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WRITING: To Plot or Not?

Sunday, March 13, 2016

To plot, or not to plot – that is the question ...

One question that I get asked a lot: Are you a plotter or a panster (meaning 'do you "fly-by-the-seat-of your pants")?

I really hate this question because it implies a binary opposition between the two. The truth is, all writers have different creative processes ... and indeed, as I have discovered, each novel is itself a new journey of discovery and the methods that have worked in the past for me may not work at all on this new story.  

That said, I am an ardent believer in the importance of plotting ... if only because it makes the writing process so much easier and enjoyable. 

Don't we all want that?

To me, good writing seems so effortless, it is as if the reader was making it up as they go along, as if every word and every happening in the story is inevitable. 

However, I know from personal experience that the more effortless the writing seems, the more work has actually gone into it. 

I never want to be seen striving for effect – I want the architectural girders of the story to be invisible. 

However, to write that well is hard. It is all too easy to lose your way, which is why having a plan of what you are writing can help you be a more focused and effective writer. 

I have made my living from my writing since I finished my undergraduate degree. I have written almost 40 books, ranging from picture books to long, complex, multi-layered novels. I have a killer of a publishing schedule. Planning properly helps me manage my time, keeps me on track, and let's me know when my story is veering out of control. 

I thought I would share with you today some of the planning tools I use. 

My first rule is ... I never start a novel with a blank page. I spend a long time thinking about my characters, my story, the architecture of the story, the setting ... the more work I do before I start writing, the easier the writing is. I use a notebook to write down all my ideas and inspirations, so I have a record of my creative process. As I go, I develop my early notes into fully fledged character outlines, timelines, plot points, idiom dictionaries (i.e. each character is given their own way of speaking), and so on. Here is a page of my notebook for THE BEAST'S GARDEN, showing early ideas for the story.  

My chapter outlines are usually very brief, and I develop them further just before I write them. However, sometimes I need to plan a whole section of a novel quite carefully before I write it. I generally find that, the more complex the novel, the more I need to plan. 

It does, of course, help if you understand exactly what a plot is. 

So what is a plot?

At its simplest, a plot is the series of events in a story. 

Usually, this series of events is driven by the protagonist’s attempt to RESOLVE a source of CONFLICT. The plot is therefore a chain of interconnected events caused by the protagonist’s actions and reactions to a problem presented in the opening scenes of the novel.

This means a plot works in two ways – what is happening (i. the sequence of events) and why it is happening (cause and effect of what is happening). 
Character and plot are therefore inextricably entwined, because the personality of your characters will determine how they react to any given situation. 

To plot is to therefore quite simply to conceive and arrange the action and incidents of a story. 

Most people have no trouble thinking up the sequence of events in their story (though it may take some time), but its arranging them in the best possible sequence that may make all the difference to the story. Here are a few tools to help.
First, identify your protagonist. This is not always easy! Then ask yourself, what is their objective? What do they want? And what stands in their way? Most stories can be reduced down to a very simple formula: 

Protagonist + Objective + Obstacles = Story

This is sometimes expressed as:

Character + Desire + Conflict = Story
i.e. someone wanting something that is hard to get  

Usually, identifying your protagonist also means you need to identify your antagonist.  The earlier you do this, the easier your planning will be and the more focused your writing. 

Then you need to ask yourself, what is your protagonist's goal? What problem do they seek to solve? Your story is your protagonist's journey to reach that goal (or to try and fail, depending on what type of book you are writing). The longer the book, the more obstacles that lie in their way.

When I'm teaching story structure, I often draw this diagram to give my students a sense of what Rising Action is. It basically means each major scene is more dramatic, more intense, more suspenseful than the scene that came before it, compelling the reader to read on to find out what happens. If you are writing a comic novel, then each scene should be funnier and faster-paced than what came before. If you are writing a tragedy, the opposite is true - you must have a sense of the protagonist descending ever deeper into darkness and failure.

Next you need to think about what is the best structure for your story. There are two basic structures.

The first is called the episodic structure, used most often in narrative non-fiction, memoir, autobiography, biographical fiction, and in novels like Anne of Green Gables, Jane Eyre, Cold Mountain or Shantaram

Basically, each chapter is like a short story, complete within itself. Each chapter has its own internal structure, with a sense of rising tension towards a point of climax but ending on a note of resolution.  

