How Do You Plot?

Next week I’ll be on a panel at Sleuthfest where we’ll all be talking about our methods of plotting a mystery. That’s had me thinking. How do I plot a story, be it a mystery or a romance?

 When I first started writing (eons ago) I really had no idea how to plot, which my first attempts truly showed. That was when I started looking at books I’d read and liked and tried to figure out how those writers put together a story. By my third attempt at writing a romance, I was doing better. I even interested an editor and ultimately found an agent who wanted to represent me. That particular story never sold, but that was back in the days when we could sell a book on a synopsis and three chapters, so my agent made me start writing synopses. Writing a synopsis before you’ve written the book can teach you a lot.

 It forced me to started reading books about plotting, which, in turn, taught me the three act structure (beginning, middle, and end) and about turning points. I’ve always found beginnings fun. That’s when I get to give all the important information: who the main characters are, the time period, setting, and major conflict. I rarely, however, found that act took up a third of the book. More like the first quarter, if that much.

I also like endings. That’s when the conflict is resolved and our hero and heroine (I was writing romances back then) realize they are meant to be together and we have the happily ever after ending. Endings, also, rarely ever take up a third of the book. So that leaves the middle, which often becomes the sagging middle.

What do you do with the middle?

It was The Writers Journey, by Chris Vogler (based on Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces), that gave me the information I needed for the sagging middle. If you’ve read either of those books, you know the structure begins with the hero’s (could be male or female) ordinary world and moves to a call for adventure. Basically the first few steps the hero goes through comprise act one. It’s what comes after that stage that has helped me structure the middle. In this act (the middle) the hero meets allies and enemies and is tested. In this section the hero is growing and changing, facing and conquering fears, real or imagined. It’s after going through all of these ordeals (which intensify as the story progresses) that the hero is ready to face the major conflict. By the end of the middle section the hero is stronger and now has something of value (perhaps merely an understanding of her self-worth or maybe an actual weapon).  The ending (act three), then, is where the hero meets and defeats the enemy or finds the elixir and returns to his or her ordinary life a changed person. Now she’s ready for love, or now he has his reward.

Nowadays before I start a story, I write a synopsis (one for my eyes, not an editor’s or agent’s). Sometimes it’s in story form, and sometimes it looks like an outline. I put in the key scenes that develop both the character and the conflict, introduce the mentor (ally) or mentors, shapeshifters, enemies, and tests. I decide how, as a result of these tests, my protagonist will have changed and grown (or discovered the villain). Of course there will be the darkest moment when all seems lost, so part of my plotting will be deciding how my hero will meet the challenges, how I can show him teetering on the brink of failure and yet ultimately succeed.

Once I have those decisions made, I’m ready to write.

Does this mean I never change the story idea once I’ve written the synopsis or outline? No. This is merely a guideline for me. A road map. Once my characters take over, they can either follow it or veer off on a side road, but I usually find they work their way back to the original path. That’s what makes the writing fun.

So how do you plot?

P.S. THE CROWS is now available in paperback on My last try was successful.

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13 Responses to How Do You Plot?

  1. Great blog, Maris!! I can answer your question very easily—I don’t, lol! I’m a pantser to the truest form, although I am working on plotting more so I don’t have to revise so much 🙂

  2. Grace Kone says:

    I’m afraid I’ll always be an “out of the mist” author. If I plotted out an entire book, I’d be bored with it and not be able to get up each morning, raring to go, thinking, “I can’t wait to find out what’s happening today.” Yes, of course I plot. I have to have a title, names of the major characters, plus names of the secondary characters in the first few scenes. And I know where the book is going. But a chapter by chapter outline? A 5- or 10-page synopsis? Forgetaboutit. No way, no how. I’d be completely turned off. To me, flexibility is key. I’ve written somewhere around 25 books and am currently struggling to get #15 posted to Kindle. (That’s as Blair Bancroft, by the way. Grace Kone only writes e-mail + blog posts & comments.)

    • Maris says:

      Grace, I love your comments. This is why, when new writers ask “What’s the right way to write a story,” my answer always is “Whatever works for you.” Your way is obviously working for you (or rather, for Blair). Continued success.

