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 eighteen 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 has two new novels out in 2014: The Caller, third and final book in the Shadowfell series, and Dreamer's Pool, the first novel in a new adult fantasy/mystery series, Blackthorn & Grim.