Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Plotting is a Strange Animal

Melanie Dickerson here.
One of the things I get asked about most often from young writers is plotting. Even though they may not know they’re asking me about plotting. For example, they may tell me that they have started a novel but they’re stuck and don’t know what to write next. Or they may ask me, “How do you finish a book? I always get about 50 pages into it and then I never seem to be able to finish.” And even more common is, “Where do you get your ideas?”

In these cases, the problem is usually that they don’t have enough plot. So if you know you need a plot, where can you get one? Or if you have a partial plot, where do you get the rest?

Plotting is a strange animal. Some of us outline meticulously, and others get a few vague ideas for a story and just start writing. But either way, you have to have a plot. So it’s important to know the basics of what makes up a good story. It’s important to know the essential elements. It’s important to read about how other writers come up with their plots. And it’s important to figure out what methods work best for you.

When a young writer asks me for advice, I will usually send them my list of writerly websites, with Seekerville and the Seekerville archives at the very top. I also give them a list of several books on writing for them to read, such as Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell and Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass. This is what I did, I read how other writers do it. I tried to learn as much as I could about story and characterization and plot. And I went to workshops at conferences and took notes.

I have 15 published novels but I still like to get tips on plotting, even though I’m a pantser who hates outlining. I sometimes say I don’t do a whole lot of plotting, but that’s not really true. I have to plot. I just don’t like to plot in too much detail too far in advance. I’d rather plot as I go along and keep the ideas percolating in my head. But however you plot, it’s good to figure out what works best for you.
And it’s also good to acquire some plotting tools.

One tool I’ve used with several of my books is Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook. It’s a fill-in-the-blank workbook that is a companion to the book by the same name. It can help you come up with ways to make your plot more interesting.

These days I have a Plotting Worksheet that I made for myself. I fill it out before I start writing. The first part is basically the GMC chart from Debra Dixon’s book Goal, Motivation, and Conflict, or GMC, which is a classic and should be read by every fiction writer. I focus on one of the main characters and I write down an external goal, a motivation for that goal, and the conflict for that goal. Then I do the same thing for the other main character. You might also find it helpful to write down the GMC for the villain as well, but you definitely should have one for the villain.

The rest of the worksheet are a series of blanks that I do for each of the main characters. These are mostly questions about the characters’ past, and I got these from a workshop taught by Susan May Warren and Rachel Hauck. (So I did actually go to at least one workshop while I was at a writers conference, instead of only socializing my friends!)

I would love to tell you all the questions I ask myself about my characters, but that would seem like I was giving away Susan May Warren and Rachel Hauck’s information, almost like plagiarism. So I suggest you check out their materials. Susan May Warren’swebsite  has a section of her website Writing/Teaching, and you can explore there, but she also has a separate website here with her My Book Therapy information called Learn How to Write a Novel.  She and her team have workshops that they teach, writerly services where they teach you one-on-one, and they have books. Some of their services are expensive, of course, since they’re teaching one-on-one and you’re getting their focused attention. So if you can’t afford that, don’t despair. I didn’t shell out a lot of money in the beginning, either. I read books from my library. I bought books on writing. And I read the great blogs out there that are chock full of free articles.

I will tell you some of the questions I ask about my characters. I try to come up with their greatest fear, the lie the heroine believes about herself, her biggest strength and her biggest flaw. Her deep wound she acquired from her childhood. If you can come up with this stuff about your characters, it will help you with plot, because plot and characterization go hand in hand. Think about it. If you know your character’s worst moment from their past, or their biggest fear, you can use that to create tension and conflict and create something for your character to overcome, something the villain can use against them. Before you know it, you’re coming up with scenes in your head.

Something else your plot needs is a Beginning, Middle, and End. It needs a trajectory. What is the big “inciting incident” that starts your story, that thrusts your character into conflict or on a journey? For the middle, you have to ask yourself, What is going to keep the tension and conflict going? How can I make things worse for them in the middle? What is a good plot twist that ramps up the conflict? Where are my characters going, and what do they have to go through and learn before they can get there? And of course, you need to figure out the ending, preferably before you get too far into the story. What does Happily Ever After look like for my characters? And if you don’t write HEA endings, then how are you going to tie up all the loose ends and bring closure for your characters?

Another plotting guru who has tons of resources and books on writing is James Scott Bell. You can check out his website where he has a section For Writers.

Okay, let me know if that’s helpful. You at least have a TON of possible resources now. And if you’re willing to share, tell me how you plot, what resources have helped you, and how you get ideas for your plot, or what your plotting process is. One commenter will win an e-copy of my new book Magnolia Summer.

From New York Times Bestselling author Melanie Dickerson comes a story of romance, heroism, and secret identity. Will this Deep South Zorro succeed in saving his sleepy Southern town? 

