Some authors love the idea of plotting a novel. Some hate the idea. I understand both mindsets because I’ve had both.
When I first started thinking about writing, I hated the idea of plotting. If ever someone suggested I outline my blood ran cold. That’s partly because in my head, “outline” means following a defined format using Roman numerals, numbers, capital and lowercase letters. Any tie I’ve tried to “outline” anything, I get myself horribly confused. The basic outline formula, like the Dewey Decimal System, just doesn’t work in my head.
←←What looks like this to some people
Ends up looking like this in my head →→
And yet, I have learned over the course of more than 20 years and more than 30 books, that plotting is not an evil word, nor does it rob me of my creativity.
I resisted the idea of strcture, of planning, of outlining for many years, and in all those years I started writing several dozen books and finished zero. My stories wound around aimlessly, not really being about anything at all. I had dozens of false starts. And, not being entirely crazy, eventually I started to realize that what I was doing wasn’t working…at all. I was practicising a lot, but i was practicing a method that didn’t actually work. It produced nothing. What I wrote never got any better, and I never got any closer to actually writing, “The End.”
I had to adjust my thinking or accept the fact that I was never going to actually be a published author. And so, here are five things I’ve learned over the years about plotting:
Lesson #1: A satisfying story needs a solid foundation. One of the reasons an outline format doesn’t work for me is that plots don’t follow straight lines from point A to point B and then on to Point C, especially once you add in all the subplots and secondary storylines. Most stories do resemble the second image above more than the first but for me, as a reader, one of the biggest disappointments in a book is when it seems that the author has made no real attempt to patch the holes in logic and smooth out the transitions between one thought and another Years ago, I read a mystery by an author who, to that point, had been one of my favorites. This particular book fell short of the author’s usual mark, however. The story dragged in places, followed trails that went nowhere, and, in the end, when the author revealed the solution to the crime, I had no idea who the killer was. I went back through the book, searching for some mention of the character, and finally found one, but I was so disappointed in that story, I vowed then and there that I would do whatever it took to never produce a book where I left huge holes in the story. I’ve learned enough about how my head works to know that means I need some kind of structure beneath my story, and that means I need a solid plot.
Lesson #2: A good plot is more of a suggestion than a rule. Especially when I am selling books on proposal to a publisher, I need to plot in advance to make sure my story has a clear beginning, middle and end, that it contains actual, active conflict and not just the idea of conflict, that my characters are strongly motivated, and that the ultimate resolution works. Thinking through my plots before I write can give me that, but it doesn’t mean I’m locked into whatever sounded good in theory when I was thinking about the story in advance. Characters walk onstage, say and do things I hadn’t anticipated, make decisions I hadn’t considered, and reveal secrets I hadn’t planned on. Plotting must be a fluid process, allowing for additions, subtractions, and detours as I embark on the actual journey.
Lesson #3: I do not have to plot before I write the story. The point of the writing process isn’t to create a container of some kind into which a writer has to climb before he or she writes the story. A writer should always do what works for him or her at any given moment. I’ve been a full-time writer for more than 20 years, and I will admit that once I devised a plotting method that worked for me, I used it on most of the books I’ve written. But I will also say that there have been some books that simply would not allow themselves to be written that way. Only Time Will Tell was one of those books. I had a contract for a time-travel romance, and a deadline that was fast approaching, and the more I told myself I had to find a plot that worked, the more my characters resisted working with any kind of plot. My male protagonist came onstage, waking up with a hangover in a whore’s bed in Virginia City, Montana, after a nightmare in which he relived a moment from his past. Goody, Goody Gunshots was another book that defied plotting in advance. I knew my protagonist would witness a murder and that when she returned to the spot with authorities, the body was gone, but that’s all she would tell me before I wrote the book. But just because I didn’t plot in advance, that didn’t give me a free pass. At some point in the writing process or any book, I need to think through the story logically and make sure every element readers need to see to make the story work is actually on the page.
Lesson #4: For me, plotting works best if I skip the detail. This may sound odd to some of you, but I try not to get into detail when I’m plotting my books. Though I know that a good story needs a solid foundation, a solid foundation is not the same thing as knowing every detail of the story in advance. I still like the adventure of writing. I enjoy the surprises that come from the characters and the situation I’m writing about. And there’s also a part of me that gets bored with a story if I’ve told it once already. For all those reasons, I try to focus only on the structure of the story when I plot in advance and avoid the details. For instance, in a romance novel, I know that I need to introduce my hero and my heroine to the readers, and I also need to introduce them to each other. I know they each need to feel that first blush of attraction, and that certain other steps must occur for the reader to believe these two people are actually falling in love as the story goes on. I try to focus on the generic structure points and not the details. I might decide the characters ought to take a step closer in their relationship in chapter 4, but I try not to plan how that’s going to happen. I might decide that my mystery protagonist needs to learn something about the murder in Chapter 5, but I try not to decide who is going to reveal the secret and where and how that secret will be revealed. If I don’t feel the thrill of discovery as I write the book, it’s a safe bet the reader won’t feel it either.
Lesson #5: Plotting even a big book with numerous subplots doesn’t have to be intimidating. I’ve learned that plotting is a lot like weaving or braiding, threading one story over another into an intricate pattern. There’s an art to taking all those separate parts and draw them through steadily so that the reader never has to stop and think, “Wait…what???” or “Who?” and the author never has to say, “Meanwhile, back in the apartment…” There’s an art to making sure every color in the story’s palate appears regularly, and that the pattern they create together is pleasing Yes, it does take some work, but I’ve also learned that when I make a choice as a writer, I should always make it with the reader in mind. It’s always about the reader’s experience, never about what makes writing easier for me.
And there you go: five things I’ve learned about plotting over the years.
Now go…write something!