Monday, September 27, 2021

Puzzling Away at Plotting


Erica Vetsch here with you today, and I am PLOTTING! Not global domination (although that would be sweet!) but rather a new story in my Thorndike and Swann Regency Mystery series. I'm mired in motives and means and opportunities for various people to look like the guilty party, as well as character arcs, theme, spiritual threads, subplots, research, and more.

Which got me to thinking about plotting a whole novel...and how it's a daunting task at the outset. You have all these bits and pieces and things that you know must be included, and that if you leave them out, the story won't be complete, and you panic a bit that you WILL leave something out and the story won't hold together, but you have to forge on because you have a deadline, and you WANT to write the story, but you can't until you have a get the drift of how my mind can kick into overdrive.

Whew! Deep breath. 

There are several great analogies about plotting, and I'm going to use two here today. 

First: Plotting is like a 5000 piece jigsaw puzzle. 

So many pieces! So many shapes and colors, and you know they all fit together somehow, but when you first dump them out of the box, it's a jumbled mess! Just like all the plot ideas swirling in your head at the outset of the plotting.

How do you tackle this mountain of pieces?

1. Sort. 

According to the picture on the box, you know there is a dog, a tree, a barn, a bunch of clouds, and a tractor. You cannot possibly work on all of those at the same time, so you begin sorting. Red barn pieces go in a pile, even though the pile doesn't yet make sense. Cloud pieces get their own spot on the table. And most importantly, the crucial edge pieces get pulled out.

The edge pieces are the basic framework of your plot. Begin with genre. Is this a romance? You will need a hero and a heroine. Is this a mystery? You'll need a detective and a crime. Is this coming-of-age story? You'll need a young protagonist. 

Begin slotting together the edges of your story. The big decisions that will guide you in making the smaller decisions that are to come. Once you have the edges done, you can move on to the interior of the puzzle/story.

Gather the "like" pieces together. If the purple of the flowers only appears in that spot, all the purple pieces will go together eventually. This may represent your heroine. As a pile of purple flower pieces she's a mess, but one by one, you try, turn, slot and repeat until the image begins to appear. 

Once you have those obvious things sorted...the characters you need for your story, you can move on to that big red barn or the mountainscape or whatever the focal point of your story is...the big picture! This is your main plot. What happens in the story. Start with the easy bits, say the door on the barn. What are the big story points you know will happen in your novel? If it's a romance, you know the boy and girl must meet, must have a plausible reason why they cannot fall in love, although they fall in love anyway, a moment when that love seems destined to never be, and a resolution. If you're writing a mystery, you need the crime, the introduction of the detective, the suspects, the clues, the blind paths that lead to nowhere and the final denouement. 

Write down the big plot points on post it notes or note cards and lay them out in a logical order. Sort them like puzzle pieces. Fit, rotate, discard, and change until a picture of the story begins to emerge. 

Then it's time to work on the more obscure parts of the plot puzzle. Things like subplots, themes, secondary characters, setting, mood. Take them one at a time, layering them into the story. Go back and readjust if necessary. Each time you fit in a piece of your plot puzzle, the entire picture become more filled in and recognizable.

Before you know it, you'll be slotting in the last piece that makes the story complete! 

It's at this point, you're ready to type up a synopsis, but we'll save that for a later've earned a celebration by getting this far in the process!

Oh, and I said there were two analogies I wanted to use to illustrate plotting a novel. 

The second one is: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. 

It can be daunting when you begin plotting something as intricate and complex as an entire novel, but you can do it, just one bite at a time, one puzzle piece at a time!

Are you a plotter or do you fly by the seat of your pants?

Best-selling, award-winning author Erica Vetsch loves Jesus, history, romance, and sports. She’s a transplanted Kansan now living in Minnesota, and she is married to her total opposite and soul mate! When she’s not writing fiction, she’s planning her next trip to a history museum and cheering on her Kansas Jayhawks and New Zealand All Blacks. You can connect with her at her website, where you can read about her books and sign up for her newsletter, and you can find her online at where she spends way too much time!


  1. Good morning, Erica. I'm not usually the first to comment. This was an interesting post. I like to plot, but I do find it daunting. Thanks for some great tips.

