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Thursday, November 15, 2007


All writers plot to some degree, some just more methodically than others. I’ve always been more of a seat of the pants writer instead of a plotter. The characters show up in my head with their problems and want me to fix them. I’ve tried. Really I have, but some stories just can’t be fixed.

I want my next novel to be done with more foresight and planning so that I don’t beat my head against a brick wall trying to figure out how to get my characters interlaced with the plot. Not that I don’t enjoy the process, but there has to be a better way.

This is why I’ve resolved to study more books on craft and work smarter, not harder. I am really liking the Plot and Structure book by James Scott Bell, who obviously knows a thing or two about plotting (see yesterday’s post for his latest thriller).

The book has great chapters on the three act structure, crafting scenes, developing characters, and how to get plot ideas. It all pivots on two essentials: the LOCK system and Back Cover Copy. Once these are in place, the real work can begin.

LOCK stands for Lead, Objective, Confrontation, and Knockout. In other words, a compelling LEAD character has an OBJECTIVE (a want or desire). While racing toward the objective, CONFRONTATION (opposition) from characters and outside forces occurs making it seem impossible that the lead will meet his goal. In a final battle, a KNOCKOUT ending leaves the reader satisfied. The LOCK system. Essential to every good story.

Back Cover Copy (BCC) is a 250 to 500 word summary of what the book is about. The lead character and what he or she wants. The confrontation. What is at stake. It draws the reader in so that he will buy the book and gives a “feel” for the story (light, brooding, thriller, romantic). An exercise and worksheet are presented in Plot and Structure for doing this. I highly recommend this to help you write your BCC.

Mr. Bell explores several methods of plotting (or not plotting), but one stood out to me—the Index Card system. I’ve heard this discussed many times, but something about it “clicked” with me this time. It’s a no pressure system of writing down any and every scene that comes to mind, no matter what its importance might be or the place it will come in the story. Instructions are given for arranging the scenes so that plot points (James Scott Bell calls them doorways) are critically placed, the tension mounts steadily throughout the book, ending in a climactic scene. Every scene does not have to be in place to start writing. An empty card with a reminder of what might go “here” can be used. Once you are happy with the result, the cards are numbered in pencil, then shuffled. Yes. Mixed up completely and rearranged to rethink more connections or different outcomes. It sounds intriguing.

I can do this. I have my cards and have started jotting scene ideas on them. Mr. Bell recommends letting this process have its due course. Don’t rush. Well, that fits me—I like to let things brew for awhile.

The remainder of the book has suggestions for writing chapter summaries, fixing plot holes, writing the first draft, polishing, rewriting, and general tips. I’ve not quite finished the book, but I’m jazzed about getting started on my own story. Will I be a die-hard plotter after this? Only time will tell.

In the meantime, what are you? A plotter? Seat of the pants writer? What plotting secrets can you share? I’d love to hear from you.


Erica Vetsch said...

I LOVED Plot and Structure. My first two novels were totally SOTP, all about the storytelling, and nothing at all about the craft. I was just having fun writing.

But along the way, I realized that if I wanted to be published, I needed to learn to write, not just to tell stories.

Plot and Structure was the first book on craft that I read. I now have all four of the Write Great Fiction series of books from Writer's Digest, and each was helpful.

I fall somewhere inbetween a dedicated plotter and a dedicated pantser. I'm currently using the story outline form from Karen Weisner's First Draft in 30 Days. This is for my NaNo novel, and it has been working very well. It helps me with the emotional elements and motivations of the characters, as well as hitting those important 'doorways' as JSB calls them.

Fun post!

carla stewart said...

Thanks, Erica. I've heard good things about Karen's First Draft in 30 days. I attended Susan Meissner's workshop in Dallas on 300 pages in 30 Days. I wonder if they are similar. I have all of Susan's material printed off and have found many similarties to JSB's Plot and Structure. Like you, my novels have been SOTP. I finished two and have three that are languishing.
Best of luck with your NaNo this month. There is something about committing that motivates.

Deborah said...

I will definitely check out Plot and Structure - adding it to the list. I tend to write on the fly, too...sometimes preplanning makes me feel like I'm stuck in the box...


DustinM said...

I'm not a big fan of plotting. Get good characters and a problem. Anything else I feel boxed in. If I do plot, While writing I get to a point where it just doesn't feel natural for the characters to take a certain route and have to end up throwing away or redo the plotline.

Myra Johnson said...

Eeeeewww!!! Index cards??? The very thought gives me the scroochies! I don't think I'll ever be more than an 80/20 kind of writer--meaning 80% SOTP and 20% advance planning. I just never seem to know what's going to happen until I'm living the story along with my characters. I like what Nora Roberts calls it--the discovery draft.

carla stewart said...

Thanks, Dustin and Myra. I hear what you are saying. The element of surprise is half the fun of writing. Part of the writing exercises I'm doing are on character development so that I know up front how a character will react in any given situation--even the bad guys. It's been interesting so far, and I'm kind of anxious to see what happens.

The Koala Bear Writer said...

I really have to check out this book, because it seems like nearly every writer I know has recommended it now. :)

I'm a SOTP writer. My first novel started with an image in my head... that was the prologue... and I just kept writing from there. It did mean I would hit points where I wasn't sure where the story would go next. :) Right now I'm working on a novel that I've been thinking about for about four years, so it's all in my head and just needs to get written. That means I've had time to think about the plot and where it's going, though since I haven't actually sat down to write it out or make it formal, I'm not sure if that counts. :)

Kathleen said...

I'm not a novelist; I'm a poet, so the necessity of plot is not really much of a factor for me. I can only say that I work in a number of ways; I have a sotp method for instances where something inspires me to write immediately, I have more of a deliberate thinking out of things when I'm cooking something on the back burner, and I sometimes have no control over the creative process and it steers me. These are the times when I'm awakened out of a deep sleep to suddenly find a poem fomenting on a topic I thought I had no intention of writing about. Is it a similar type of process that novelists go through?
(please visit me at

carla stewart said...

I think it's important, Kathleen, that we capture those creative moments as they occur. You never know where they may fit into a novel, or in your case, a poem. The only poetry I've tried to write came from spontaneous moments, but they were pretty miserable. I did write one that I liked, based on a form (I can't remember what the form was now). It was fun. JSB explains in his book what he calls a nifty 350--writing 350 words first thing in the morning before coffee or anything else to capture those "dream" type of ideas that have percolated overnight. This might be what you are doing.
Thanks for the comment. I'll be over to visit your blog.

Rebecca Laffar-Smith said...

I'm always thrilled and intrigued by this topic. I tend to blend both options together but I've found I work better if I plot. I use the index card method but with a technological edge. (Writer's Cafe: Storylines Software)

You might be interested in this: Six Part Series: Street Signs and Plot Humps. It's a blog series that looks at Planning vs. Seat of the Pants writing and offers some tips to guide writers when they come up against the cons of both.

carla stewart said...

Thanks, Rebecca. I'll will check out your suggestions. I'm trying to curb my SOTP tendencies. JSB emphasized finding what works for you, so I'm convinced that no single method is always right. Thanks for the comment.

Christina Berry said...

I have my cards posted to the left of my desk. Actually, they're the cards for the book Mom and I wrote together. When co-writing, it's a must to plot ahead of time!

For the book I did on my own, I wrote a two-page chapter synopsis. Maybe a line or two of what had to happen plotwise. Then I had the freedom to explore what happened chracterwise while staying on track with my word count and pacing for the whole book. I loved the surprises and the structure. A great combination for me. :-)