Friday, April 16, 2010

Plotting with Janice Hanna Thompson

Fiction is the truth inside the lie.

Stephen King

Hi y’all. Janice Hanna Thompson here, to talk with you about plotting, (one of my favorite subjects). As we learned in school, every story needs a beginning, middle and end. Careful plotting will lead the reader on a satisfactory, realistic journey through each of those stages, creatively weaving in and out, up and down. But how do we begin to plot our stories? Is there a magic formula?

There are many ways to “start plotting.” How you begin will depend on your personal preference/style. Some work off of an outline. Others use Randy Ingermanson’s “Snowflake Method.” Others use the storyboard method. I use a 12-step plotter, which we will discuss today.

A great plotline moves up and down, in and up, leaving the reader guessing what’s coming next. Nothing predictable or boring. You need high points and low points. And this has to start right away – with the very first line. Remember, you can’t let the reader down after giving him/her a great start. Keep the action going. One way to accomplish this is to think of each chapter as a book unto itself. Each chapter has a beginning, middle and end, and each chapter ending should “tease” the reader, so that he/she doesn’t put the book down. This is quite a trick, but can be done! You should pace the action, gradually building toward the climax (high point/crucial point) in the story. This is so important! Without the climax, the story will fizzle out and the reader will be extremely disappointed.

There are several ways to keep the plot moving along.

  • ACTION: A storm blows in off the gulf. Your character experiences the loss of a spouse or sibling. An injury takes place. Any or all of these “actions” would move the plot along.

  • DIALOGUE: An effective way to move the action forward is through dialogue. Let the characters “show” the reader what’s happening through their conversations. Instead of a lengthy narrative about, say, an incoming tornado, let the frantic conversation of two characters convey the news.

  • NARRATIVE: Use narrative carefully, avoiding passive verbs. You don’t want to “tell” the reader; you want to “show” him.

Of course, the ups and downs must all end with a satisfactory resolution. Otherwise, the reader won’t be keen on purchasing your next book. And speaking of the reader. . .we owe the reader a great plotline!

Consider this quote from author Stella Cameron: “If the reader stops, frowns, re-reads, and stops again--there's something very wrong. The cause of this pause may be loss of viewpoint control, chronological slips, failure to provide adequate pegs into the setting or, much more likely, an inconsistency in plot. These inconsistencies, whether they result in an uneasy sense of implausibility, or actually slap the reader between the eyes with an impossibility--these inconsistencies result from careless plotting compounded by either failure to double check each development, or some vague, but suicidal conviction that no one will notice the blunder!” (Plotting Your Novel by Stella Cameron)

Let’s Get Plotting!

As you go through this exercise, I want you to think of your primary character from your WIP (work in progress). Keep him/her in the front of your mind as you work your way through this. (From this point on, I’ll just refer to your primary character as “her/she”)


If we're going to send our hero/heroine into a new place, make them a fish out of water, then we need to see where they come from. (This section lays the groundwork for “who” the character is and where they’ve come from). It’s important to establish a setting near the beginning of the story, as well. However, you don’t want to open the book with a description. These days, you need to capture the reader right away with a great hook.


They get a call to adventure - somebody wants to go out of their way. They literally bump into the hero/heroine but most people are comfortable in their ordinary world


So they refuse the call... heck no, I won't go!


The some other force comes along - a wise old man/a supernatural force that forces the hero/heroine to take action; someone they love is going to be hurt; if they don't act the river will overflow, etc.


At some point, the hero/heroine crosses the threshold to a point where he/she can't step back. They're stuck; they must proceed toward their goal.


At this point, the character faces a few challenges. They don’t have to be extreme. Could be internal, even. They’re becoming a little more aware of their various enemies and their allies, as well.


Like Jonah, your character must be caught in the belly of the whale. In Jonah’s case, he ended up there because of his own (earlier) choices. But once inside, he had a little time to think about what had brought him here.


