Monday, October 3, 2011

MY Way to Plot a Novel

It's Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month) time again. And October is just a bit over 24 hours away. That means NanoPLOTmo is upon us. National Novel Plotting Month as we head into the craziness of November.

I know some of you are "plotters" and some of you are "pantsers." Some need a detailed plot describing what happens virtually on every page before sitting down to write. Others "fly by the seat of your pants" not having anything on paper creating the plot as you go. And people in both camps produce great novels, so I'm not going to tell you one is better than the other. I'm going to just give you a third model that lies somewhere between the two. I'm calling The Journey of Discovery model.

First Things First

Before you begin to think about plot (plotter, pantser or discoverer) you need to do some prep work. For me that's settling three specific things: Premise or Story Concept, Characters and Setting.

Premise. The premise for me is sort of like "the elevator pitch" professional writers talk about. You are in an elevator and you see the acquisitions editor of a publishing house in the elevator. You are carrying your manuscript and the editor says, "I see you're a writer. What's your novel about?" And you have to tell them before  they get to their floor.

This is also sometimes known as the "concept" and really is trying to boil down the entire story into a single sentence. So, this year I'm doing a sequel to Dark Side of the Moon using the same characters and setting I did in the first book. This one is called Total Eclipse of the Moon. Here's my premise:

While vacationing at a resort in a clear dome on the surface of the moon, the proprietor of the resort is murdered during an eclipse and our heroes must find the murderer. 
Okay, it's a bit awkward, but who cares. Until you have to write the marketing blurb, you are the only one to see this. This gives me the specific direction for the story. Everything in my central plot will relate to that concept.

Characters.  I'm a list maker, so I list out everything from their height, weight, hair color, etc. to their likes and dislikes. Basically, I work on their character sketches/dossiers until the character becomes real for me. The way I think about it is that I don't know the character until I reach the point that I wouldn't be surprised to see him or her walking down the street, and, if I did, I could carry on a conversation with that person. At this point I don't do this for every character, just my main character(s).

Setting. Your stories also have to take place somewhere. Of course, they may well move around the world like National Treasure, but there is a starting location and probably one that you will spend the most time in. You don't have to do full world building at this point, but I close my eyes and try to visualize the scene.

Expanded Story Concept

After I have these things in place, I create an expanded story concept. I write 3-4 paragraphs or sometimes simply a bulleted list of the general arc of the story. Nothing detailed. Mostly just where the story begins and where it ends.

Here's a quick one for Total Eclipse. It will likely change dramatically, but this is the preliminary concept:

  • Mike and Carolyn join Eric and Linda on a trip to Xanadu a domed resort on the surface of the moon to help them plan their wedding in the "Earthlight Chapel" at the resort. 
  • Jason Kellen, proprietor of the resort invites the pair over for dinner where he shows them his private collection of lunar exploration artifacts. He proposes giving them to the college and funding the building of a museum to house them. They include the golf ball Alan Shepherd hit during his trip to the moon. 
  • Carolyn brings in Moonbeam and the mobile crime lab to help with the a authentication,
  • Before the lab can arrive, the golf ball is stolen. Mike and Carolyn are  asked to investigate quietly. 
  • The day after the Eclipse, Jason is found dead in a crater without an EV suit by Linda and Eric. 
  • The investigation begins
  • They sort out the suspects:
    • His daughter bitter over the divorce
    • The construction engineer who found the golf ball and was paid handsomely for it. 
    • The "waiter" whose facial structure is a close match to that of a theif
    • The Casino owner who wanted to buy the museum collection
    • The ex-wife 
    • The gigilo she brought with her
    • The disgruntled employee fired recently.
    • The holiday director who is everywhere, but no one really knows.  
  • The investigation takes two tacks: Theft of the Golf Ball and Murder of the Host. 
  • They narrow down the suspects to the waiter for the golf ball theft, but then he is found dead with a faked golf ball in his apartment causing everyone to wonder why he didn't just put it in the glass case and no one would be the wiser. 
  • More investigation. Discover the golf ball was a fake from the beginning. Construction engineer is the culprit. He killed the waiter/thief, but was on his way back to Armstrong on the train when Jason was killed. 
  • Investigation proceeds. Physical clues point to the Casino owner. Turns out the Casino owner was a partner with Jason in a failed land investment scheme on Earth. Jason discovered the Casino owner sabotaged the deal and pocketed the money swindled from investors. He was going to turn him in during his stay.
  • Casino owner is murdered. 
  • More investigation and a key piece of physical evidence is found to point to....
You didn't really think I was going to give away the culprit in an open forum did you? 


Now, I lay down, close my eyes and follow the whole story in my mind as it unfolds sort of like a movie in my head. Okay, it's weird, but I enjoy it. I begin to fill in  some of the missing bits and some of the secondary plot elements (No, I didn't forget about Linda and Eric's wedding. That's a whole subplot to be explored) as well as the daughter discovering the father she never knew after his death. 

