Summer Writing Vacation: Plotting

Two weeks ago I proposed spending my summer blogging spots talking about my process for writing a novel. Note, this is my process, developed afteOUR WRITING ROADMAPr years of classes, workshops, books, and practice. It works for me, but that doesn’t guarantee it will work for you. Perhaps it will give you some ideas, or help you get unstuck.

I am a plotter. I’ve talked about that on this blog, and others. What that means is that I map out my novel (or story) before I start to write. Actually, I count my plotting time as writing time, since it frees me up considerably and is the only way I can work full time while writing a mystery series. That doesn’t mean I don’t deviate. Right now, for example, I am rethinking the denouement of my 3rd clock shop mystery. But the map got me to where I am going.

Whether you are a plotter or a pantser (write by the seat of your pants), the dramatic arc of a story remains the foundation to making the novel work. Here is what I think about when I am plotting my books.

The background of the story. Where is it set? Who are the major characters? What is life like for people? “I want to write a story about an advertising agency” is a good example to start. Think about the agency. Think about the people in it. Where is the agency set? Build the world of your story. You’ll fill in more and more details as you keep writing. For your own sake, keep track of those details in a “bible” so you can recall them easily.

The inciting incident, or why are you telling this story now? What has “disrupted” the normal of your world? Inciting incidents don’t have to take place within your story frame, but they are the driver of your story. Examples for an advertising agency: a lost client, a fight over creative control, the selling of a partnership. The inciting incident sparks the story you are going to tell.

Dramatic StructurePaula Munier wrote a great book called Plot Perfect that outlines narrative structure. I have also read The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery, which is a 52 step process for writing a book. Both of these books are well worth reading and highly recommended. But let me boil down what I mean by dramatic structure, narrative arcs and plot points.

You want to take your reader on a journey, with a rising sense of tension that compels her to keep reading. In order to keep the tension rising, you need to engage her by unpending expectations. These twists are called plot points–the first plot point is roughly 1/4 of the way in, and the second plot point is roughly 3/4 of the way in. The midpoint (halfway through) also needs some sort of action to drive it forward. Then you work towards the climax of the novel, then the denouement.

While planning your novel or story, don’t worry about your plot points at the beginning. Instead, make a list of what happens in your novel. (Scenes.) Use the “this happens and then” to move the story forward. One or two sentences on 3×5 cards for each scene. Now that you have your story laid out, think about the dramatic structure of the story. How’s the pacing? Are your plot points separated? Do you build up to each? Is the middle of the book a muddle, or does it keep driving the story? If your plot points come right on top of each other, can you add more scenes? Or a subplot?

Sometimes you will be driven to tell the story as you write, which is fine. Some of my best friends are pantsers. But think about dramatic structure in the editing phase, and see what you can do to keep the reader on a ride.

The final thing to think about in this phase is the theme of the novel. This may come later, but it can help you shape your scenes in interesting ways. The theme of my first book, Just Killing Time, is healing. Clock and Dagger is about redemption. Subplots and the main story all work to support that theme. Or that’s the attempt. The theme of the novel or story may become clearer as you are writing, and may help you in the editing phase.

This is a lot, but a good roadmap for moving forward. Remember what is the story you’re telling, why are you telling this story now, what happens, and why should your reader keep going?

Thoughts? Questions? Let me know! See you in two weeks for the next leg of our summer writing adventure.


Julianne Holmes writes the Clock Shop Mystery series. Book #2 in the series, Clock and Dagger, comes out August 2.

15 thoughts on “Summer Writing Vacation: Plotting

  1. Thanks, Julianne! This is brilliant. Authors’ interviews can also give the rather discouraging impression that the whole story sort of magically plotted itself out in their minds, with all its complexity & detail. It’s good to hear that’s just a myth– that you can start out with the bare bones of your plot & then flesh it out as you go.
    I’m keen to try to index card method. Sounds useful!

    • The index cards are great, because you can also track who’s in the scene, where it is set, what day it is, etc. You can also resort on the fly.

      I always find that in working on the story, the layers start to appear. It is a bit of magic, but it is the sitting down, working and thinking that brings forth the magic.

  2. I found this post very helpful and shared it with hundreds of writers at West Florida Literary Federation’s Facebook page. Personally, as a “pantser” it’s really going to help me with plot point editing. Thanks.

  3. Just starting out my big project… I and will refer to this blog, and the books you recommend, frequently. Thanks! (I have recently progressed from pantser…which always took me to dead ends…to partial plotter…so that’s progress! lol!)

  4. Very informative! Although I wonder if my lack of patience with anything that gives off even a hint of organization, will keep me from benefiting from your good advice. 🙂 I haven’t tried writing a novel yet but I’d probably best fit in the “pantser” group. Even with short stories, I still I feel I need a method for keeping track of characters, settings, etc. Thank you. 🙂

  5. Pingback: Our Summer Vacation: Using Your Voice | Live to Write – Write to Live

  6. Pingback: Our Summer Vacation: Pitching Your Book | Live to Write – Write to Live

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