A plot.

Sooner or later we all have to end up with one – particularly if we are writing novels. A series of events that forms the story. 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 looking 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?


  1. Can I test too?(testing, testing, one, two, three)

    Not having done anything novel length I am not sure how I would plot those, but my short strories I tend to have a plot sorted out in my head before I start writing

  2. I’m Not sure if everone DOES have a plot -I’ve certainly read a few novels where I reached the end (and a lot more where I reached the midpoint and gave up in disgust) and said ‘now what the hell was that about?’ as a plot surely moves from a begining to a resolution?

  3. I’ve tried all methods.

    A complete, detailed outline, made in advance of the writing doesn’t work.

    What works for me is to let the Characters play for awhile. Once I’ve gotten to know them, to know what they do, I can sit back and see Where It All Goes Wrong. And figure out how they’re going to solve this problem. And throw in a couple of complications.

    ATM, I’m writing in an established universe, so I don’t have to work out the rules, or the rulers. I can even look at where this is happening and shift it a few years one way or the other to take advantage of things happening elsewhere, or so it advances the universe as a whole. This fellow has just taken over, so his control is a bit shakey. That investigator is on maternity leave with her twins. It’s election year and everyone is looking the other direction.

    My outlining thus starts late and is always very sketchy, as I often decide I need another complication, or my characters have an attack of low humor.

    I’ve read books where I’d swear the writer reaches the publisher’s desired word count, finishes up the paragraph and mails it in. I hope no one ever thinks that of one of mine.

    1. I suspect that your second paragraph should, more accurately, read “A complete, detailed outline, made in advance, doesn’t work for me.” Of my published stories some have been made without outline, some with a rough synopsis of what I think are the “high points” and some with fairly detailed outlines. The story I just sold to Lawyers in Hell ( was made from a pretty detailed outline. For the story I’m doing for Adventurers in Hell, I only have a rough idea where it’s going and am letting the characters play.

      In the end, I think Rudyard Kipling got it right in “In the Neolithic Age.”:
      “There are nine and sixty ways, of constructing tribal lays, and every single one of them is right.”

  4. My first novel was very elaborately outlined, but it didn’t follow script. My second and third novels were much the same way. This led me to believe that perhaps I shouldn’t write such a detailed outline after all.

    Now I make sure I know my characters and the world that I’m working in as well as I possibly can. Plot is less important; I make up a list of what absolutely has to happen and what I’d like to happen, but I don’t go into that much detail. I make sure to leave myself freedom to change.

    I write a much more detailed outline for the second draft, to make sure that it stays on its proper course.

  5. Strangely I’ve gone through phases on this. Some of my shorts are incredibly detailed in outline. Some I start and see where it goes. Some of my novels require exquisite plotting in advance. Some won’t let me “see” past the next chapter. And yet, you can’t tell, when they’re done.

  6. Yes. Definitely “for me.”

    IIRC Lois Bujold said she outlined down to the paragraph level. That’s scary. And her books are so good.

    After I’ve started writing, the important thing, for me, is to have a resolution in mind. It give me something to aim at, instead of the Charaters floundering around without purpose.

  7. I don’t plan at all, really, but I consciously have a few idea about things I want to happen. I think I must subconsciously have a few ideas as well– the novel that I’m going to be giving away for free was stall not far from the end because I couldn’t figure out how the final confrontation was going to happen. Then the idea hit me and it was so obvious and good (even if I do say so myself) that I had to know something about it before hand.

    (well, that was actually the end of book 2, which is now at the end of book 30


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