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Plotting – how hard can it be?


I’m writing another romantic novel. At the moment I have two characters, a secondary (but pivotal character) and a cracking first chapter. But the rest, as Shakespeare said, is silence.

Working out the plot of story has got to be the hardest task for a writer. So imagine my joy when I found loads of self-help stuff for novelists on the internet. Plotting, it all seems to say, is child’s play. Just follow the advice and you could knock out a scenario in your lunch hour.

The received opinion on writing plots is that they should be character driven. Build your characters and they will take you there, to paraphrase Kevin Costner. Which is pretty good advice, but characters do need some kind of motivation.

Which leads me swiftly on to the ‘what do they want’ school of plotting. Here, the experts advise that you work out what your characters want, allow them to embark on the job of getting it, put obstacles in their way, let them overcome them, hit them with a socking great disaster, and then, ta dah! allow them to pull through into the sunny chapter that finishes with those marvellous words, The End.

I quite like this theory, except that my characters want irritating and intangible things, such as happiness and independence and, since this a romance, lerve. And that’s the problem. In a romance, if two characters fancy each other, the hard bit is not the motivation. It’s keeping it in check. And so you have to think of some sort of sub-plot that’s going to get in the way every time the heroine gets her hand on the knob (down, boy) of the bedroom door. This can be anything, a row over property or an inheritance, or a misunderstanding about other possible lovers (who always turn out to be long lost cousins, or conveniently gay).

I suppose I could be terribly practical and say, well, the hero wants the heroine, on the table, in the library in Chapter Four. She could throw a book at his head, (minor problem), they kiss and make up; but he might then develop concussion on the eve of their wedding and be rushed to hospital (disaster) only for him to wake up at the sound of her voice in Chapter Ten. Actually….wait a minute…that’s not bad (it’s terrible, ed).

Another way of cracking the problem is to look back at your story from the point of view of one of the leading characters, and get them to tell you how they got through. That, on the surface, does sound a bit potty, as you are asking an imaginary person to give you a hand, but looking at things from different perspectives can help. ‘Tell me how you fell in love with so and so, mummy?’ or ‘Tell me how you nabbed the murderer.’

The final way, which in the end is the one I always go for, is after planning your characters and plotting as far as you can, just start writing. The trouble, of course, is the ‘just start writing’ bit. Committing to write at least 50,000 words is hard. And we’d all rather faff about with spider diagrams and five-minute free-writing than get down to the grind. However, as you write and become absorbed, your characters will do stuff that surprises you, and that will open up new possibilities, which hopefully will keep you going at least until the next chapter, and then the next.

So, crack on, dear writer. And if you get stuck, you can always follow the advice of my former editor at Mills and Boon. I was wailing at him because I had got to chapter four and everything had begun to look rather stale, flat and unprofitable. ‘That’s easy,’ he said. ‘Just introduce some mental torture or a bit of sexual tension. That’ll take you through until your brain picks up again.’

About elainecanham

I started blogging because I'm a writer, and I thought I ought to. Now I realise that I blog because I lwant to; even when I can't think of much to say. I do a lot of work for local businesses - get in touch if you like my style.


24 thoughts on “Plotting – how hard can it be?

  1. Great post Elaine. A lot of my stories start with a situation. A ‘what if’ kind of situation. Sometimes it doesn’t get me anywhere but sometimes matters get complicated enough to keep going. I like to start writing when one of these ideas has been bothering me for a while and I have a few other thoughts but once I start writing it comes a point when ideas will come (mostly not when I’m trying to write, but as I’m going for a walk, exercising or doing anything else). Not all of them will make it to the book but I try and write them down just in case. Yes, my characters at some point decide what they want to do, however irritating that might be…

    Posted by olganm | June 11, 2014, 6:53 pm
    • Thanks Olga. After I wrote this, I found another, brilliant website (for screenwriters) about how to lay out a skeleton of a plot. I found it really helpful, and in fact, have now used it myself. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but if you’re interested I posted about it: elainecanham.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=646&action=edit

      Posted by elainecanham | June 11, 2014, 6:58 pm
  2. Terrific. I don’t know why I haven’t been getting emails recently every time you open your mouth (i.e. type the keyboard). I have been missing these posts.

    Posted by Bruce Goodman | May 19, 2014, 1:32 am
  3. I think that characters do go off on a tangent because when you’re writing they are developing, dare I say it, becoming more alive? While it may be good for them, I think strict editing is necessary in the end so that the main action of the story keeps going. Don’t get rid of the material, however, put it aside in a file under the characters name. Keep it ’cause it can be very useful if the publishers want more flesh. The trick is to find the happy medium between the ‘bones and flesh’ and it is never easy.

