When authors I work with struggle with certain foundational elements of their stories—like keeping characters moving along clearly defined arcs, maintaining momentum and stakes, story structure, or just getting lost in the forest when they’re so deep into it—there’s one tool I’ve been recommending for years: the plot X-ray.
These take only about an hour or so to create, and yet almost every author I’ve ever suggested the device to initially rejects the idea: “I already have an outline”; “This seems simplistic”; “I already know the story so well.”
And without fail, as soon as they try it every single one has said some version of, “Holy cow, that was useful.”
An x-ray is simple, but not simplistic. It’s a way to reduce the often overwhelming mass of 70K words or more into a tight, clear two- or three-page snapshot of the bones of the story—which is why I call it an x-ray.
Here’s how to make one:
Skimming through your full manuscript, note down every single plot event that moves the story forward. The trick is to keep it brief—one line or so per story development, no more than three pages total. I like to use bullet points, and you may have one bullet-point event per chapter, or ten—it depends on your story.
Even if you are a meticulous plotter and have an outline already, I recommend doing this from your actual manuscript; things can get lost in translation and it’s essential to assess what is actually on the page.
Because most of us have seen The Princess Bride, let’s use the first few scenes of the movie by way of example (you can see a book version example using The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown in my book Intuitive Editing):
X-ray example: The Princess Bride
- A grandfather begins to read a story to his sick grandson
- Westley and Buttercup fall in love
- Westley leaves to seek his fortune so they may marry
- Buttercup learns Westley is killed by Dread Pirate Roberts; she will never love again
- Prince Humperdinck chooses Buttercup as his bride; she does not love him
- Buttercup is accosted by three men and kidnapped
- They are pursued by a mysterious ship. Buttercup jumps overboard to escape—the kidnappers retrieve her just before the shrieking eels attack
- The little boy is hooked; his grandfather reassures him, he feigns unconcern but exhorts him to read on
- The kidnappers and Buttercup reach Cliffs of Insanity ahead of the ship behind them; Fezzik climbs them all up while the Man in Black pursues
- Vezzini takes Buttercup and the Giant and leaves swordsman Inigo to kill the man
- Inigo waits for the man to recover and tells him of his vengeance mission. They fight a close duel; the man wins but leaves Inigo alive
- The man faces the giant in a hard-fought battle of strength and wins. He leaves Fezzik alive and continues his pursuit of the princess
- He faces off with Vezzini in a battle of wits and wins; he procures the princess
You can see how brief each bullet point is, and how quick the x-ray is to make—this tool is only for you, and you know your story well enough to shorthand the scenes. The key is to make sure you are noting every plot event that moves the story forward—meaning it furthers the plot, moves the character further along her arc, and/or raises or complicates the stakes. In the strongest stories, each scene accomplishes a combination or two or all of these. Scenes should never just “establish” something—they must always move the story forward.
Now you can use this x-ray as a tool to diagnose what may be hampering your story. Start by assessing it as a whole: Based only on this bullet-point outline, does the story hold together overall? Is the whole an answer to the overarching story question—the main reason readers are reading (i.e., Will Katniss survive the Hunger Games and keep her family intact?). Are there plot holes? Does every event inexorably lead to the next? Is every plot event a direct result of or an obstacle to the event that preceded it?
One way to check these foundational areas is what I call the South Park “but/therefore” test, based on how Matt Stone and Trey Parker approach writing their TV show: Does every scene connect to the next with either the word “but” or “therefore”? Meaning is each scene connected as a result of or an obstacle to the scene preceding it? If your scenes are connected with the words “and then,” it’s usually a sign of an episodic story, one that may not have strong structure, momentum, or conflict.
Example: The Princess Bride
- Westley and Buttercup fall in love—BUT he is killed when he leaves to seek his fortune to support her
- THEREFORE Buttercup must accept the Prince’s suit—BUT she is kidnapped
- A ship is in pursuit and THEREFORE she tries to escape to it, BUT the eels and kidnappers prevent her
- THEREFORE the little boy is alarmed and pulls us out of the story, BUT his grandfather encourages him to read on to find out what happens
- THEREFORE we see Buttercup is okay, BUT the mysterious ship still pursues the kidnappers
- THEREFORE they climb the Cliffs of Insanity, BUT the Man in Black is right behind them
- THEREFORE Vezzini tasks Inigo with killing him; THEREFORE they duel
…and so on.
Looking at the x-ray and considering the above foundational story questions, if the answer to any of them is no, assess each bullet-pointed plot event:
- Which scenes are treading water, and why?
- What needs to be done to address the issue?
- Or is the scene actually essential for the story (meaning does it further the plot, advance the character(s) along her arc, or raise stakes)?
You can use the x-ray to diagnose any number of other potential problems in your manuscript—here are just a handful of the many questions you can ask yourself:
- Does the story start in the right place? Do the first scenes clearly illustrate the protag’s point A, the beginning of her arc? Can you identify the story’s inciting event, and does it occur within the first 10 percent or so of the manuscript?
- Does each scene in the story move your character closer to her goal or threaten to derail its attainment? Do we see clearly identifiable high and low points throughout the protag’s journey to that goal? Is the character’s arc always on either an upward or downward trajectory? (Flat lines are narrative dead space.) Do we clearly see the story’s and character’s major turning points, from upward trajectory to downward?
- Is every single story event necessary to move your protag along the path of her journey? Is each one related to her ultimate goal?
- Do we see something standing in the way of her goals—ultimate and/or immediate—at each stage of her journey? Is there any easier or better way past the challenge or out of each mess? (The answer must be no, or your protag would take the easier path.)
- Are there loose ends? Unanswered questions? Anything unresolved?
- Any unmotivated actions we don’t see why your protag takes? Is each plot development realistic? Believable? Any unsupported deus ex machina—plot devices that aren’t paved in and seem to come out of nowhere?
- What is the story’s climax, and does it occur within 10-15 percent or so of the end of the story? Does it show the character’s greatest challenge so far—the highest high point? Is it preceded by the lowest low point in her arc?
- Does the story end in the right place? What is the story’s resolution, and does it clearly show the protag’s point B, the culmination of her arc?
- And remember the holy-grail uber-question: Does every single plot event move the story forward?
In Intuitive Editing I offer many more ways to use the x-ray, and you’ll find many of your own as well—another lovely thing about this tool is how well it adapts to the needs of each author and each story.
For instance, with multiple-POV stories, you can use a different-color font for the each POV character in the bullet-point list (as with the framing story in Princess Bride of the little boy), allowing you to separately evaluate each characters’ arc and storyline, as we’ve begun to do above, as well as to visually see at a glance whether you have big chunks of the story where a main character’s point of view is absent, or where you pile up too many of their POV sections together—have you balanced the protags’ storylines? Is each storyline complete, but do we see how each character’s journey intrinsically impacts the other(s)’?
You can also use it in navigating your story’s time line—it’s a great way to break down the story events to make sure your chronology works.
And you can use it as a reference and framework for making sure your protagonist(s)’ arc is crystal-clear, for example by noting for each plot point how it moves her further along her path.
I created the x-ray as a tool to use in editing and revising your story, but you can also follow the format before you start writing to create a strong scaffolding for your story, if it’s helpful. In either case, the x-ray is one of the most useful tools I know for being able to easily see the underlying structure of your plot and make sure it’s strong enough to support your story.