How to Plot for Dummies (by a Dummy)

Our blog is called The Plotless for a reason. Not that I can speak for my co-bloggers, but plotting is the single hardest thing about writing. Characters spring out of my brain like multiple personalities come to life. Dialogue comes naturally enough. I can write a descriptive paragraph in my sleep. But plotting…it’s a wily devil. Complicating matters is the plethora of plotting methods floating around in my brain. I’ve been around the writing advice block a few dozen times. Not that writing advice is bad, but you know the saying “your mileage may vary”? Yes. My mileage is very poor. Like 1 MPG poor. Writing advice just doesn’t really work for me. I focus so much on someone else’s method as a means to avoid the hard work and copious amount of time it takes to figure out your own writing method.

With that complaint about myself sufficiently logged, I want to share the best plotting methods I’ve found plus one I’ve come up with myself.

(1) Brandon Sanderson’s sense of progression.

I’m a huge fan of Writing Excuses. Podcast host Brandon Sanderson also teaches a college writing class that I’ve taken. In both he’s spoken about his primary method of plotting; he plots using a sense of progression. It’s an interesting idea, but a little vague, you know? But when I’m reading a book I understand what he’s talking about. Having listened to more of Brandon’s advice about writing than your average human being, I have also gathered that he thinks of the most spectacular ending he can and then plots backwards. What steps will it take to get to that spectacular ending? With those milestones in place, you can then write scene to scene with the idea that your characters just need to be moving (not always forward, either. Characters aren’t always supposed to succeed. Sometimes they fail. Sometimes failures take them exactly where they’re supposed to be).

The latest Writing Excuses episode that references this plotting method here.

(2) Seven-point story structure.

Dan Wells, another Writing Excuses podcaster, gave a great presentation on this popular structure.

Part 1 of the series here.

The disclaimer here is that this method is often better used to analyze what you’ve written rather than to plot a novel from scratch…but if you’re desperate for a little structure to help your plot gel, then this is a great method. It focuses on conflicts, (the pinch, the turn, etc.) It also helps you focus on arcs, for both plot and characters, more than other plotting methods I’ve seen. Where your characters/plot end up should be the opposite (or close to it) of where they/it started.

As a lazy discovery writer who should probably be a plotter  (an explanation of pantsers vs. plotters here) I find this method interesting because it lets me think of my plot in the fuzzy way that comes naturally to my brain. It allows me to come up with twists and turns as I go. Character A is going along trying to achieve Goal A and all the sudden BAM! Conflict.

(3) The dubious plotting method of Megan Gadd.

Don’t get your hopes up that my plotting method is brilliant or anything. It’s just a nice, friendly way for my brain to approach plotting without freezing up like a deer in the headlights.

To be honest, I can never quite figure out how to pull off the Brandon Sanderson method of plotting. And the seven-point story structure always leaves me feeling like the characters are dead on the page between “points.” I desperately need my own method.

As a reader, my favorite plots are those that feel like Rube Goldberg machines. You have no idea where it’s going to end, but each step leads brilliantly to the next.

Recently I was reading a book and I could NOT put my finger on what was bothering me about it.

As it turns out, a fellow reader was able to help me out. I read a review of the novel, and in the comments someone pointed out that it had no sense of cause and effect. The characters act (an essential part of plotting to be sure) but their actions led to no consequences. Without that sense of consequence (complications or conflict) your characters might still be moving forward, but not in the concentrated, focused way that good storytelling requires. I mean waking up everyday to face normal everyday conflicts is all well and good, but it’s not that great a story, you know?

So. Cause and effect. To effect something you have to act (or choose deliberately not to act). There can be more than one effect to an action, perhaps an immediate consequence and one that comes into play down the road. I love this method because as a writer sometimes I write without an end in mind (a pantser) and sometimes I write with an end in mind (a plotter). I think this method can work for both plotting modes. A pantser can have a character make a decision and can decide the consequence on the spot. Lather, rinse, repeat, and see where that takes the novel. A plotter can use this idea to sit down and plan out the Rube Goldberg machine step for step.

This kind of chain reaction plotting sounds very linear, and I guess it is. For right now that’s how I’m going to approach my writing. As Michael Scott says to Dwight, KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid).

NaNoWriMo is nigh and I’m excited to use this method to keep me writing every day. I’ll report back afterwards and let you know how this plotting method works out for me.


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