Losing the plot, and finding it again

Photobucket‘I have a great story, but I can’t seem to write it down.’
‘I want to be a writer but I can never finish anything.’
‘I’m OK at starting a book, but I get bogged down in the middle.’

I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard the above from aspiring writers. Common problems are:

– keeping control of the story
– maintaining pace
– holding it all together
– finishing

It often emerges that the writer has a story but not a plot. Apply the basics of plotting, and successful storytelling becomes much easier. Of course, we all have our own methods, and what works for me won’t necessarily work for you. However, here are some of the points I’ve learned over the course of writing my 12 novels.

A story is not the same as a plot:

A plot is the plan or structure you use to tell your story effectively. It’s the way you organize and combine all your story elements. The same story might be plotted either as a romance or a thriller, depending on which elements get the emphasis.

Both planners and pantsers need to plot. A planner does it before she starts writing the novel. A pantser might be working out her plot while she writes a to-be-heavily-revised first draft.

The more complex the story, the more carefully you need to plot:

A linear story with a single thread may be relatively easy to plot. If your story has many threads – perhaps it combines elements of different genres, has action spanning many times and places, or includes a big cast of major characters who head off in several directions – you’ll need to do a lot more plotting.

Each plot thread should make sense in itself and interweave with the others, not only convincingly, but in the most effective way for this kind of book. Each relationship should have its own complete shape. Everything should mesh in a way that leaves the reader satisfied.

You can’t build the Opera House without a blueprint:

Your plan needs to be written down. Whether it’s in electronic or paper form, it should be easily accessible when you need it. The plan is your lifeline when you get stuck.

Separate out your story elements and trace each of them through both the time frame of the story and the projected length of the manuscript. I might use a table with one column for each story thread, like this:

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Colour-coding is useful. The threads soon start to interweave, hopping in and out of each other’s columns. The denouement will be in full colour!

Keep a hold on story time:

You may plan to write a novel of 130,000 words, divided into 15 chapters. But not each of those chapters represents exactly the same amount of ‘story time’ – in one, a whole generation could pass, in another, only a few minutes. How you deal with ‘story time’ is a critical factor in plotting. If you have several sets of characters and locations to juggle, your plan needs to include the passage of time in the story. What is Group A doing on the mountain during the three months it takes Group B to travel up the river? How much time passes in the real world while the hero is off in the Otherworld? When will you switch between your groups of characters, and how will you maintain the reader’s interest in whoever is offstage? Story time is shown in the rows of my table.

Keep a hold on manuscript time:

Your plan should include an indication of approximately where in those 15 chapters all the key events occur (I put chapter indications in italics on my table.) The plot needs a satisfying shape: ideally, you will pull the reader quickly into the story, then hold him or her enthralled until all those threads are brought together at the end. Look for saggy parts, sections where there is not much action or tension in any of the threads, and address them at the planning stage. Give essential-but-boring stuff minimum manuscript time.

Voice is part of plotting:

Your treatment of voice has a huge impact on plotting possibilities. You can’t plan until you’ve made that vital decision on voice. That includes, but is not restricted to, choosing first or third person (or second if you really have to) or a combination. Who gets the POV? If more than one character, how and when will you make the switches? Will the narrative style change with the POV?

Your decision on voice may immediately rule out certain possibilities. I’ve written several books in first person, with one narrator. This limited the storytelling options drastically, but allowed the reader to identify closely with the protagonist. It forced me into the discipline of ‘show, don’t tell.’

Rules are made to be bent

The advice of working writers is worth its weight in gold. Plotting guidelines are not rules, just the wisdom of experience. Once you know your craft, creative bending of rules is just fine.

Photo credit:
© Steven Pepple | Dreamstime.com

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About Juliet Marillier

Juliet Marillier has written nineteen novels for adults and young adults as well as a collection of short fiction. Her works of historical fantasy have been published around the world, and have won numerous awards. Juliet's new novel, Tower of Thorns, will be published in October/November 2015. Tower of Thorns is the second book in the Blackthorn & Grim series of historical fantasy/mysteries for adult readers. The first Blackthorn & Grim novel, Dreamer's Pool, is available from Roc US and Pan Macmillan Australia.

Comments

  1. Vicky McAulay says

    Thanks Juliet, I appreciate hearing how you do it. I’ve been experimenting with various methods over the years. Each has gotten me through to completion, with frustration and mild insanity, but I’ve yet to hit one that feels like I want to do that again. This time around, I’m playing with Excel to keep my threads seperate and show where they entwine. I like the idea of using colour and I’ll try to incorporate a colour scheme for the different threads.

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  2. Krista says

    Juliet,

    I’ve been lurking around on this blog for awhile now, but this post really hit home for me.

    I want to be a writer but I can never finish anything.

    This is totally me! I literally have 4 stories started at the moment and cannot seem to finish any of them! I am really bad a plotting in advance, but I really like your ideas and am certainly printing out this post and keeping it near my desk for motivation. Maybe one of my stories will eventually get finished this way! Thanks so much for this post, and the timing of it. It was absolutely perfect.

    Krista

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  3. says

    Thanks for the tips. I have found that I just need to steel myself for writing a bit of crap in the middle that I know I will have to revise or toss and then I can find my way back to the story path and finish.

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  4. says

    Vicky, I hope the colour-coding works for you! I don’t always use the same method, I think a bit of variety helps the creative flow.

    Kristan, thanks. Inevitably the table looks a bit squished here on the web page, but in Word or Excel it’s tidy and flexible. I just couldn’t resist the photo. Neither of my dogs would ever sit still long enough to pose like this.

    Krista, I’m glad the post came at a useful time for you. As I said, not all solutions suit all writers, but sometimes just one key idea will release a creative blockage (that sounds uncomfortably like a plumbing analogy.)