Most novels, however, have a narrative arc. This is usually expressed as:

Exposition – Rising Action – Climax – Falling Action – Denouement

I draw mine like this:


Here is the narrative arc expressed in greater detail:

1. set-up scene – a scene of normal life or “the ordinary world”. Often called EXPOSITION. If I have such a scene at all, I try and keep it as short as possible.

2. Inciting Incident – the true beginning – sets story in motion. Called the “call to adventure” in Joseph Campbell's The Hero's Journey

3. period of turmoil/confusion. Campbell called it “refusing the call” 

4. The First Turning Point (must happen within the first 25% of action). Campbell suggested a story at this point often involves a “meeting of the mentor” and then “acceptance of the call, which leads to the protagonist crossing "the First Threshold". Usually it is a moment of decision, or realisation, which leads to a momentous step being taken. I like to think of it as a gateway into a new state of being, a moment of psychological change. 

5. Rising Action – a series of incidents, each increasing in tension and suspense. Joseph Campbell called this 'The Road of Trials' which I like, as it gives the sense of ever increasing difficulties. I normally like to plan the Road of Trials quite carefully, making sure that each scene or incident has a narrative function - each event is a revelation to be understood, an obstacle that must be overcome, an ordeal to endure, a lesson to be learned.   I like the outer journey to reflect the inner journey of the protagonist's process of change and transformation.

6. The Midpoint Reversal (or Second Turning Point) - this is often often the darkest point in story, a moment in which the protagonist fails and feels they cannot go on. I like to put a big dramatic scene here, to avoid what I call 'the mid-book slump'. There can be a reversal of intention here , or a moment of new insight and self-realisation
 – a new approach or direction or location – or even a complete change in narrative position. In my novel Bitter Greens, I put the section told from the witch's point of view here. I thought of it as the dark heart of the novel

7. Rising Action continues

8. The Climax - sometimes called the Third Turning Point. This is a moment of extreme danger or darkness in which the character’s inner and outer journey both reach a key turning point – it is the point of highest tension in the novel when the protagonist either achieves their goal, or fails. It often involves a ‘symbolic’ death – the death of a friend or companion, or the maiming of protagonist (think of Frodo's finger, Luke Skywalker's hand). This is the moment of Crisis & Resolution and usually results in the final transformation of the character. 

9. Falling Action – the chase. May be as exciting and dangerous as Rising Action, but is usually must shorter.

10. The Denouement (sometimes called the Coda). This should be fairly brief, and be in contrast to the high tension beforehand. It is usually a small scene that shows that all has been returned to normal, order has been restored, the problem is solved, the goal is achieved and now the protagonist is reaping the rewards. It often mirrors the opening scene of "Ordinary Life".

I usually reduce this narrative arc down to its five most significant points.

1. Inciting Incident 
(happens at or near 0% of the action)

2. First Turning Point 
(happens at or before 25% of the action)

3. Midpoint Reversal
(happens at or near 50% of the action)

4. Crisis & Resolution
(happens at or after 75% of the action)

5. Coda
(happens at or near 100% of the action)

An early narrative arc plan for The Wild Girl

This really helps me plan out the novel, and know how much to write. 

For example, if I was planning a novel of 120,000 words, the key turning points would happen at 30,000 words, 60,000 words and 90,000 words.

My chapters are usually around 3,000 words long, so I know I need around 10 chapters between each turning point (unless I am writing a children's book, in which case my chapters are half the length).
If I write a chapter a week, I can take ten weeks to write each section. That's 40 weeks in total. 

If I write two chapters a week, it will take me only twenty weeks.

(Though I will always set aside more time than this, because I know that there will be weeks when I am sick, or touring, or the writing does not come easily, and so I always leave a few extra weeks for anything unexpected.)

I therefore have a good idea of how long it will take me to write a first draft. I can set myself weekly word targets, and if I fail one week, I can try and catch up the next week. If I find that one section is running on far too long, I can stop myself, and either reassess my plan or reassess my writing. I can judge whether I am spending too much time on sub-plots, or minor characters, and I can avoid that horrible realisation that you have written far too much and need to cut 60,000 words. (Been there, never want to do it again.)  

Of course, there is much more to successfully planning a novel than just this one technique. I use lots more. Let me know what you want to know & I will try and answer it for you in another blog.


Jennifer Scoullar commented on 13-Mar-2016 05:09 PM
Wonderful. Thank you so much Kate, for this insight into your process!
Sheryl Gwyther commented on 13-Mar-2016 05:29 PM
Kate, your diagram has helped me for quite a few years, so thank you!

