable character in a story. However, the antagonist must have a reason for beating up on the protagonist; they don’t exist to make the protagonist’s life miserable.
Imagine if Negan on the Walking Dead blasted away Rick Grimes’ community not because he thought society needed to function in a particular way, but because he was just an asshole. Rick would just endlessly try to kill him.
I have opinions about the Walking Dead. They set Negan up as a rockstar antagonist, one with deep motivations, and ultimately the protagonist took too long to react in a way that made sense.
The good news is that plot wheels can help writers visualize pacing, too.
What are some of the drawbacks of using a plot wheel?
Well, first of all, if you’re using them to generate story ideas, plot wheels are pretty random.
They’re often based upon the notion that a writer just has so many ideas they can’t choose one! The trouble with writing, though, is that sometimes the ideas just aren’t there.
Even when they are, they can make stories feel formulaic and arbitrary if they’re not executed well. If the writer isn’t invested in a plot, they’d better be a good writer to make the story be convincing, engaging, and flow efficiently.
Additionally, plot wheels don’t solve all of a writer’s woes if the writer doesn’t have a firm grasp of plot and structure.
None of Gardner’s plot wheels contain anything central to his main plots or unique to his stories. The pulp of his work was original and not randomly generated. Neither were his plot wheels brainstorming tools; rather, he used them to create rich detail within plots he’d already conceived.
But I Need Help Creating a Story!
If you need help thinking up a story rather than the details of one you’ve already got kicking around up there, Plot Generator might help you. To give you an idea of how many people are using it, according to Alexa, as of this posting it’s rated the 48,994th most popular website in the United States and 121,779th globally. Dang.
Authors like Stephen King don’t use plot wheels or plot generators, but if you need some writing inspiration and an idea spawned by a generator site resonates with you, why not?
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