    Kath, it’s an interesting point. I bet many, many writers share that tendency to deviate from the plot. And sometimes the deviations lead us to far more interesting places … But do those sidetracks make for a better book? If I’m in doubt over this I generally find someone I trust to brainstorm with. A second opinion can be really handy.

    Annie, I guess that’s called writing yourself out of the mud / mess / blockage, and it has certainly worked for me. Despite my died-in-the-wool planner personality, I have found a bit of unplanned, free-flow storytelling in the middle of the book really helpful for getting things moving. Some of it gets tossed later, but not all.

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  5. says

    Thanks, Satima. No, it isn’t aimed at you! I’m sure many writers wrestle with these particular challenges.

    Since February is Plotting Month on WU, I’m hoping we’ll hear from a successful pantser about how non-planners can plot effectively.

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  6. Brooke says

    Goodness, Juliet.

    You have no idea how much this post has helped me out. Before, my plot was all over the place; and there were spaces to fill and things to work out. But now I have it all done; despite a few things that still need some work done on them. I have read all your posts on this blog, and I can tell you; this one was the most effective.

    I do have a question however. Perhaps maybe on your next blog post you’ll tell us a little bit about the happenings of Hearts Blood; and the decision on your next book. I have my fingers crossed for a third addition to the WWD series.
    But no matter what you write, it’ll always be on my list. ;DD

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  7. says

    Thank you for sharing your in your writing experiences, Juliet. I know exactly what you mean about the difficulties of plotting a story involving many characters and locations. In one of my novels, the ensemble cast of characters are forced to part ways on 3 separate journeys, but all with the same purpose that ultimately brings the characters together at the end. It is definitely not easy keeping the story threads from becoming a tangled mess when you’re trying to make sure it flows in an understandable manner for the reader.
    You’ve given writers a very useful tip, Juliet. Now, I just have to figure out how to use excel!

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  8. says

    Hi Brooke,

    Thanks! I feel really happy that my post helped you so directly.

    Re Heart’s Blood, I will probably wait to talk about it until later in the year, closer to publication date. In regard to the proposal for the new book(s), it’s currently under consideration by some publishers, so I can’t say much about it until things are resolved one way or another (a good way, I hope!)

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  9. says

    Hi Lorna,

    Yes, that sounds complex and I don’t envy you putting it all together. Another good option might be story-boarding with post-it notes, a different colour for each thread / group of characters. It could all go up on the wall to be played with endlessly …

    Guy Gavriel Kay juggles ensemble casts really well (The Lions of El Rassan is a good example.) Then there’s the inimitable Diana Gabaldon who uses all kinds of different techniques in her Outlander series to keep both Jamie and Claire in the picture even when they are separated by 200 years! Hers is virtuoso storytelling.

    You need not learn Excel, the chart can be done as a simple table in Word.

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  10. says

    Hi Juliet:

    Thanks for the tip! I may have to employ this method as I find it’s become a race to finish each story now as my memory begins to slip.

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  11. Maya says

    This is incredibly helpful! Thanks a lot! I really want more advice about that prewriting stage of a novel.

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  12. Tracy says

    Juliet:
    I enjoy your books very much and will pass along this plotting tip and the URL to this site to a young aspiring writer whom I mentor.

    I’ve just finished Well of Shades and eagerly look forward to another installment in that series. Until that time I will reread the Sevenwaters novels in preparation to reading Heir of Sevenwaters and explore your other titles.

    Good luck with your busy year of writing. Blessed be.

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  13. Jessica says

    This is so helpful. I’ve tried both methods (outlining and “winging” it), but never tried the “control” aspect. This is a journey worth taking, and thank you for your inspirational notes!

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  14. says

    I used to be so polite.
    At dinner parties when someone would ask what I do, I’d reply, “I’m a writer.”
    “I’m going to be a writer when I retire,” he would invariably say, to which I used to lean into the conversation and listen to all his ideas, and how one of these days he’d get around to writing.
    No more.
    Now, it goes something like this.
    “I’m a writer.”
    “Oh, I’m goign to be a writer when I retire.”
    “Really? What do you do now?”
    “I’m a brain surgeon.”
    “Oh, I’m going to be a brain surgeon when I retire.”

    Sometimes the conversation actually gets interesting about writing after that. Not always.

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  15. says

    My plot is in a simple word sheet. Have the chapter number and 2 lines of what should happen in it. Usually is serves more to remember me what I had wrote before than to know what I’m going to write in the future.
    I feel that sometimes a get a little lost. Not in the story but in details that had happen before. Because there are many secrets, sometimes I find difficult to remember what each character already know. When that happens I go back to read the past chapters and put topics in post-it. Not the best method but it’s a fast one (time is everything when I’m writing in my working place, in the middle of invoices and phone calls).
    I’m been wondering about the “voice” thing. Sometimes I’m in a chapter and I don’t know who character voice should appear. I’m writing in third person, but I change the voice.
    For example, at this time I have 3 characters in the same room. I have the hero (that usually is the voice), I have someone that will save the hero in that scene, and I have the bad women. I started writing in the hero voice but I think that I need to change in the middle of the chapter so the reader can view the other perspectives that I think are important for the story, like what is the bad one thinking? Does she recognize the hero? What plans are she making in her mind?
    When this happens, there’s only one thing that I can do so I can take a decision: follow my instinct.

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  16. says

    I used to keep my plots in my head entirely, thinking this made me intelligent to keep whole worlds and people in my old brain-box.

    What it actually did was ruin my writing and ensure I forgot large quantities of ideas. This doesn’t even include the loss of thread and plot which resulted…

    These are some good suggestions, and I shall be putting them into practice.

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