Truett Beverly returned to Bethel Springs, Alabama, after finishing medical school. Fighting a secret war with a corrupt lawman wasn’t in his plans, but when Sheriff Suggs threatens his childhood friend, Truett dons a cape and hood and becomes the Hooded Horseman, placing him squarely in the sheriff’s crosshairs. 

Celia Wilcox arrives in Bethel Springs in June of 1880. She’s come from Nashville to help her sister care for their younger siblings. She hopes only to be on the small farm for the summer, just until her mother recovers from the shock of Celia’s father’s death. She must return to Nashville in order to fulfill her dream of opening her own dress shop. 

Celia catches Truett’s eye from the moment she steps off the train. He finds himself wanting to impress her, but she flatly refuses to flirt with him or to fall for his—if he does say so himself—considerable charm. Truth is, Celia’s attraction to Dr. Truett Beverly terrifies her. What will happen when Sheriff Suggs discovers Truett is the Hooded Horseman? Will Celia's greatest fears come true? Or will she be able to prevent the sheriff from carrying out one last lynching?


  1. Good post, Melanie. I'm a plotter and a workseet nut, I've made reproducible worksheets for the Three-Act structure, Seven Step structure and Hero's Journey, and also the "W." I fill these in before I start seriously writing. I'm still learning, so the worksheets keep me on track and focused.
    I might try Donald Maas's workbook. May pick one up at ACFW. Love anything where I can fill in the blanks.
    Kathy Bailey
    See you in Nashville, or most of you anyway

    1. Kathy! You'll be in Nashville? Me too! Please grab me if you see me and say hi! I'd love to meet you in person.
      Wow, it looks like you have all the plotting bases covered with those great and classic resources on plotting! We should get you to share what you've learned and your process for plotting!

    2. I'm going to be so jealous to hear of all of you seeing each other this week!

  2. Good post, Melanie. Like you, I've had to come up with my own system over the years. I've read the books, gone to the workshops, but no one actually fit the way my mind works. So, I pulled what DID work from each of them and came up with my own process.

    Our brains all work differently, so we have to remember that just because author A swears by one system doesn't mean it will work for you. But don't throw in the towel. Keep learning. Extrapolate those things that do work and build your own process.

    See you in Nashville!

    1. Can't wait to see you in Nashville, Mindy!!!
      I know what you mean. I don't honestly know what works for me yet. LOL! I think the thing I've found that works best for me is just asking myself questions like, "What would make this story more fun or exciting for me?" Yeah. That's about it.

  3. Lee-Ann B here: Thanks so much for this post - chock full of great plotting tips! My go-to site is Seekerville, which I found listed two years ago in Writer's Digest top 100 websites. I've learned SO much from the amazing writers here. I also use Writer's Digest site to find helpful information (they have oodles of books, articles and courses on so many topics) After reading about GMC countless times (here and in other resources) I bought the book and am happy I did. As for ideas for plots - it's observing people and situations every day and asking the question "what if..." (the only time what ifs are beneficial!). Thanks again for this informative post. :)

    1. Ha! You're so right, Lee-Ann! The only time "what ifs" are beneficial is in plotting! I love that.
      You were proactive and searched for what you needed, Lee-Ann, and that's awesome! I like your style. ;-) Writer's Digest does have a lot of helpful information. I forget about them! I don't know why. Thanks for the reminder!
      So much great stuff out there is free. But there are also great writers who offer paid services. Something for everyone.

  4. I've come up with my own method for plotting, too, using the same resources you mentioned, Melanie!

    One thing I've discovered is that I'm much less of a plotter than I thought I was. I've always made detailed lists for the rest of my life, so that's how I thought I'd approach writing, too.

    Nope. When I try writing out an outline, I not only get stuck, I also waste a lot of time because the story tends to grow and change as I write!

    So now I make what I think of as a story map. I plot out the major plot points - Beginning, Middle, and End, the Inciting Incident, the Moment of Grace, and the Black Moment - and then fill in the in-between stuff as I go along.

    But before I do anything, I start with developing my characters using Susan May Warren's fabulous "SEQ."

    There are so many resources out there! Thanks for mentioning some of my favorites!

    1. Awesome, Jan! I'd love to hear more about your process! I propose that all the Seekers should have to write a post on their plotting process! LOL! (Then I might be able to better define mine! Although I doubt it.)

    2. One thing I know is that every one of those posts would be different from the others!

  5. Thanks for all these great suggestions, Melanie. Plotting can be difficult for me, so I like to use good resources. No need to put me in the drawing. I won this book from you last time!

    Have fun in Nashville, everyone. I had thought I might make it this year, but didn't work out. Someday I will get there.