I feel more comfortable knowing where my stories are heading (esp the ending), so I guess in that way, like you I like to plan, to have the whole picture in my head. BUT, so many times I start branching into areas I hadn't thought of when I first started a rough outline. SOmetimes those plot branches work well, sometimes I end up restructuring them out.

For you to be able to write a chapter a week and keep going until the end probably means you've thought a lot and researched well about your story before you start.

I wish I could write a chapter a week too! I'd be finished by now. Oh well, such is life. And I must admit I find research fascinating! :)

James Nailen-Smith commented on 13-Mar-2016 06:44 PM
Hi Kate,
I absolutely love this, I tend to be a mix of both. I look at the story and characters, along with the highs and lows then just write by the seat of my pants. Plotting like this could help me immensely, brilliant wisdom from a great story teller, thank you.
Pam Rushby commented on 13-Mar-2016 08:02 PM
Great advice. I always have my stories rattling around in my head for a couple of years before they take shape. The lovely Gregory Rogers once said, a writer's mind is like a lava lamp. There's a whole pool of half-formed ideas at the bottom, occasionally one will rise to the top, and you'll think about it for a bit, then it slowly goes back down, then it may rise again and again - and eventually it becomes a fully-formed story. Great analogy - I use it all the time when I speak to students.
Vikki Petraitis commented on 13-Mar-2016 08:35 PM
Great overview Kate! Thanks for sharing it.
Elise McCune commented on 13-Mar-2016 09:44 PM
Thanks for sharing Kate. I did your Winter Writing Workshop at Trinity College several years ago (I actually did it the year before as well) and found your advice so helpful. Thanks again for being so generous with your knowledge and the time it takes to write you blog.

Kristin Prescott commented on 14-Mar-2016 12:45 AM
This is a fabulous summary Kate - thank you for sharing!
Kate Forsyth commented on 14-Mar-2016 10:05 AM
My pleasure! Let me know what aspect of writing you'd like me to blog about & I'll do it next month :)
KJ commented on 14-Mar-2016 11:45 AM
Thank you for sharing, Kate.
I absolutely agree with the idea of plotting ahead of writing. It's like consulting a map before taking a journey to somewhere you've never visited. I wrote a children's time travel trilogy a few years ago and my pre-notes topped 5K words. My current work in progress already has 2.7K words worth of notes and this will no doubt increase as I progress further into the plot.
Thanks again for the heads up.
Mo Johnson commented on 14-Mar-2016 03:10 PM
Great stuff, Kate. Super helpful for any genre. Thank you.
Mathew Currey commented on 14-Mar-2016 09:16 PM
Hello there Kate,
Thank you for this article/blog and your diagrams, I am currently writing my children's book after a few years of setting it out and your information has made me remember the pivotal points of creative writing and children's literature I studied when I was doing my Bachelors of Arts. I was going to use my idea for my children's book as a thesis for Honours but I have considered not to do so since the book is coming to fruition and I have an artist lined up and I haven't decided when I am going to enrol into Honours.

Thank you for your time and all the very best.
Karen Comer commented on 14-Mar-2016 10:12 PM
Thanks, Kate, so useful to read your notes after hearing you present last weekend! I'm using your notes to go over the first draft of a children's novel and I'm giving myself permission to take a long time!
Phil commented on 15-Mar-2016 06:54 AM
A well written story is something bordering on magical in what it achieves. Your guidance takes away some of the mystery on how to achieve that magic...from an Engineer (who would like to write just one book this lifetime) this is excellent guidance. Thanks Phil
Kate Forsyth commented on 15-Mar-2016 11:11 AM
I'm so glad that you've all found the post helpful. You've encouraged me to do more posts on writing - I'm always being asked to. Just let me know what area of writing most mystifies you, and I'll try and help :)
Pamela Cook commented on 15-Mar-2016 03:13 PM
I so agree that the process is different for each book Kate. And that a combination of plotting and pantsing is the way to go. I tend to start with an idea and go for it and then around the 20,000 word mark have to stop and work out a more detailed plot line. It never ends up the way i think it will which is what I love about the whole process. Thanks for sharing your process - you explain it really clearly and it's very helpful. x
Sherri Stoner commented on 17-Mar-2016 06:51 AM
Oh yes, please do more posts about writing. I find them fascinating. Thanks!
Ruth commented on 20-Mar-2016 06:45 PM
Thank you so much for your clarity and insight. I loved finding out how structure worked when I was writing my book, but it is really helpful to have it boiled down like this. Thanks!
Adina West commented on 23-Mar-2016 09:33 PM
Hi Kate,

Thanks so much for this clear and concise article. Structure is one of those things I understand in the abstract but always struggle to apply. :-) I loved your description of the two structures above, episodic vs narrative arc. I hadn't heard much mention of the episodic model before and have realised that perhaps one of the reasons I've struggled with structure is that I'm writing a series, and perhaps unconsciously have been following more of an episodic model.