The Supreme Ordeal - there's a life and death struggle. In an adventure story, it's literally life and death. In most romances, it's a metaphorical life and death situation.


Ah! Time for the reader (and the character) to catch a breath. If you leave this part out, the tension will wind a bit too tight.


Oops, you can't hang out there forever. It’s time for your character to get back to the real world. There are real problems to be faced. She must face them.


Something forces the characters back into the real world and they have to discover if they have learned the lessons of their respective journeys.


The audience cheers.....and we reach the end of the book.

That’s it for now, writers! Go forth and plot!

Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maas

Writer’s GPS (Copyright 2005)

(Please do not copy without written permission)

If you're like us in Seekerville, you can't get enough of Janice. Visit her here and here. Or join her Facebook page here.

Janice is the author of the wonderful Weddings by Bella series.

Book 1, Fools Rush In. Check out the video trailer here.

Book 2, Swinging on a Star.

Book 3, It Had To Be You, is available for preorder and releases May 1.

Seekerville has a copy of It Had To Be You on pre-order. One commenter will win a free copy on the release date. Winner announced in the Weekend Edition.


  1. Thanks so much for being on Seekerville with us, Janet! I love that 12-step plotting method--I've used it for most of my books. It really helps to keep the middle from sagging!

    Since I'm awake and about to go to bed, the coffee is decaf and the tea is camomile. :)

  2. Janice,

    This post was sooooo helpful!! Thanks for sharing your knowledge!


  3. While I understand Camy's west coast middle-of-the-night timing, I have tossed her poor substitution for the REAL DEAL and am brewing a fresh pot of


    For us normal people. And by normal I (of course) mean everyone who's exactly like me.

    Janice, this is the most straightforward and succinctly sensible plotting method I've ever seen outlined.

    I didn't break out in a cold sweat like I do when someone says the words 'snowflake method' or GMC...

    To me, GMC is and always will be a car company. And don't ya just love that Denali????

    Sweet ride.

    But I digress. You, woman, hit the nail on the head. I have no hives right now. Not one. I'm not itching ANYWHERE!!!!

    I love the Jonah analogy, I loved the quote from Cameron about stopping the reader and forcing them to backtrack because we've all done that!

    Wonderful stuff, I'm printing this off and keeping it nearby because while I admit to having no idea what the term action beats means, I blatantly understood THIS. And while teaching at my level might mean you're preachin' to the lower third of the class, I'm seriously okay with that at this moment!

    I brought a great buffet this morning, a veritable feast to await an amazing weekend of busy fun in Seekerville. There's a fresh fritatta, Einstein's bagels in honor of Walt, an assortment of cream cheeses, smoked salmon and thin-sliced sweet onion, my new recipe for chocolate chip muffins (I brought the actual muffins, not the recipe... duh on me...) and a juice/soda bar to the rear, left.

    Janice, thanks so much for being with us today, chica!!!!

  4. Great post, Janice. Thanks for sharing! I hadn't heard the Jonah analogy before. :)

    Love the Stella Cameron quote...and oh so true!

    lisajordanbooks at yahoo dot com

  5. Janice, we think alike. I am a twelve step plotter also....

    Your new release sounds wonderful.

  6. Thanks for the simple, straightforward outline, Janice. I, too, break into a cold sweat whenever someone mentions GMC and snowflake.

    Not how this brain is wired.

    12 Simple steps and a fishing trip to boot!

    Can't beat that, LOL!

    Thanks for joining us today, Janice! Now to peruse Ruthy's bagel bar -- she had me with smoked salmon and sweet onion : )

  7. This is the best (and least terrifying) plotting outline I've ever read. It makes sense!!!!!! And it's succinct which means I think I can retain it long enough to implement it. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

  8. Janice, I LOVE the thought of each chapter being like a separate novel--SOOO true!!

    Great post!


  9. I'm not a writer, but this was great information.

    seriousreader at live dot com

  10. Plotting is not my strength. Or at least, I don't do it intentionally. I wait for the story to "come to me." Usually it does, but right now I'm struggling a bit. This helps!