    1. Sandy, I'm so sorry you were unable to come to ACFW! I would have loved to meet you. Hopefully you will make it, and you will enjoy it. In the meantime, there's so much out there, so many resources, to glean from.

  6. Melanie, I would LOVE to win an E copy of your sounds fantastic.
    Have fun in travels.

  7. Hmmm, I may have sent a comment already so if I did, my apologies! I need another cup of coffee apparently! Just this week I found Susan May Warren's site and downloaded her Guide package for plotting. I've never met a worksheet I didn't LOVE and once I truly learned the ins and outs of plot structure last year it was light a million fireworks went off in my head. It made me realize why my first three books didn't sell although I was close but no cigar, as the saying goes. I have most of those books you mentioned, Melanie and I also love James Scott Bell's "Write From The Middle" which gives you the freedom to brainstorm in a completely different way. And K.M. Weiland's books on Outlining and Structuring Your Novels are excellent. She's also a Christian author.

    I can't come to Nashville this year either but maybe next year for San Antonio. I don't know yet as I'd planned a writing research trip and I can't do both - the budget only goes so far. :) But I'm praying everyone will have a wonderful and blessed experience this week|!

    1. Thank you for the prayers, Laurie! I'm looking forward to being there, and I hope you can maybe swing two trips next year! (It never hurts to ask God for more than we thought we might get!) James Bell has so many great books on writing. He's quite prolific!
      Susan May Warren is wonderful at shining a light on the elements every story needs!
      So glad you're finding lots of great resources! It's wonderful when we get that "ah-ha!" moment about our stories!
      Write on, Laurie!

  8. Melanie, what a great post! I love how we all work differently. I'm a big time planner, but I also do the scene planning little by little as I go. I use the Scrivener cork board to plot out scenes one chapter or so at a time as I'm moving through the story. Of course, I have already planned the middle and end! haha

    1. Missy, it sounds like you're much more of a plotter than I am! I don't even divide my book into chapters until I'm completely done. LOL!

    2. I just typically do the three scenes per chapter on the my corkboard. Old habits die hard! I used to use note cards or sticky notes. :)

    3. I have a hard time knowing where to put my chapters. I put them in while I am writing but then I end up changing them as I edit and polish.

  9. I usually have an idea of where I want the story to go and have notes about the characters. But then I develop in more detail as I write. The Characters kind of help drive the story and I never know some of the twists and turns they will take me on while I am writing. So I guess I am more of a combination of a plotter and pantser.

    This month I am taking the ACfW online course which is on Backstory of your characters from a Psychiatrist point of view. This has been helpful. I hope to go back and interview all my main characters.

    have fun all of you who are attending the conference this year.

  10. I like to call myself a planner because I plot quite a bit in my head, but don't usually do any formal outlining. And I am bad about figuring out motives and past history until I am already well into the story and my characters basically tell me instead. It's weird and I know it doesn't work for everyone, but it hasn't failed me yet, so I guess I will stick with it. :-)

  11. I'm just a reader but I enjoyed learning how authors determine their story. Thanks for sharing.

  12. Hello Melanie, Thank you for this interesting post. As a reader, I enjoy learning about the writing process.

  13. Hope all you writers in Nashville are having a blast!!!!

    Really turning green right now with jealousy.

    Melanie, thanks for the tips. Im back to rewriting an old story of mine and this post comes in so handy. I almost completed the rough draft a year or two ago, but now it needs a lot of changes. Enough to pull my hair out. Plotting should make it much less painful.

  14. I'm a panster. I like to take a general idea and start writing but that doesn't always work. I started a new story a few weeks ago. Your post is so helpful as it reminds me of all the things I haven't thought about for the story. I need to stop, put it in reverse, and think more in-depth regarding the characters, GMC, plot, the whole darn thing!

  15. Hi Jan:

    "If you don't plot, you don't know what you got."

    When you start to pantser a novel all things are possible. You can creatively visualize the world's greatest novel. But then as you write, each page closes options that the story could have taken. Once fifty pages are written it begins to become obvious that so many options, (things that could happen in your story), have closed that you really can't see how the story could finish strong enough to be publishable.

    I suggest new writers do what James Patterson does: work two to three months on an extensive outline while revising it six to seven times until it is not only a publishable story but a potential best seller. Patterson tests his outlines by showing them to typical readers and not starting to write the stories until those readers ask, "when is this story going to be written? I want to read it as soon as possible."

    Pantsering is like Congress passing a bill before they read it. The results are often unacceptable.


  16. Great information, Melanie! I enjoy reading all the posts on Seekerville, even though I'm not an author. Congratulations on your new book! It sounds fantastic!

    Have a great time at Nashville!


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