    1. Hi Sandy! Plotting can be daunting but taking it one piece at a time can make it manageable.

  2. Plotting is my biggest weakness and this post definitely speaks my puzzle-loving language :) I'll be refering to this one often! Thanks for the great advice.

  3. Eric, Lisa Jordan and I did a workshop at ACFW one year, entitled The Plotting Puzzle, so I totally get this. As I've said before, I'm a pantser at heart, but I've had to learn to plot so I can be more productive. You can see the big picture, but it seems so overwhelming as you sort through all those pieces. But bit by bit, it finally starts to come together. Great post, my friend!

  4. Erica, I agree about the struggle to fit all those puzzle pieces together. I spend far too long getting the story pieces to fit when I'm brainstorming a new idea. Then I write my synopsis and those blurred areas come together and take form. For me, a synopsis is the guide I need before I start to pen my story--so important yet always a challenge to write.

    Need I mention that I'm a plotter?

    1. Synopses are so difficult to write? It's hard to distill an entire novel into a few pages! I'm a plotter too!

  5. First of all, A 5000 PIECE PUZZLE? That's insanity!

    But what a great analogy!

    I tend to do a simple outline at the beginning of my planning for a new novel, and then start developing characters. You're so right, that taking one piece at a time and figuring out how to fit it in with the other pieces is a great way to figure out the story.

    And I've found that with a mystery, I need to expand my plotting. I do the usual plotting for the story, but then I realized that I need to know where my bad guy is and what he/she is doing while the sleuth's story is in the foreground. So I write a second synopsis - one that doesn't make it into the book - but it helps me know when to place clues for the sleuth.

    And then there are the red herrings!

    (I love writing mysteries!)

    Great post!

    1. Yes to the two synopses when writing mystery! Because it's almost like there are two protagonists in the story!

  6. How interesting to compare to a daunting puzzle. I enjoyed reading this.

  7. I am an unpublished writer who knows I work best as a pantser, but unsure in what way. Editing as I go is like putting in an edge piece then adding in more pieces and slowly working through it. Writing to the end is like picking up a handful of pieces and throwing them like confetti and some will definitely fit, but it’s like layering it all in afterward. So, I know what I am, but I just don’t know the method to complete it. I don’t know if this makes sense or not.

    1. Kayla, everyone has their own process and you do what is right for you! That's the beauty of your process... it's unique to you!

  8. Cool idea, Erica. Right now my hero is a pile of black leather and soot. Yes, it's a historical western. I'm doing my usual slow and steady thing until I can get her and the hero to take shape.
    It's those connecting pieces, where the red barn touches the cloud and somehow that piece is neither red nor white. Tricky.

    1. An excellent rendition! I love that we all have our own process and that it works for us!

  9. PS I'm so bad at plotting that I might qualify for a handicapped parking sticker.

  10. I'm a highly organized obsessive compulsive plotter. So much so that I can't seem to finish a novel. I'm always afraid I'm doing it wrong or will leave out something important or it just won't be good. When I first began, it was like getting your 5000 piece puzzle with no picture on the box and only color smudges on the puzzle pieces. I'd been a reader all my life, but hadn't seriously tried writing until I had grandbabies. And though everyone in my little corner of the world is extremely supportive of my attempts to write, no one I know knows HOW. It took several years of checking out how to write books from the library to feel like I was getting a glimpse of the picture and a grip on the pieces. Plot points? Wait! Not one plot line, but a romantic, a spiritual, an internal, and an external plotline? What does that even mean? And an arc? They BOTH have to have arcs? Inciting incident, turning point, dark moment, resolution? And just what, EXACTLY, is the nature of a scene? I prayed my way through it. I'd write until I hit a wall, then ask God to show me what I was missing. He'd lead me to another library book, another YouTube video, or to the Seekerville blog.:) Just out of curiosity, how did you guys get the point where you knew what all the puzzle pieces were called and how they were supposed to fit together? Was there a shortcut that I missed while I was hacking my way through the jungle?

  11. I’m a combination of both. A lot of times I fly by the seat of my pants, but sometimes I plan everything out.
    I’m glad you plot your books, we enjoy seeing (reading) the results.


If you have trouble leaving a comment, please "clear your internet cache" and try again. You can find this in your browser settings under "clear history."