  3. vicki batman says:

    I have a good writer friend and she invented Plot (ter) + Pant (ster) = Plotster. We have some points to hit and as for the rest, fly by the seat of our pants. Somehow, it all works in the end. Good post!

  4. LRHunter says:

    Hello, Maris. Nice to meet you. This topic is one of those evergreens that I always love.

    My method is more of a mash-up. I use Holly Lisle’s “calling down lighting” and her left brain-rightbrain notebook to get the fundamentals right. After that, I use Michael Hauge’s 5 turning point/6 stage structure to pin down the big chunks. And, I use Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake method within the 6 stages.

    I’ve never had a problem with feeling bored while writing, but man! when I don’t know what happens next, it’s deer-in-headlights time for me. In other words, writer’s block. And if that goes on too long, I forget what the story was about and may never get back to it. Muuuch better to have a plan going in.

    So, call me a plotter.

    But you always have to leave room for inspiration. (And you always have to be aware that what looks like inspiration can be nothing but distraction.) If a genuinely good inspiration hits, just go in and adjust the framework to accommodate the new inspiration.

    • Maris says:

      Wow, I’ve never heard of Holly Lisle, Michael Hauge, or Randy Ingermanson. I need to take a look at what they say. Thanks for the information.

  5. Good post. I’m another pantser, although the more writing I do, the more thought I put into the plot. Maybe I should call myself a hybrid.

    • Keertan says:

      I like your plot synopsis. They are just the right lentgh. I like to know what the book is about first. If I don’t like what the book is about I don’t really care what you thought of it and skip over that review. If I already know what the book is about my eyes skip the synopsis and get to the part about what you thought. Easy enough to do. But if you just gave your thoughts and didn’t tell me what the book was about I’d have no clue whether I’d want to read it or not. One thing I do not like is copying publisher’s synopsis. I like the synopsis to be in your own words as each individual will concentrate on something different when describing the plot. Some publisher’s descriptions are highly misleading anyway and I like to point that out in my own synopsis.

  6. great post. I’m realizing more and more the benefit of getting a synopsis-like exposition of your story on paper before you even start. I guess that makes me a plotter not a pantzer, but after spending time ‘feeling’ the story but getting lost when my plot really doesn’t have rising action, I feel like a significant portion of the plotting process for me is to make it a concrete short story in the form of a synopsis. That isn’t to say that getting a feel for the characters and their personalities with some free writing isn’t also important. It can change the plot. I had a teacher one time tell me it was OK to write your way into the story by 100 pages or so to get a feeling for what your characters will do in a situation, and that’s also part of my plotting process now. I have to get a handle on what is my character’s ‘wound’ and what is the way to healing. I also spend some time thing about theme – what is the moral aspect (not to sound religious, but more to identify that bone-rending premise that resonates with an audience, like injustice, that elevates the book to the realm of ‘worth reading.) I’m not intuitive enough as an author to be able to wrap theme, path to healing for a character with a wound, with rising action, without a shortcut to see how its’ going to unfold. That’s what this exercise to create a coherent synopsis is about.

  7. Sherry Isaac says:

    Good to meet you, Maris.

    I started out a pantster. I could have written a horror novel on my reaction to… THE OUTLINE! After writing numerous short stories and 2 novels ‘by feel’, countless revisions have shown me the error of my ways. Not only do I plot, I have built a workshop based on many tips, including Chris Vogler’s.

    But, we can write a successful plot as pantsters. As readers, sit com and drama and movie watchers, we know how a story unfolds.

    Best of luck with your panel.

    • Maris says:

      Thank you, Sherry, for the good luck wishes. It should be a very interesting panel. Also, I totally agree with you regarding our innate knowledge of a plot’s structure. From books and movies we learn plot structure, just as we learn to talk from listening to others talk. The how to books and panels simply help us better understand the things we already do or help when we run into a mental road block.

  8. Peg Berkhousen says:

    Great blog, Maris. Lots of useful information.

  9. Diane Burton says:

    Great post, Maris. I like Vicki’s term “Plotster”. I think that’s what I’ve become. Writing “into the mist” only goes so far (for me) then I have to figure out what must come next. Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey works for me. I “judge” nearly every movie I watch against it. LOL (drives my dh crazy) I think it takes a lot of practice with various methods of writing to find what works best for you. There is not right or wrong way.