    Thanks, Janice! I've heard great things about your new series! Please enter me!

  11. Very interesting post. When I was writing in college (I need to get back to it, but haven't done so), I was very much a seat of the pants writer, only I would do 1 page in depth character profiles.

    I absolutely loved the first two books in the series, please enter me in the drawing!


  12. Oh my gosh, I'm so glad I'm not alone in connecting with this.


    And I know it doesn't matter HOW you get the job done, it's in the "Get 'er done" that the goal's accomplished...

    But (you may have noticed that some of the Seekers and Friends are, well, somewhat intense plotters.... and some of us aren't.... and that's all I'm sayin' 'bout THAT) I love that I do not in any way, shape or form feel like a freak of nature today.

    For this day, at least.

    I am fortified.

    And I ain't talkin' bagels. ;)

  13. I've seen the Hero's Journey laid out a number of times, but you've done it in the easiest to understand manner. Thanks, Janice.

  14. G'mornin' y'all! I slept in because I'm travel-weary! I've been on the road, researching for a new book. Ironically, one of my stops was a writing conference, where I taught on plotting. I find it interesting that the word "plotting" is so controversial! The way I look at it, even pansters plot. They do it in their head, but I have a hard time believing they don't pause every now and again to plot (or think things through). The advantage to the 12-step plotter is this: you give your reader the correct "arcs" in the story. The highs and lows are strategically placed to take your reader on a journey.

    Thanks for the breakfast, by the way! I've been away from home, so my cupboard is BARE. Diet Dr. Pepper wasn't quite cutting it!

    Hugs to all of you!

  15. Hi Janice!
    This is crazy that you're talking about this. I'm interning with 1st graders and kindergartners. In 1st grade, we're writing narratives. First they start out with a brainstorming page, where they plot out their story. The teacher allows both fiction and non-fiction, so you better believe that we get some....well..... interesting stories!!

    In AP English, we've been having timed writes everyday in preparation for the AP test. This is really tricky to plot out everything so quickly. You have 40 minutes to write an essay (including reading the prompt, understanding it, figuring out what you want to write about, and making your thesis!). I'm not sure, but do you have any advice that might be the best plotting/planning way for this setting?

    Your new release sounds great! I want to try and find the others, so I can read this one too!!

    Thanks and talk to you later,

  16. I would imagine it would be tricky with such young students! Why not start with one "arc" (climax/problem) and have the kids resolve it? Tell them that every story must have a problem to be sold (and it must be solved by the end of the story).

  17. enjoyed todays posting...thanks for chance to read you novel Janice.

    kmkuka at yahoo dot com

  18. A 12-Step Program for writing a book.

    It's about time.

    First, of course, you need to admit you've got a problem.

  19. "My name is Janice. . .and I'm a writer."

  20. GREAT POST!!! SO what I needed. But, please don't enter me, I am already getting this book and COUNTING DOWN THE DAYS 'TILL IT GETS HERE!!!!!!

    Man, I LOVE Bella! (Can't you tell! LOL!)

    Thanks for posting this was awesome. :)

  21. Janna,
    So nice to have you in Seekerville again - and what a wonderful post!!
    I really like the 12 point plot structure. I first read about it in Ron Benrey's book The Idiot's Guide to Writing Christian Fiction.

    The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe is a great story to follow the 12-point plot because you actually go 'through a door' into another world :-)

    Please don't put me in the drawing. Revell is sending me a copy of your book. I can't wait to read it!!

  22. I wrote Janna, didn't I? Shoot, I know better. Can I blame that on kid-distraction? good to have you here :-)

  23. I've been called by all sorts of names, so don't fret! And thank you (all of you) for the kind words about Bella. This series has been a blast. The third/final book arrived the other day and I read the last few chapters again so that I could say goodbye to Bella, DJ, Rosa, Laz and the rest of the Rossi clan. *sigh*

    Can't WAIT for the second Revell series to release, though. Oh, man! I think the first book in that series (Stars Collide) is my best book so far. Hope my readers agree. That book comes out in January!


