Practical Plotting

Writing pal Bob is working on a new idea for a book, the first novel he’s written in awhile. Bob has published a bunch of funny and clever mysteries, but, as most writers find, every new book is another challenge. First you need an idea. Then you need to convince yourself it’s not boring. Bob sent a three or four sentence elevator pitch about the book in his head. It was not boring.

Bob moved on with a synopsis draft. Here he writes out exactly what the book will be about and who his characters will be and how the plot will turn. He has the story worked out in his head! Yes, Bob is a plotter. I find plotters fascinating. But this time, Bob has a problem.

“I’m writing a much longer summary than usual,” he said. I don’t see this as a bad thing, but being the helpful writing friend, I offered to send him a version of Jane Cleland’s Road Map, which I wrote more about here. I say “a version of” because after I diagramed the road map, and tried filling it in, I customized it to fit onto a notebook page. Here I’m simplifying it down to two lines of writer’s code.

Inciting Incident-SP1-SP2-SP1-Turning Point-SP2-SP1-Turning Point-SP2-Turning Point-All Plots Resolved

Inciting Incident: Where does the problem start? The point at which the story and character are headed into a mystery and there is no turning back. Start there.

SP stands for subplot. I like two. Introduce the first one about 30 pages in for a 300 page novel. (I write short novels). Another thing about subplots…if you don’t have, let’s say, a romance subplot, but an agent or your editor wants one, just write a love story for your character. Then you can piece it up and place it in 3 or 4 slots in the book. You can do both your subplots this way.

Turning Points need to escalate the drama, turn the heat higher. Lots of people call these Plot Twists. I think of them as going deeper into the mystery. There’s new information that changes everything the main character thinks they knew.

When the story hits the highest possible point of tension, the subplots braid together with the main plot. Each illuminates the other and all need to fit into the final resolution. I like to use one of the subplots to put a “sting in the tail” ~ just one final twist the reader never saw coming but also makes absolute sense.

Speaking of sense, I hope this made some. Questions or observations?


        1. That’s a great thing to do. Write the book you want to read. It usually works for me, but when I tried to write a gritty crime novel with a psychological thriller edge it turned into a procedural with a cop and a PI who also end up romantically involved, so that would be police procedural/romantic suspense. My publisher tagged it on Amazon as “multi-cultural/ romantic suspense/ crime” so…lol. Best laid plans. I still liked the book when I finished it, but while writing I struggled with the darker elements. I actually put it aside for six months or so and wrote a fun amateur sleuth Christmas novel (I also love Christmas novels and read a fair amount of amateur sleuth mysteries too). So, while I love to read thrillers and dark crime novels, I probably won’t try writing one again.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. On the contrary, I think that was your subconscious putting to words the story you’d like to write if not read. Sometimes us pantsers (you sound like a pantser) have an imagination that detours all over the place, but that’s alright. I like to put my stories aside for at least 2 weeks to come back refreshed. It helps with spotting the holes and mistakes.

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  1. I often find in the process of fleshing out an outline I realize there’s a big hole in my design and I have to go back to the drawing board. Especially with twists. I’m better off letting my characters guide me. But that’s just me. We all have different processes. I do love mysteries with twists….. reading and writing them!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jan -agree! I absolutely need an outline…after I write a first draft. Especially with mysteries. I had to go to your website to check out your novels. It sounds so good I have to read although I’m kind of afraid of the one where the wife does not read the fine print before she signs her tax returns! That’s your latest, right? I am not fond of reading legal paperwork, myself. I force myself to read book contracts, though. And part of the allure of reading mysteries is scaring myself in a safe way😁


  3. Jina, Ha! You are correct. I’m a pantser. I also agree that whatever the book turns out to be, that’s what it is. I don’t try to force anything. When I write, I’m in the flow and I go with it and I’m grateful for whatever the book ends up being. If that makes sense!


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