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Plotting: A Stubborn Grace

OK, we’re talking plot again. Let’s say you’re telling your story to a group around a campfire. Are they hugging their knees in fear and delight or are they nodding off? Depends on the plot. Are they going to eagerly repeat your story to ten other people? Depends on the plot.

The Dead Cat

I heard a story a couple weeks ago at a party. A woman said she lost her beloved cat this year. Sad, no doubt, but common. Then she gave me the details. The way she lost her cat (how it happened) had me hanging on every word. It had to do with a cherished old tabby, horrid coincidence, shocking neighbors, self-righteous employees at the pound and a last stagger to the food bowl. It was outrageous and funny and suspenseful, and when I’ve retold it, people laugh and gasp.

It had a great plot. But why is that so damnably important?

Fine Writing, It Ain’t

Your story can fall down on lots of counts, but if the plot is mediocre, potential agents will send their regrets. Publishers will not make an offer. Your story can have mediocre style (The DaVinci Code) or rather flat characters (Temeraire Series, IMHO) but if the plots are incredibly interesting, you can still find a large readership.

It galls me that fine writing makes so little difference to a novelist’s career. I believe, however, that it can make a story more memorable. It’s just that it can’t be the main thing you deliver. Like Mark Helprin. Although he gets by with it, I have doubts for the rest of us. (However, you really must read Winter’s Tale before the snow melts. Although this book will astonish you and change your life, it will also perhaps cure you once and for all of literary aspirations. If one can’t think of 193 stunning metaphors for snow, why even try?)

But where were we?

The #1 Reason Books are Rejected

What I hear from agents is that thin plots and insufficient tension discourage them from continuing to read most manuscripts. I’m thinking the same is true of most other readers. We can find some encouragement in this. We don’t have to be superb writers, we just have to work supremely hard at what happens in the book.

I mean, you and I might be somewhat challenged in the stunning metaphor department. But plot, now, that’s something we can work on!

Where do Plots Come From?

Choose an answer:

a. a PO box in Eugene OR

b. buried in the ground by the plot god, waiting to be uncovered

c. from characters you make up who take on a life of their own and tell you what they would do next

d. the author, like, plans it out

I hope you answered “d.” If you answered “b,” permit me to argue: You will almost never fall effortlessly into strong novel plots. Despite what Stephan King says about his plotting methods (never listen to a genius) plots do not exist already, challenging us to uncover them. (This is a spooky concept when you think about it!) For the vast majority of us, plots must be constructed. Carefully, methodically.

If you answered “c,” I think there is a self-help group for that.

For me, plotting a novel takes weeks. I don’t work out the details in advance, thus boring myself to death when I finally sit down to write. I’m not figuring it all out, I’m working on structure, reversals, motivations and key scenes. I’m also winnowing out mediocre ideas, digging deeper, so that when I get to the clinch, I won’t grasp at cliches. I’ll still follow inspiration and hunches. But the bones of the book will be in place and they will frame my effort.

Learning to Plot

Learning to plot is obviously too big a subject for one blog, but I have some pointers:

Read some good books on plot and story structure. Start with a basic how-to book like How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James Frey. More advanced work, and one of the most helpful I’ve read, is offered in Story Engineering, by Larry Brooks (coming from Digest Books next month.) One I’ve loved for years is The Weekend Novelist by Robert J. Ray. Don’t stop there. Ask your writing friends for their favorites.

It’s a big subject. Here are some key thoughts that guide my own writing:

  1. The Climax. Start with your story problem and then imagine the climactic scene when the problem is resolved. How does the climax bring the inner and outer story together? Can it happen in an unexpected way? Does it test the protagonist to the limit?

  2. Plot Point One. Find the best place for Plot Point One. Make sure it carries the freight it needs to, fulfills the function described by Larry Brooks in Story Engineering and Story Structure Demystified.

  3. Rising action. Don’t prematurely ratchet up the plot. Conflict should escalate. Your protagonist grows as opposition increases, right? You say your protagonist rocks from the very beginning? Hmm. She learns nothing? Tests do not take her beyond what she thought she could do?

  4. Start fast. A corollary to the above. Don’t delay setting the hook. Reveal the story problem in the first few pages. If this isn’t possible, make the opening filled with it’s own mini-plot or tension, providing a bridge until you can reveal the story problem.

  1. How do you start fast and yet leave room for escalation? Establish a story problem, but arrange for the protagonist to seriously underestimate either the nature of the problem or the sacrifice required.

  2. Stakes. Widen out the consequences past your first, more timid, plan. High stakes will help you think of plot developments, bringing in new players, more intense motives.

  3. Reversals. Surprise the reader. Use misdirection to keep us guessing. Read mystery novels to discern strategies of misdirection.

  4. Drama and Tension. Have you heard the mantra, “Tension on every page?” If your book fails the test, it’s likely related to your plot. You don’t have enough there. Not much happens, or if it does, it’s not dramatic enough.

Plotting at times will make you want to tear your hair out. It may defeat you for several days. But there will be times when plotting will thrill you. Your mind is full of conscious knowledge and subconscious wisdom. It is primed to help you plot.

And here is a wonderful bit of news: The more novels you write, the more years you devote to this craft, the more your brain will create neuronic pathways devoted to it. What at the beginning of your career was stubborn and painful becomes mastery and grace.

Or, perhaps more often, a stubborn grace.


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