    I cannot beeeeeleeeeve you would not give us more information.

  25. Hi Janice:

    I loved your trailer. Did you do the voiceover yourself?

    I enjoyed your summary of plotting. However, I am not a big fan of plot-driven romance stories. Sometimes a plot can step on the developing romantic relationship -- which I feel should be the central focus of a romance – if that’s why you are reading a romance in the first place.

    I think a ‘pantster’ is at her best when she is writing a ‘character-driven’ or ‘situation-driven’ story.

    In “Winter’s End,” for example, the power comes from the situation the characters find themselves in. As a romance, the reader knows the story will have a happy ending (with the hero and heroine getting together). The reader also knows that people in hospice care die.

    The interest comes not so much from ‘what will happen’ but rather from ‘how it will happen.’ That is, the interest lies in how the characters are going to deal with the problems they face. Since these problems are central to the human condition, they speak directly to the reader. What holds the reader’s attention in this type of story is how the situation unfolds (things get bad and then they get worse) and the insights the reader obtains in the process. (This can border on being a learning experience.)

    I mention this because I think there is too much equivocation in discussions about SOTP writers and plotters. I often feel they are talking about different types of stories. If you are writing a plot driven romantic suspense story, then plotting will be paramount. If you are writing a character-driven romantic comedy, then almost any plot will work as long as you keep the reader entertained on every page and the plot makes some kind of sense.

    As such, both pantsters and plotters can be right given the type of stories they are writing. Also, not everyone needs to write plot-driven stories.

    To all my pantster friends:

    you must remember this
    a kiss is just a kiss,
    a love but what you do;
    and in the end a plot
    is where they bury you.

    : )


    vmres (at) swbell (dot) net

  26. Janice, thanks for the great post. I'm a recent convert from pantser to plotter. I wrote (and rewrote) six stories--over one million words--before I learned my lesson. Now I wouldn't dream of starting a story without plotting it first. It's simply too painful for me to delete thousands of words and start over when some advance planning could prevent it.

  27. Janice, thank you so much for sharing your 12-step program. You make it sound so simple and fun! Love it.

  28. You guys/gals are a hoot. And yes, different genres require different degrees/levels of plotting. For example, I can't imagine writing one of my cozy mysteries without plotting! (What a mess that would be!) Traditional romance requires the usual "boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl" approach, and some do just fine without ever doing any serious plotting. I just know (for ME) that this very A.D.D. mind of mine would be all over the map, rabbit-trailing like crazy, if I didn't lay down a strong foundation. Plus, too, I write a LOT of books per year. (I did thirteen last year, including my write-for-hire kid's books.) I'd never keep up if I didn't lay a foundation.

    And yes, Tina. . .there's a second series for Revell. It's set in Hollywood and is about a sitcom called "Stars Collide." GREAT fun!

  29. I've read Fools Rush In and would love to read It Had To Be You!


    I write as a hobby, and this was great information!

  30. Vince.

    MY HERO.

    Did Vince just mention Winter's End????

    Per Chance????

  31. Lol! That's a really great idea, but not quite what I meant. Sorry, my fault. I didn't make it clear!! LOL!

    When I switched paragraphs, I also switched topics....sorry! I'm taking AP English this year (I'm a senior in high school). We're preparing for the AP Exam that's in May. I was wondering about planning for THAT! Lol....I totally understand how you got that mixed up : )

    So, if you have any ideas for that (or anyone else either), it's greatly appreciated!

    Story: This morning I got up, got dressed, and looked outside....guess what I saw!!! SNOW ON MY CAR! That looked SO wrong in April.....grrrrr....I haven't even been able to drive it yet and I'm going to have to clear it off!

    ; D


  32. I like your list. Maybe I'll try that next time I try to plot. My last attempt at plotting before writing had me deciding I'd stuck two books together and struggling to separate them afterwards.

