Monday, 30 May 2011

TECHNIQUES FOR PLOTTING

I've never really had any techniques for plotting. Each of my books seems to have grown differently, usually organically.

Sometimes I have set scenes out on cards and shuffled them around a bit - I did Wasted like that, and the novel I've just finished: Brutal Eyes. (FYI, this is an ultra-gritty, shocking, modern YA novel. If Fleshmarket was about gruesome poverty, shocking conditions and brutal behaviour in the early 19th Century, Brutal Eyes is about gruesome poverty, shocking conditions and brutal behaviour in London, today, under our noses.) Anyway, I digress.

Sometimes I have launched straight into a plot without any planning at all. The Highwayman's Footsteps was an example -  my editor phoned to ask what I wanted to write next and we came up with, "It'll be an adventure about highwaymen," and that afternoon I wrote the first chapter.

Sometimes I mull over things for ages in my head. Sleepwalking and The Passionflower Massacre were two examples.

But I would like to plot and plan in a more organised fashion and I know some people have excellent methods. I have recently found two that I'm drawn towards so I bring them to you now.

Here is a pretty good explanation of the basic elements of a plot, by Glen Strathy. I've seen the same thing in a different format elsewhere and I can't remember where it first came from - perhaps someone can enlighten me? I spent some time playing around with these steps for my WIP and it threw up some useful directions. [Edited to add: Glen says this is from a theory by Melanie Anne Phillips and Chris Huntley. Thanks, Glen!]

I also like the idea behind the Snowflake method of Randy Ingermanson at AdvancedFiction. Specifically I suggest you scroll down to his Ten Steps of Design.

But here's the most important bit of his advice, and it's always been my advice, too: "...a lot of people find it useful. But you may not, and that's fine by me. Look it over, decide what might work for you, and ignore the rest!"

It's so important to do what works for you. I can't stand it when people tell writers what writing method they should use. All that matters is the result.

Don't forget my points about goals and obstacles in this post here.


I'd love to hear any plotting methods you've found work for you.

Think the tone of this blog has suddenly gone very straight and serious? I am just settling you down in time for the Very Important Interview that is coming on publication day on Wednesday... Be prepared.

25 comments:

trish nicholson said...

Hi Nicola, I like Robert McKee's ideas. His book, "Story" is based on screen writing and it really focuses on the nub of story. We used it our writers group recently and if you'll excuse the plug, I blogged our summarised version this week - it case it is of interest to anyone: http://www.trishnicholsonswordsinthetreehouse.com Wish I could master that shortening thing. Thanks for the constant encouragement on your site. @trishanicholson

clarekirkpatrick said...

Thanks for this Nicola. Throughout the writing of my novel, I keep thinking I ought to go and play with post-its and index cards, and have tried, but it's just not me! I'm using the index cards on Scrivener (the windows beta version) to see where my story's gone so far, but not to plan ahead - that just doesn't work for me, however much I want it to! *love stationery!*

@Trish - if you use Chrome, you can get a URL shortener extension. Ther's probably one on firefox as well.

sheilamcperry said...

Thanks Nicola, I found the snowflake thing really interesting - some of it is very similar to what I usually do after writing, not before - I am always worried if I plan too much it will feel as if I've already written the whole novel and then I will be bored with it and not want to write any more.

The Virtual Victorian said...

I must confess I'd love to plot out a novel from scratch, but never really do. I know how it starts and how it ends, but arriving at that conclusion is almost like throwing a dice - there are so many paths to follow and whichever one I decide to take will lead me on in its own sweet way - a different path, a different storyline. Sometimes I'm led into a maze and end up getting lost or stuck, and then when I finally get to the end, I have to go back to the beginning again to adapt that to fit unexpected events that I previously didn't 'know' about.

It all sounds like hard work and a terrible mess, but I love the way a story unfolds - as if I'm wearing a blindfold and it's slowly slipping away to reveal the story as I go along. I find that so much more exciting than when following a pre-ordained route. I love the fact that anything can happen - whether I like it or not.

catdownunder said...

I wish I could work this one out. I do not know how I do it. It just happens. I must do some of it sub-consciously because things seem to fit together even though I only have a vague idea of what is happening and, in the middle of the process it always seems an absolute mess. I always assumed published writers were a great deal more organised than I am! You are a great comfort to me.

Patsy said...

I try to plot, but I'm not very good at telling if something will work before I've written it, so sometimes have to make changes to the original plan.

Sue Guiney said...

Nicola, I've written about the Snowflake Method and my own adapted plan for plotting my novels on myblog here: http://sueguineyblog.blogspot.com/2011/05/novel-writing-tips-plot-plotting.html

Hope some people find it helpful-interesting.

Paul Anthony Shortt said...

I typically apply the Hero's Journey, or Monomyth, to my books. Though I don't write outlines, I do 'rehearse' the story in my head, imagining it like a movie before I start writing.

Nicola Morgan said...

Thanks, Trish. By the way, I'm writing about a treehouse at the moment - every child's dream, I think!

Clare, Sheila, Virtual V, Patsy and Cat - I am with you!

Sue - I am in awe :)

Paul - I think I do that a bit, but then I get distracted...

Dan Holloway said...

As a student I was a compulsive mindmapper (I even won a medal at the 1997 world mindmapping championships) so when I started writing seriously I assumed I would use mindmaps for plotting but despite much trying I never got it to work.

