Headline plotting is a technique I’ve developed for my own writing that has helped me connect setting to plot, and is something of a Swiss Army knife of plot. The technique has its roots in tabletop roleplaying games and creating “plot hooks” for quests and events, which I’ve adapted to the sphere of novel writing.
I created it out of necessity (like all great inventions, muahahaha!) when I reached a roadblock in Root of the First that sent me back to replot the book from the start after writing 300 pages of it. Part of the problem was that the setting felt very flat, and some of the events felt very “generic.” Background actors were faceless, stock characters and events felt very arbitrary. I needed a way to flesh it out based on the setting I’d created.
Setting is often described as being the backdrop against which the story takes place, like a text skene that only exists to prevent the real world from cluttering up the story. After all, say what you will of outdoor theatre (Shameless plug for the American Player’s Theatre here), who would want to see King Lear being performed if there was nothing to block out the view of the highway in the background? A tightly controlled setting keeps the unnecessary “stuff” in the world from getting in the way.
But without enough world detail, the events take place in a vacuum. Which setting details are worth keeping and which can be cut generally boils down to: does the protagonist or their main opposition interact with it, or does it have any consequence on the way events play out? If not, realize that it exists solely by author whimsy and not plot necessity. Some whimsical color is essential. But note the word “some” in that sentence.
So how do you create setting elements that intersect with the plot and justify their existence while making your world unique, vibrant, and lifelike? Headline plotting.
Put simply, headline plotting is where you brainstorm all the events going on in the world in which your story takes place. Whether it’s a headline in a local news story or a world shaking event, it doesn’t matter. It’s important. Here are some of the examples I came up with for Root of the First:
- A woman claiming to be a scion of the Raven Clan has staked a claim to the Raven Throne
- Labor disputes in Laes have sparked a rebellion
- Rumors that the Duke of Deyledd is terminally ill has led to a succession squabble
- Piracy in the waters off of Ca’grw has all but shut down trade with Veniea
- A show of wonders has arrived in New Ca’grw and is open for business
Canny readers might recognize the first of these as a major point of contention in book 2. I knew I wanted book 2 to be about Calis’s struggle to gain the throne, but creating a true rival for her (rather than just generic opposition) makes that struggle far more interesting. The rumors about Deyledd’s illness allowed me to put a face on some border raiders. Instead of just attacking travelers indiscriminately, they are now intentionally destabilizing Deyledd to aggravate the succession struggle enough that its neighbors can take over a contested piece of territory.
The advantage to creating setting like this is that it ties together both the where and the what happened. If I were to describe Deyledd as a duchy, and indulge in flowery narrative about its pastoral landscapes, it would get dull very quickly. Deyledd is now a place where things happen. The succession struggle in Deyledd becomes the problem of the characters in the novel when those border raids catch them in the middle.
“Random” Problems – Applying Headline Plotting
Consider the following story: Steve is driving to work and can’t be late. We have two connected plot/setting elements here: Steve has a route to his destination, and a deadline. Presumably, to keep the tension high, he has just enough time to travel the route and get to work on time. If we say he is just starting a new job after having been fired from the last two for being late, we’ve added pathos but we haven’t added tension. The problem is still the same, and the difficulty is still the same. All that’s changed is we’ve added intensity to the motive. Raising the stakes is important, but it has precisely nothing to do with actually challenging the character.
So let’s add a challenge. But what? Let’s brainstorm some headlines.
- Now that the rain has let up, the 18th Street bridge is being shut down to begin seasonal repairs
- A person was shot on the corner of Lexington and High Ave and police have blocked the street while dealing with the situation
- The depressed economy has led to the city implementing a massive budget cut for all police officers, firefighters, and teachers. As an act of civil disobedience, the police have used their squad cars to escort a massive protest march through the street Steve takes to work
Any one of these both explains more about the world Steve finds himself in, shows that the unpredictable events of the world can and do affect Steve’s life, and they do so in a way that does not make them “feel” arbitrary.
There’s a reason for these things happening. In our plot, the reason they happen is that Steve needs to be late for work and lose his job to kick start the novel. In our setting, though, the reason for their happening is what makes them feel genuine.