  33. Thanks, Janice, for your helpful interview. I find that plotting the story makes all the difference for me. It's motivational so I maintain interest in completing the story. Love to win a copy of your latest.

  34. What an interesting method!
    Thanks for sharing.


  35. Thanks for some very useful information.
    Janice's books sound great. Would love to read.

  36. Okay, Vince, you are giving Ruthy entirely too much attention. We have enough problems with her in Seekerville as it is. Next she will be running for Queen of the World. And she will probably win.

  37. Coming in a little later than most and earlier than some.

    I read through your steps, Janice and thought of my characters as I went. They fell in line quite neatly. Maybe I'm a 12 step girl and didn't realize it.

    Great post...alot of information but given in a way I could understand. My brain thanks you.

  38. Janice,
    The 12 point plotting seems to work for I actually try to plot.

    James Scott Bell's book Plot/Structure is a really good overview of the 3 act structure, and sometimes I'll use that as my prelimenary plot (more broad) and then narrow it down with the 12 act.

    Can't wait for "It Had To Be You" :-)

  39. Janice,

    Do I have to pull out the Italian Creme cake to make you spill more on the new series??? I'll do it you know!!!

  40. Tina (and all). . .the next series is going to be great fun! As I said, it's set in Hollywood. The premise for the first book (Stars Collide) is this: Hollywood actor and Hollywood actress co-star in a sitcom about two competing talent scouts who represent child stars. Both agencies are struggling and they end up merging forces, creating one talent agency. In their sitcom, they are falling in love, but can't admit it. In real life, the actor and actress who play the roles of the talent scouts are falling in love, too. . .but can't admit it! The story is FILLED with fun twists and turns (and trust me when I say that it's got the usual quirky humor). The heroine grandmother (an aging Hollywood star - think Cloris Leachman) plays a huge role. So does a 1957 Cadillac Biarritz. In this first book, the actor/actress tell their story (from the actress's POV). This story is LOADED with images of old Hollywood (and tons and tons of old movies). I think movie/sitcom watchers will love it!

    The second book in the series (yet untitled) is the love story between two of the writers on the sitcom. My heroine is very Greek, and her family plays heavily into the story.

    The third book in the series (yet untitled) is the love story between the director and one of the key grip operators on the show. My heroine (the show's director) is hispanic, and her very large hispanic family plays a large role in the story. :)

    Much of the story (in all three) takes place inside a Warner Brothers studio. LOTS of fun stuff, trust me! Thanks for asking, Tina!

  41. Hi:
    Myra: Do you mean Ruth isn’t Queen of the World?

    Ruth: Winter’s, End wears very well. It gets even better when the emotions it evokes settle down (in about 45 days) and one can better enjoy the work from a purely intellectual POV.

    Tina: April 15th is a cruel mistress. Thanks.


  42. I really need help with my plotting and this post gave me some great tips that I needed thank you so much!
    And please enter me in the contest I would love the chance to win!:)

  43. Very good post!!!! I would love to win Janice's book....please enter me. I have not read any of her books, but want to!!!

  44. Janice, thanks so much for being with us. I know how busy, busy you are and for you to find time to lounge with us is much appreciated.

    Thanks for sharing your wisdom and insights.

    I look forward to your next series but find it hard to believe it can be better than the current one WHICH I LOVE. But I am willing to let you prove me wrong.

  45. Wonderful post Janice. Thank you. I would love to win a copy of It Had to Be You, pleae enter me. Thank you for the opportunity.

    Smiles & Blessings,
    Cindy W.


  46. This post was so helpful to me! Thank you!
    Please enter me in the draw! :)

  47. Oh Janice, i haven't read any of your fabulous books. pretty please enter me in :) I'd love to read them !

  48. Hi Janice! Good to see you here.


  49. An excellent step by step method.

  50. Some excellent advice here. Lots to think about. Thanks so much for sharing.