I've been surprised that the same approach works for me whether I'm writing a complicated thriller or a gentle coming of age tale. Once I have the idea, I always start with the ending (that always seems to be hardwired into the original image I have of the protagonist, like a fatalist sword of Damocles hanging over them in my head). If it's a whodunnit I'll figure out the detail that gives them away (which was a tip from Sue Grafton's excellent collection on writing mysteries). That's it for plotting - I do a one paragraph per chapter outline five chapters ahead so I always know roughly what's coming next, but that's changeable and I update it at the end of each writing session.

Sally Zigmond said...

I was so pleased to read VV's methods because that's exactly how I work. I can't plan or work to a blueprint. And books on the elements of plotting make me want to stick my fingers in my ear and go la-la-la very loudly.

My method is messy, slow, and often goes up blind alleys but it's organic so that the more I write and get it wrong the more everything falls into place so that when I do read these guides to plotting, I realise I do get it 'right' without thinking about it.

HelenMHunt said...

I have used elements of the snowflake method in the novel I'm writing at the moment, and found it very helpful. As time constraints mean I'm writing this novel *very* slowly, I'm also doing a lot of mulling over. I also have a monthly meeting with two other writers where we discuss where we're up to with our novels and I find this enormously helpful for reviewing where I am with plot and sorting out any problems with direction.

JO said...

Thanks for this - I struggle with plotting, and anything that helps is welcome. I'll give the snowflake a go.

Kittie Howard said...

Nicola, I was delighted to read that you go where the story takes you. And thank you for the Chrome info. I'm very much learning how to get this computer to work for me.

Claire Dawn said...

I definitely agree. Do what works for you. I'm still struggling with finding what that is. I know my voice and characters are strong- I keep getting that feedback. But I know my plots need work. But eventually I'll get in the groove.

THanks for the advice!

Gail Crane said...

I haven't written a thing all afternoon - and it's all your fault, Nicola.
I clicked a link and got to 'How to Write a Book Now' and was hooked. I've been reading for a couple of hours and am almost tempted to unearth the abandoned novel from the archives and see if I can breath some new life into it.
In fact, I feel quite inspired.
A really interesting post.
Thanks

1000th.monkey said...

I'm definitely more of an organic writer. Just the thought of character sheets, outlines and drawing boxes or circles on a piece of paper with interconnecting arrows and lines...

...makes my head hurt.

When I start something new, I have no idea what's going to happen, but after writing the first scene (pretty much on auto-pilot), I'll have a grasp of the main character(s) and their character arcs.

Knowing the characters and their character arcs is how I feel out the story... basically playing one character against another in my head until things just start clicking together. Half the time, I just write scenes on the faith that somewhere along the line, it'll make sense, and it inevitably does.

Barb said...

Two things that are really needed are great suggestions, and the encouragement to find your own way to apply them. This blog provides both - thank you very much.

Michele Helene (Verilion) said...

I am currently using the Snowflake method to plan my next WIP. I'm totally terrible at following instructions, so I more or less did it. I've never planned anything in this depth before, but I just feel so into the story. Admittedly it's a re-write so the characters have been around for a while, but they just feel so alive now. I hope I can pin the down on paper when the time comes.

Captain Black said...

You're right, writers should find the techniques that work best for them, but that means they should lose the fear of trying out new methods. I've tried many and I'm still not certain I have it right.

In another life I'm a software developer, so I'm no stranger to design, planning and plotting. I apply many techniques to my fiction writing, before I get down with "coding" my stories. I won't bore you with the details here, except to say that I use storyboarding techniques a lot.

I suspect one thing that deters some writers from plotting is that they're afraid the plot will set the story into concrete, thereby killing some of the creativity. This is not true. Plots can be revised and edited just as the text can be.

Lose the fear!

Having said that, organic evolution is just as valid a technique. I also use that in my toolbox. Sometimes I just want to code some snippets and work out how to put them together later. Retrospective plotting is also a useful thing to do. It can even help with the dreaded synopsis.

Nicola Morgan said...

Captain Black - excellent points. We tend to get very trapped by our own habits, saying "This is what I *do*", as though that means "This is the only way I could do it".

David Griffin said...

Hi Nicola; I write in the organic fashion as well; and like others, this is with knowing (and even writing first) the end, the beginning, sometimes a middle. I've no reason to change this way of working as it seems to work for me; in fact, I wouldn't want to! I then "fill in the gaps" without any "outside" reference. Tell a lie, I do write a lot of notes once I've got to this stage, and try to weave them in.

It's the first edit where things can get moved around in earnest, almost like shuffling index cards but in real time, as it were.

By the way, I'm looking forward to your Write to be Published event at Foyles on Thursday; also it'll be lovely to meet you in person. :-)

Big City Bumpkin said...

At the very beginning I worked out roughly what was going to happen and then broke it down to a chapter by chapter plan, but even though I've mostly stuck to this, sometimes the characters have have other ideas and done something a bit different that's surprised me and I've had to alter my plan. So maybe it's more of a guideline than a plan...

Jo Franklin said...

For years, I was a dedicated non-planner. But I ended up with too many unfinished books that had no end or finished books with muddled layers ladled on and on and on.
So now I am trying to adopt some planning methodology which will develop over time. Basically I use cards and a pinboard and then reverse plan what I actually end up writing.
Anyway this WIP is going well, so looks like it's working.
I now believe up front thinking to be as important as the pen on paper stuff.

Glen Strathy said...

The basic elements of plot you mention are part of Dramatica, arguably the most complete theory of story structure ever devised. It's my article you're referring to - thanks very much. But the theory itself was created by Melanie Anne Phillips and Chris Huntley, who published it as a book and also a software program. It's a complex work, but I try to present it in an easy-to-use format.