That's It!

For me that's where it stops. I may add a couple of things like maybe the key bit of physical evidence I haven't quite worked out yet or some notes about one of the subplots, but I don't make my plot outline more detailed than what you see there. However, plotters can do just that. They can work out every individual scene by taking each line in this bulleted list and writing notes on each scene which connects them. 

So, that's how I plot a novel. What about you? What tips do you have about writing the novel?


  1. Terri, I like your idea of visualizing the whole plot in your head. I'm going to try that.

  2. I must say, I'm far more of a "pantser" than a "plotter," but I guess this "discoverer" thing may be OK. In a WIP I sort of plotted to send a spaceship to Tau Ceti, but I DISCOVERED it wasn't working out right, so I did a bit of pantsing and sent it on to Earth (no, it didn't start from there) to join up with the other spaceship ...

    Then I thought I had the first draft done, but no, I DISCOVERED I didn't have enough detail on some stuff, so I "pantsed" an extra chapter in between two that were already there ...

    Not a whole heck of a lot of plotting, this one told me where it wanted to go when there was trouble ...

  3. I like the discoverer concept. I will have to try it for nano this year. Nano without plotting didnt work for me last time. This might be just enough to keep me in the game without restricting my flow. Thanks for sharing.

  4. That is a very generous template, Terri. This should keep you well on track during Nano and keep your interest since there are still details to work out.
    I'm a bit of a plotter, but I mix up the styles till my story takes shape. I begin with an outline following Campbell's hero's journey, (but, in The Unhewn Stone, instead of my hero gaining helpful tools, he gave them to others along the way. Often, I find I reverse normal procedure). When I'm stuck, I turn to steps in the tarot where the symbolism helps me overcome hurdles and pushes the story forward. Once I tried for the structure of Virgil's Aeneid, but I didn't have the patience to see it through when the story took hold of me.
    I agree it is a big timesaver if you have some kind of pattern to keep you focused and motivated.

  5. I do tend to be a discoverer. What you see is about as detailed as I get. I think about them as destination points I need to get to. Of c ourse, how I get there is driven by what the characters "want" to do meaning how they respond characteristically to the situations they find themselves in, the clues they discover and the red herrings they unearth.

  6. I'm glad to know I'm not the only list maker! I list everything from hair and eye color (easy) to birthdays, favorite color and lucky never know what might work its way into the story line.

    Great article,
    Concilium, July 2012

  7. Another comment - are you doing a well-structured story (a murder mystery had better be), or a sort of "episodic" story, kind of open-ended, where the outcome of one episode suggests where the next one should go ... pantsing to the Nth degree!

    If you do "episode M" and your characters succeed in their goals then "episode N" should follow ... but if "episode M" blows up in everyone's faces a completely different "episode P" will follow. I must admit, in a current WIP, I went off on one path, but things just weren't working right, couldn't find a usable spell or potion to do what was needed, so I said the heck with it and sent the spaceship somewhere else, merged it into a second plotline already running ...

    Is that "discovery"?

  8. Yes, Jim, I would call that discovery. And right now, I consider all that stuff I put down sort of good ideas. Just like if I'm on a trip, I might see something interesting down a side road that wasn't on the map, I'm going to investigate it. Or more acurately if the one driving the car (the characters) sees something.

    I'm not sure I trust an author who says s/he knows exactly what is going to happen in every scene before they start writing. Either they are geniuses or idiots. A genius in that they are way smarter than I am and know everything about their characters before they even put pen to paper. Or idiots in that they have confused following an outline with plotting a novel. The story ALWAYS grows from the decisions a character makes and, if you get to a scene and discover that your character, keeping in character, would not do that, then you have to abandon those plans and come up with something they would do. If you have written your characters well, they seep down into your subconscious and begin directing the story through the choices they make. Trying to force them to do something uncharacteristic of them will make your story seem contrived and stilted. That is because It Is. It would be like a scene from a bad science fiction movie where someone has taken over the body of another person and makes that body reluctantly do something against the owners will. It gets done, but it is not natural at all.

  9. This was very helpful and will probably keep me from going back and doing one less major re-write. THANK YOU!

  10. Thank you for sharing this plotting scheme. I feel so much better now knowing I am a discoverer. I just didn't fit the definition of plotter or pantser. And I am happy to know there are other writers like me...!! Excellent article.

  11. I know a lot of you have commented on the term discoverer. I'm not saying that is an "official" category. It is just the best way to describe how I go about plotting. Also, I'm not saying this is how anyone else SHOULD plot a novel.

    Eventually, we are all discoverers. We discover what works best for us. As we learn more about different ways to do things, we can pick and choose and explore those that are best for us.


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