By Request: A Post About Plotting


The results of our first Magical Words poll indicated that many of you are interested in posts about (among other things) character development and plotting.  So I thought that today I would take on plotting, at least in a general way.  I have no doubt that my MW colleagues will have much to add, either with comments to this post or with posts of their own, but I’ll take the first whack at it.

Developing the plot for a novel, or even a shorter work, isn’t easy.  Nothing else in writing is, so why should this be different, right?  In a way, though, developing narrative is harder than most other things.  There is a certain uniformity to the essentials of character development (for instance) that makes writing or speaking about it fairly simple.  We all know what makes people tick, and so as we develop our characters we have some sense of what questions to ask:  What’s character X’s family life like?  What kind of childhood did she have?  What does she do for a living?  Etc.  Plots vary so much from book to book that it’s harder to come up with questions beyond:  How does it start?  How does it end?  What happens in between?

More to the point, with plot advice process often gets in the way.  Many writers use character sketches to get started with that aspect of their projects.  But there seems to me to be greater variety in how people approach plot.  Some writers always outline.  Others absolutely don’t, ever.  And there is a wide range of intermediary approaches between these two extremes.  This makes it difficult to offer advice of a general nature.  And yet, here I am about to try.

First of all, let’s clarify a bit.  When we sit down to plot our books, chances are we’re not starting from scratch.  We have a general idea of what our books are about, right?  Those questions above that I offered so glibly are actually quite important, and chances are we’ve already answered them in our heads.  Even if we don’t outline, we know how our books begin and how how they end; we probably even know a bit about what happens in between.

Well, there you go.  We’re on our way.  But we all know that we’re still a long from solving our plotting issues.  Let me pause here to say it’s not surprising that character development and plotting led the way in our poll.  Not only are both crucial to good storytelling, but they are deeply interconnected.  When we write our stories there should be a powerful synergy between character conflict and development on the one hand and narrative flow on the other.  What happens to our characters should steer our plots, and our plots should have a direct impact on our characters.  And so as we try to figure out our major plot points we need to turn to those who are most likely to influence the path they follow:  our characters.

Let’s say we’re writing a story about two star-crossed lovers who desperately want to be together, but are thwarted by an age-old feud between their families.  (I actually wouldn’t recommend that you write such a story; it would never sell.  Well, I suppose it might if you made them vampires.  But we’ll use it for the sake of argument….)  Well, immediately you can see where your two lead characters are going to help you figure out the details of your plot.  If, say, he is bold and romantic, he might sneak to her home and cast lines of iambic pentameter at her bedroom window.  She, in turn, might consent to a secret marriage, while also speaking in verse.  Other characters — perhaps bothersome parents and meddlesome, sword-wielding cousins — might be moved to intervene, to the detriment of all.  And before we know it, the motivations of our characters have given us ideas for our plot.

All kidding aside, figuring out how our main characters will respond to circumstances and events is often the best way to come up with plot points.  It can even help to make a list of possible character responses to certain happenings — you can almost give yourself a menu of plotting possibilities.  If you know your characters well, and you have some idea of how you want your book to end, it won’t take you long to choose the appropriate options.

A couple of things to keep in mind:  In some ways, plotting is just like real life.  Our needs and the needs of those around us dovetail at some moments and diverge at others.  These are often the agreements and conflicts that drive the “plot” of our lives.  So is it with books.  On the other hand, fiction usually has clear cut protagonists and antagonists — plotting in stories often includes people who want things that are diametrically opposed.  And protagonists often have nemeses, be they the Skywalker/Vader sort or the Seinfeld/Newman sort.  Real life rarely has that kind of clarity.  My point being that in piecing together our narrative, we need to find the balance between being “realistic” and creating a story that works and flows and keeps our readers interested.

Quite often though, even knowing the basics of plot and figuring out how characters will deal with certain situations isn’t enough to get a plot figured out.  We can get much of it that way, but we’re still going to run into problems.  Sometimes, we’ll find that there’s simply not enough meat there — we need more plot points.  Or we’ll find that our story is flat and needs more punch.  One way I have dealt with both of these problems is to go back to my characters again and ask myself “What would be the absolute best thing that could happen to my ANTAGONIST and the absolute worst thing that could happen to my PROTAGONIST at point x in the plot?”  And then I make that thing (or, on the off chance that they’re two different things, both things) happen.  Voila!  New plot points!  Action!  Tension!  Fun!

At other times we might find ourselves with plenty of plot points, but no sense of how they fit together, or of the order in which they ought to occur.  This is often a trial and error situation.  I might write chapters in the order that feels right at first, only to find that the chapters need to be shuffled (and any key chronological corrections made) later in the process.  There’s nothing wrong with doing things that way.

Occasionally, when we’ve already tried some of the tactics outlined above, we’ll still find that we don’t know where to go next.  We might know where we need to end up eventually, but the path from where we are to the ultimate goal has vanished.  At times like those I’ll often just write anyway.  Weird, I know, but here’s what I do.  I might have a sense that my main character has to visit a certain place, or maybe I’ll know that characters A and B need to have a conversation.  I’ll simply start writing those scenes and see what happens.  In a way, I let my characters and the world I’ve created for them act as my guides.  I don’t force the action or the dialogue; I follow it.  This might sound hokey; it might seem like I’m simply accessing my creative subconscious.  However you want to describe it, I can be very effective.  Sure, sometimes the scenes I write this way don’t amount to anything, and I get rid of them.  But at other times, writing the scenes without any initial agenda takes me (and my story) someplace new and exciting and completely unanticipated.