    Posted by plotwhisperer | May 16, 2014, 1:48 am
  4. HI Elaine, great advice as usual. My usual story plotting format goes something like this. Get a great opening scene and run with it, of course letting favorite characters do what they want in the meantime. Unfortunately this lack of formal planning has gotten me into some hot water as I sometimes end up in left field and far away from where I had envisioned the ending. At that point, either reel everyone back in, or change the ending.

    Posted by librarylady | May 15, 2014, 7:36 pm
  5. Will someone please explain what sexual tension is ? Is it ‘What happens if she wants sex’? If so I want me some of that !
    xxx Massive Hugs xxx

    Posted by davidprosser | May 15, 2014, 10:35 am
    • Yes, my lord, its what happens when they both want sex and they’re both aching to get their kit off, and then the phone rings, or she remembers what a cad he is, or he is making her pay because she done his brother wrong, or they realise they’re in the middle of a crowd of people or, well, you get the picture.

      Posted by elainecanham | May 15, 2014, 10:42 am
  6. That’s the funny thing about romance. It’s no good unless you make your characters miserable. What does that say about humanity? We can’t be captivated by a love story unless the couple are maligned, mutilated, separated, fighting or dying. People think romance writers are far less sadistic than crime writers, but really, it’s just a lack of visible weaponry.

    Your post has made me think, though, about a conveniently gay person (love that expression) in one of my stories. Is it ok to keep them if I’m mindful of the fact that it’s a cliché?!

    Posted by Tara Sparling | May 15, 2014, 10:14 am
    • depends if you think you can get away with it? If it reads as if its contrived, then you’re cooked. Of course you could turn the whole thing on its head – there are plenty of people who are incredibly camp, but who are not gay. Cliches can be awfully useful. Have you read the PG Wodehouse story about the gangster who is forced to work as a Hollywood scriptwriter?

      Posted by elainecanham | May 15, 2014, 10:37 am
  7. Good summary here – on all the plotting tangents 🙂

    Posted by Eric Alagan | May 15, 2014, 2:58 am
  8. Excellent, really enjoyed this. Plotting is where I keep coming unstuck (which makes me sound more like Guy Fawkes than I actually am). I have characters, yes, and they’re all interesting and everything. But they keep wandering off on their own tangents and not doing what I thought they would, and instead of opening up new possibilities it feels more like I’m herding kittens. And I say that as someone with a cat allergy.

    I think I need a lie down. And not in the romantic novel sense.

    Posted by Jane Cooper | May 14, 2014, 8:41 pm
    • Yes, I’ve had the same problem. People will tell you that this is because you have invented such good characters, and that is true, but as you say, its no comfort when they won’t behave. If you have time to look I posted about this problem in Don’t let the buggers get you down, and It was a dark and stormy night, yeah right. Thanks for reading.

      Posted by elainecanham | May 14, 2014, 9:58 pm
    • Ah, I’ve read it. The trouble is (in my case anyway) that when they start diverting from the path of righteousness I’ve carefully laid out in front of them … well, that’s the really fun bit, isn’t it? From a writing perspective. So I let them do it, like the indulgent parent who smiles fondly as their offspring wreak havoc … and ends up on the gin. I need to change my approach and crack down, I suspect. I could do with some kind of Mary Poppins for misbehaving characters to come along and discipline them all, so I don’t have to.

      Posted by Jane Cooper | May 14, 2014, 10:30 pm
    • No, let them go for it. See where you end up. You can always crack open the gin if it gets too much.

      Posted by elainecanham | May 14, 2014, 11:59 pm
  9. Great perspective and good advice as always from you, Elaine. Now all you have to do is stick with it. Easy! 🙂

    Posted by Jools | May 14, 2014, 6:37 pm
  10. I think your mills and boon editor gave the best advice :p Though that can only work when there is a romance in the mix! Lol

    Posted by Sally | May 14, 2014, 6:11 pm
  11. You have summed up every train of thought I have had on plotting- and it’s damn hard!

    Posted by foundfootageblog | May 14, 2014, 3:08 pm
    • I hope it was useful. It did occur to me that maybe you could plot a story by wondering what the characters want in each chapter, but there are so many pitfalls, in the end you just have to trust that the story is in your brain somewhere.

      Posted by elainecanham | May 14, 2014, 3:50 pm
  12. Great motivation! I thought that blogging would help, and it has – but now I would rather blog and read other’s pages than write the novel. Those “five minute writings” have become too tempting!

    Posted by Invisible Ink | May 14, 2014, 1:42 pm

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