Friday, November 13, 2009


A plot. A series of events that forms the story.

Sooner or later we all have to end up with one – particularly if we are writing novels. Some folks start out at chapter one with a structured plan, others write an endless series of disconnected scenes, following their interest, until the whole patchwork starts to show some cross-connections, then weave it together with endless iterations. Others write to the ‘horizon’ – plotting only two to three chapters ahead to some critical plot point.

Some people claim not to plot at all, but focus only on Narrative and Character, letting the characters loose on the page. I have always had a suspicion that these writers know their characters so well, and their character’s stories, that by default they pretty much have the whole thing in any case. But sooner or later if there is a story, there will be a plot.

How do you plot?

I tend to plot a lot looser now than I have in the past. I usually decide at the outset who the main PoV characters will be, then start tracing out a series of ‘threads’ – literally. I start with a sheet of A3 paper and draw a series of interconnected little bubbles, each of which is a key scene. This enables me to go crazy drawing lines between things, and to look at the parallel story arcs of the main characters and how these relate. The whole thing ends up like a dog’s breakfast in the end, and I have usually stapled on an additional one or two sheets of A3, with scores of little footnotes where I have run out of room in the boxes. OK. Sue me – I’m an engineer.

I usually back this up with notes on characters, lists of characters, glossaries, background material on the world etc.

What sort of tools to you use to plot? I personally love pencil and paper, but this is just my inner Luddite showing.

Do you plot everything out before hand, or explore your way into your potential story? Do you let your inner characters off the leash like a pack of overexcited puppies to run riot through your word processor?


Anonymous said...

I can only comment on short stories, but mostly, I have a general idea and then let myself go. If I apply butt to seat regularly, I usually surprise myself with what comes out of my head. I try to just get it down. Later, as I ruminate, it gels and then I can clean it up.

I think for novels that I like your idea. I like the linear approach with each line being a thread. You can angle them up and down within the other threads at will and still keep them separate in your head. I'll have to try it.

Linda Davis

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Chris, I go on the adventure with my characters, so it can be a bit scary!

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Linda, I think I'm working on the same principle as you.

Anonymous said...

I start by turning the characters loose. Once established, both on paper and in my head, I start organizing them.

When I have several threads, and have to interweave then, I've been known to print the whole thing out, scene by scene (novel sized stuff here!) and rearrange scenes and change my relative chronologies so it flows better, and makes sense internally.

Either I'm getting better, or mentally plotting more simply, but I haven't had to do that for awhile. Perhaps eventually I'll advance to doing the shuffling on a sheet of paper - possibly even before writing.

Amanda Green said...

Chris, why are you making me think this early in the morning?

How I plot differs from book to book. Usually, I start withe some general notes detailing the main plot points and characters. I've tried the whole plot-out-in-detail thing and have found two things. By the time I've done a 50 page or more outline, I don't want to write the book. When I finally get past that point and start writing, the finished product bears little resemblance to the outline, hence frustration for lost time.

The exception is my current WIP. Russian Nights. As historical fantasy with a touch of alternate history, it has required a great deal of research. That has meant more notes, outlining and drawing of diagrams. Of course, that doesn't mean my characters are cooperating. One of my POV characters simply refuses to die. Another character was meant to be a minor character who appeared in only one or two scene. Instead, the character has pushed his way into becoming a major character and is very, very LOUD in my head.

So I guess I am a pantsing plotter or a plodding pantser. ;-p

C Kelsey said...

I let my characters run around in my head for a long time. They end up telling me everything. The story comes out of who the person is. Once I know the characters (and they've told me the story) I then let the run around on the page. But usually I know exactly what's going to happen throughout *and* if something unexpected occurrs I know the character well enough to work around it.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Linda. I think that is one of the things I like about short stories - I can just let myself go a bit. And if I do dig myself into a hole, its not a big one:)

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Rowena. You are a braver woman than me!

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, matapam. I think there really is something to be said for getting things down on paper to get the characters to come to life. Starting things is always the hard part for me. I think sometimes I should forget the structure just to get the old creative juices flowing.

I think I might try that with my latest project.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Amanda. Keeping the inspiration is a tricky thing. I just the way we approach plotting should support our craft and not the other way around.

If laborious pre-work kills your desire to write, I'd be tempted to say don't do it - of course I might receive a kick from Sarah's shiny boots. Proposals are important to. I have to admit I find these difficult.

I'm also pretty sure that finished works hardly ever look like proposals.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Chris. That's interesting. After reading On Writing by Stephen King I suspect he is very similar.

I think I need to let my characters loose a little bit more. They are currently starving for air trapped in my plot outline.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

First of all, wheely cow, really? I've heard of holy cow, but wheely cow is scary. :)

Second... plot. I started out trying to fight the inevitability of having one. I just let the characters babble and babble... and sold nothing.

Then I went thorugh an hyper-plotted phase. If it wasn't on the plan, it didn't go in. Now I am in a "plotted but loosely held" phase. I follow the plot, but I give it a chance for wonderful things to happen.

I'm afraid of talking about plotting, because everytime I think I know how, I find out a few years later that it sucks...

Kate said...

I'm definitely a fly by the seat of the pants sort. Outlines happen sometimes, but they're usually very sketchy and more of a thumbnail sketch than an outline.

The fun part comes when the characters tell me things on a need to know basis - and I don't need to know.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Sarah. I think I am in much the same place but I started from the other end. I began very tightly plotted then let the strings off a bit.

PS: If you look closely at the motorbike cow chick's bike you will see its logo - Mad Kow :)

Chris McMahon said...

Hey, Kate. Time to have a sit down intervention with those characters and let them know who is boss!

Hey - no misbehaving you! Get back into that outline now!

Kate said...


Now imagine telling DRACULA that, and you can see the problem (Yes, my characters 'leak'. I usually end up channeling them to some extent.)

Anonymous said...

Simple solution, Kate -- take him out to dinner at an Italian restaurant. Hit him with the bad news just after you've started chowing down on the garlic bread ;-)

If he gives you any lip, just thwap him with a breadstick and tell him to shut his fangy pie-hole and go make you a sammich!


Chris McMahon said...

Ah, yes. I see Kate that you are caught in the old frog and crocodile conundrum - you know the parable where the crocodile agrees not to eat the frog when they cross the stream yet eats him anyway even though it means he was drown? A little difficult for Vlad to change his spots.

Chris McMahon said...

Hey, RJ. I see you have this thing down pat:)

Jim McCoy said...

Being a novice writer, I haven't done a whole lot of this. I am currently working on my first two novels though, and I seem to be coming up with just the high points of the story in a rough order and then filling in between. I don't mean that in so much of adding fluff, but finding a way to get from Hey, look it's the bad guys to uh-oh whaddaya mean no-one's see dear old dad all day? in a logical manner. Maybe someday I'll be able to do a tight plot but for now it feels too forced.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Jim. There are probably more ways to write a novel than ways to skin a cat. The approach is completely individual. If you are managing to get the words down on paper and progress toward the goal, I can't see that it mattered too much.

Its whatever works for you. I know at least two successful published writers who work only to a few main plot points.

One of them has been very successful with short stories and started with these first. He tends to write scenes as they come and in no particular order. It took him a little while to adapt to novels, but tends to use pretty much the same approach.

Good luck:)