There is much, much more I could write about plotting.  But this is already long enough and I have no doubt that our discussion will take us to some of the other places we need to go.  So what plotting issues are your dealing with?  What solutions work for you?  To quote from one of my favorite movies, “Let’s work the problem, people.”  (Can anyone name the movie?)

David B. Coe

17 comments to By Request: A Post About Plotting

  • Good stuff, David. A key point you hit on is that you have to let the characters lead the way. If you try to force a plot point that goes against the nature of the character you’ve created, you end up with a clunky plot. Worse, the readers can sense it and know they are being manipulated. If done right, most plot points seem inevitable.

  • Young_Writer

    I’m outlining right now. I’ll admit I’m on here procastinating :). But it is hard to figure out how your characters react to certain occurances. How they would feel about killing, about falling in love, ect. That’s why I spend so much time on my character sketches.

  • Thanks, Stuart. Yes, I follow my characters in nearly everything I try to do with my writing. Seriously. Whenever I’m in doubt, I let my characters do and say what they need to, and usually it takes me past whatever problem I’m facing. I’d add that while most plot points should feel inevitable, they should not necessarily be predictable. Again, it’s a balance. I want my plot points to surprise, but also be traceable, so that my readers can look back and say “Of course, I should have seen that coming,” even if ideally they DIDN’T see it coming. If that makes any sense. It’s all about the end game I posted about a few months back.

    Alexa, I procrastinate here, too. All the time… It is hard to figure out character reactions, and I tend to write out detailed character sketches, too, for just the same reason. I want to get to know my characters so well that I can easily step out of my own emotional tendencies and into theirs. Excellent point. Thanks.

  • Good stuff, David. For me, plotting is often about what I think the movement of the book needs, by which I really mean what I think the reader needs. This is where I can find movie structure stuff helpful to beat out basic arcs and diagrams of action: how quickly can the main conflict appear? When does the inciting action take place? Where are the necessary emotional low points that will create the rollercoaster feel I want? Where do I want the action sequences to quicken the pace etc.? Sometimes I plot these out, sometimes it’s simply of saying, ‘OK, there was a lot of back story and dialogue in that section, so now we need something with action and danger…’ I find those hero journey studies broadly useful, but in the end for me it’s about identifying what I want the reader to think and feel, then finding the compenents of the story that will do that for me. And making everything as hard as possible for my protagonist, of course 🙂

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter Wright

    >I actually wouldn’t recommend that you write such a story; it would never sell. Well, I suppose it might if you made them vampires.

    LOL How true. How like life.

  • Thanks, A.J. I think we’re actually getting at much the same thing from different directions. When my characters “tell me what they need” it’s often not simply a matter of what’s in their best interests, but also what’s in the book’s best interests as well. In other words, while I speak of following my characters, I’m really following the exigencies of good storytelling, filling in those action scenes where they need to be, finding the conflicts and events to drive the narrative forward. And though I’ve written in the past about how movies and novels are different creatures, I will also say that at times I take a very “cinematic” approach to my storytelling, imagining how my story will manifest itself visually and how I might script it more effectively.

    Thanks, Jagi. Glad you liked that….

  • Romeefang, Romeofang. Verefore art thou Romeefang.

  • And I meant to add — letting the characters talk is excellent advice. I also use a grape (or cluster) outline when working on the first draft of a plot..

  • I use the signpost method (where I outline the main plot points, and that gives me the freedom to write the correct path even if it takes me on a tangent for a while). I find I need the freedom to roam but I need a map so I don’t get lost.

  • Faith, I’ve never heard of a grape/cluster outline before. Have you blogged about it, or is there a website that describes it that you know of?

  • Lol, Faith. And yes, I repeat Taerin’s question. Can you explain what you mean by “a grape (or cluster) outline”?

    Wade, I tend to work in a very similar way. I call it the “Trip-Tix” method, after the Automobile Associations Trip Tix that they use to guide people across the country. Very much the same idea — knowing the interstates allows us to venture into the scenic routes now and then….

    Taerin, thanks for asking the question — I was going to if someone else didn’t.

  • I did a post here:

    Oddly, it is listed under both Catie’s and my name. Weird. However, this should explain it for y’all!

  • I’m glad this was about plotting stories and not plotting/scheming Otherwise, MW might end up on some FBI watch list. *grin*

    A timely post since I’m struggling with how a short story needs to play out. Now I know, just ask the character, Drohan, or as one of my reviewers likes to put, WWDD? “What would Drohan do?”

    Thanks for the reminder.

  • Thanks, Faith! I may have to try that with the new WIP.

    NGD, nope, no plotting going on here. At least not of the sort that would attract the notice of the NSA…. Thanks for the comment.

  • Thank you, Faith. That sounds like a great exercise!

  • … and the movie is …… Apollo 13 … dialog spoken by Ed Harris, when all the geeks were running around like chooks with their heads cut off trying to figure how to fit a square peg into a round hole using a pair of socks and an instruction manual cover. One of Ron Howards best movies.

  • Kudos to Widdershins! (There’s a sentence I never thought I’d type…) Apollo 13 is, in fact, the movie, and Ed Harris is the actor with the lines — he played mission control flight commander Gene Kranz.