I'd really love it if you have time in future months to share your wisdom about writing a series; how structure is applied to a series of interlinked books, and where structure for a longer story arc differs from that of a single stand-alone novel - as well as the sorts of things you'd be planning in advance when deciding how to break up a long story into several novels, and how to make sure each book in the series 'does enough' to satisfy a reader as well as playing its part in the greater whole.

Another area I'd love to read more about is tips for structuring the 'complex, multi-layered' novels you mentioned above. Multiple viewpoints, multiple subplots, action occurring in more than one setting...any rules of thumb about how to best interweave the various stories, and how to make sure the resulting whole 'works' structurally would be gratefully received. :-)

My daughter and I are both great fans of your Chain of Charms and Impossible Quest series. Miss E is convinced you've left the way open for an interlinked series continuing on from Book 5 of Impossible Quest. Is she right? ;-)
Deborah Swift commented on 26-Mar-2016 10:46 PM
Really interesting to see another writer's process. Very enjoyable post - I'm going to share it!
Kate Forsyth commented on 30-Mar-2016 09:01 AM
Thank you so much for your comments and sharing. Adina, I'm so glad your daughter has loved my books. And I do indeed have an idea for a new IQ series ... its just a matter of finding the time to write them!

Thank you for your suggestions re new writing posts - I will try and do a post once a month :)
Freya Shipley commented on 22-Aug-2016 08:41 AM
Thank you so much for this, Kate! I've been trying to learn to plot for quite a while now, and I keep feeling discouraged because my vision of my story -- and even the first draft, as I start actually writing -- don't feel alive and real to me the way my favorite novels do. When you were plotting & drafting *The Wild Girl* (for instance), did Dortchen and Wilhelm feel like real people to you from the very beginning? Or was there a period when the whole thing felt contrived?
Sommer Darsana commented on 21-Oct-2016 05:02 PM
Hi Kate,

I am so pleased to have stumbled across your page. I recently "found" Val Khoo and Al Tait's podcast and they've led me to you.

A bit about me:
I am in the very early stages of my writing "non-career". I began writing short stories as a kid, which developed into poems and songs during my rebellious period of angst as a teen and now, in my twenties it was the journal and now, in my thirties I am enjoying the commitment that comes with the novel. Two years ago I wrote my first 60k first draft. It is ok, but the concept of editing frightened me beyond belief. So I enrolled in university and am two years into a degree in creative writing. I am not finding much time to write at present but I believe the trade off is in learning how to hone my skills and learn more about the industry. My creative writing assignments are possibly my best work to date. I wrote a fiction piece about my late dog, it was wasn't meant to be a comedy but the professor enjoyed both comedy and tragedy in the piece. It definitely awoken in me another side of writing. One that is less serious and more... perhaps the correct word is - vulnerable.

Anyway, I wanted to check out your page and introduce myself to your writing. I very much like the sound of your Quest series, I'll be sure to check it out.

Best wishes,
Sommer Darsana
Ross Hamilton commented on 23-Oct-2016 01:20 PM
Hey Kate - I just re-read this piece as a memory jogger to help me in thrashing out a piece I am currently developing. Thanks for sharing it.
Merinda commented on 31-Aug-2017 03:40 PM
Thank you for your generous sharing of the art of plotting. I am a newbie novelist 40000 words into my first, first draft. I have been listening to back issues of So You Want To Be A Writer and this post was mentioned.
I have just enjoyed Beauty in Thorns. I am a stained Glass artist and know the work of the Pre-Raphaelites so well. It was wonderful to read the story of the people.
Jodie Wells-Slowgrove commented on 29-Mar-2018 12:29 PM
This is very helpful Kate. I'm in the middle of planning my first novel with two linked storylines and two POV's set in different times though I would say only one of these characters is the protagonist and the other storyline more of a subplot that mirrors the journey of the protagonist. When you did your multiple interwoven stories for Bitter Greens did you treat each storyline almost like a separate book and follow the process you outlined above for each character, with each having their own inciting incident, first turning point etc or did you have one main protagonist for whom you followed this process with the other storylines slotting in between the inciting incident etc of the main protagonist?

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