Taking the Pain Out of Plot, by Sophie King

How do you plot a book is a question that every would-be writer asks. Should you sit down at your desk and work it all out before you begin? Or do you simply pick up your pen and ramble away?

In my book, it’s a combination of both. First, I strongly believe you need a Good Idea to encapsulate your characters within a world of their own. In other words, try to think of something that can draw all your characters together . If you have one main character, you need to find a great problem (there really IS such a thing!) that is going to keep your heroine or hero going for 100,000 words or so.

Then you need to have, in your head, a warm but feisty protagonist – a fancy name for a main character – whom the reader is going to like. This is important because if we don’t like him or her, we won’t give two hoots about whether they manage to plough through the difficult path you’re about to set them on and then come out on top.

By now, you’ll have jotted some of these ideas down on paper. They might be in strict order because you could already know exactly what is going to happen. I call this the knitting pattern technique where writers sit down and plan from A to Z, exactly what is going to happen. The problem with that, in my book, is that you haven’t made allowance for the fact that your heroine is going to develop both in your head and in her own right while you are writing her. So you may well have to change the plot to fit in.

Speaking personally, I like to plot like this. I start with some good strong ideas both in my head and in my notebook and then start writing. Too scary and vague for your liking? I know just how you feel. So here are some life lines to hold onto while you are steering your craft through uncharted waters.

The first is to make sure that Something Happens in that first chapter. It’s not enough to leave it until the last paragraph or the last line or even – heaven forbid – chapter two. I can’t tell you how many students say ‘Actually, something does happen but not yet.’ By then, you may well have been dumped in the ‘No Thanks’ pile of that agent or publisher.

You have to hook your reader from the first sentence by giving him or her something to tantalise over or be unable to put down. It needs to be enough to get that reader to continue and then you have to ‘tease’ him/her through the rest of that chapter by giving him titbits. In other words, challenges or suggestions so we all want to know what is going to happen. Within those challenges or suggestions, we hope that there will be at least one or two events.

Let me give you an example. In my latest book The Wedding Party, one of the heroines is introduced as a dizzy, warm, over-worked mother of two. The first chapter throws up all sorts of possible problems in the book to come including a hopeless parent (will she ever get to know her own children?),problems at work (will the editor sack her for losing a feature within the computer) and then her own family (why is her father marrying again – and how can he be in love with someone he’s only just met when he’s far too old anyway to be thinking about That Sort of Thing?).

The importance of having a variety of problems for the heroine is that, hopefully, there will be something there that appeals to the thousands of potential readers who might or might not buy your book. But if you start off with four or five beautiful, lyrical descriptions of a setting or a person and nothing happens, you might have lost your reader who – according to most modern editors – have a short attention span because they may be reading your book between stations or in their lunch hour or while they’re waiting in the car to pick up their kids. We need instant gratification in our lives, and books, I’m afraid, are no exception.

Having made sure that something is happening in your first chapter, you then need to make sure that something happens in each of the subsequent ones . However, you can get so involved in your story , that sometimes it’s hard to keep check of what you’ve written. So I suggest that AFTER you’ve finished your novel, you sketch out a mind map, which is known as a Tree Diagram. It goes like this: start by drawing a horizontal line like the trunk of a tree. Along it, write a one sentence outline of your book eg girl falls for Mr Right and marries Mr Wrong. Then draw a branch that goes out in a north east direction from the bottom of the trunk. On that, write (in one sentence) what happens in chapter one. Then draw another branch going in the same way above it. That represents chapter two. And so on. When you reach the top, go down the tree so that the branches go in a north west direction. You finish at the bottom left with the last chapter.

This should show you, at a glance, what is happening in each chapter. It will also show you if you have enough ‘rest’ periods in your novel. It’s vital to have some paragraphs where you allow the character to reflect on life or where the scenery is described. Otherwise your book will be so action-packed that your reader will be exhausted. In my view, this exercise is best done after the novel is completed because you can then go back and fill in any holes.

Sub-plots are also a great way of keeping a plot on the move. I personally think that the best sub-plots have one of two functions; they either provide humour, particularly if the main subject is serious. Or they act as a vital parallel to the main story. Let’s go back to Girl Meets Mr Right and marries Mr Wrong. One sub-plot might be her mother who is also dating at the same time – and meets Mr Right’s father at a speed dating evening, without realising the connection….

I’m going to add a word of warning here. Sometimes it’s so easy to get wrapped up in your plot, that anything seems possible. You are living a world that has hooked you as the author inside, so you believe that your characters are capable of doing anything. But your reader might not see it this way. So it’s imperative that your plot is realistic and plausible! Often, you hear of someone’s book being turned down because an agent/publisher said that a character wouldn’t act in such and such a way – and then the author reveals that it actually happened in real life. That may be so but in fact, unless the reader believes it, it won’t wash.

Similarly, the ending to your plot needs to persuade the reader that it is realistically viable. So if you have set your characters up with a problem, make sure you get them out of it in such a way so the reader doesn’t think ‘That couldn’t really happen!’ If you can’t do this, it might be time to have another look at the sticky situation you have put your characters in and then change it so you can create a more believable ending. Or you can go back and plant ‘seeds’ which, when a reader goes back and thinks about it, suggests the twist that is to come but doesn’t seem obvious at the time. This is known as foreshadowing and is best done at the end of the novel when you know what is going to happen. So if Mr Right is actually deaf but we don’t find this out until the last chapter, you might want to plant some seeds that suggest this: for instance, the heroine might think he isn’t listening to her whereas in fact, he can’t hear her.

Finally, after you’ve finished the novel, do check that you have tied up all the ends in your plot. The best way of doing this is to take a large page of A4 for each character and go through your book. Write down what happens to each and also what is going to happen to your reader. For instance, if your heroine is called Marianne and you say she has a birthday coming up in five months time, you can make sure that you really do give her a birthday in the appropriate chapter.

Happy writing!

This article is abridged from a feature by Sophie King in Writing Magazine. Sophie also runs a manuscript appraisal service. Visit www.sophieking.info.

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The Australian Literature Review

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6 Responses to Taking the Pain Out of Plot, by Sophie King

  1. Marjorie says:

    Hi, To plot or not to plot. I’ve read so many different ideas on plotting that I gather we try different ones that work for us. Well, that’s what I’m doing. I’m going to write down ‘the bones’ and then fix it. Cheers, Marjorie.

  2. Excellent post, Sophie. It makes lots of sense. Love the tree branch analogy.

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