Sunday Writing: Simple Plotting for Smart Writers!

In the excellent movie The Last Days of Disco, Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny play book editors at a New York publishing house. In one scene, they read over a formula for a best-seller, which has something to do with creating a really appealing character, putting him or her through hell, and having the person triumph in the end. The proto-hipster guy sneers, “It’s completely formulaic,” to which Beckinsdale’s character replies, “Of course it’s formulaic. It’s a formula.”

Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny in the publishing office in The Last Days of Disco
“Of course it’s formulaic.”

I think good plotting is both the least respected writing skill and one of the most difficult. Say what you will about Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, but he knew how to move that story along. People criticize the dialogue of the movie Titanic while not acknowledging the strong plotting and pacing. That shit doesn’t happen on its own. In a novel, there’s no reason why a riveting storyline can’t be combined with flawless prose, brilliant insights, and unforgettable characters, except that it’s hard to be good at everything.

Since plotting is such a bitch, and since National Novel Writing Month starts in ten days, I’m going to encourage you to approach plotting in a very basic, almost dumb, but useful way.

So here’s your writing challenge: answer one of these two questions!

Let’s say you know who your main character is. What would some of her worst nightmares be? How would she cope with them?

Let’s say you have a vague idea of a conflict. There’s a fascist government controlling everyone, or mean kids at the junior high, whatever. What’s the end going to be? The big finish, the final showdown? If you can figure that out, you’ll have NaNoWriMo by the ass.


Want to go a little further? OK, if you’ve got the end in mind, and you know you have 50K, you can figure out how you’re going to build to that conclusion by making an outline, sort of like this:

inciting incident – This is the thing that happens that kicks off your story. It’s what jolts your main character out of her usual rut; it’s The Day Everything Changed. You’ll likely want this to happen near the beginning of your book.

at around 10K – something big happens. maybe it’s kind of a turning point for your character.

at around 20K – something bigger happens!

at around 30K – something REALLY BIG happens! even more dramatic turning point for your character!


by 50K – She figured out a solution! (Or: she didn’t. Tragedy!) Some things got wrapped up. THE END.

If you’re scared to make an outline like this because you think it will make the process of writing and discovering less exciting: it won’t. It’s very possible your story will change as you write it, anyway, but having an outline like this really helps in propelling your work forward. It’s the “force that through the green fuse drives the flower” (Dylan Thomas, y’all).

Of course, if you are planning on a finished piece that is longer than 50K, you can adjust how those big events &/or turning points are spaced out. (Or, I suppose, you can plan on going back and adding more description, conversations, ruminations, and such later.) Here are the word counts of some published books, just to give you an idea.

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald – 50,061

The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger – 73,404

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J.K. Rowling – 77,335

Persuasion, Jane Austen – 87,978

Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison – 92,400

The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins – 99,750

Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte – 107,945

A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens – 135,420

The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger – 155,717

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling – 198,227

And many young adult novels are around 55-60K.

In any case, I really believe in plotting before you write. When I started out trying to write novels, I told myself, “Oh, I’m not the kind of writer who plans ahead. That’s not my style!” I began many novels that just crapped out around page 100 because I didn’t really have a strong enough conflict to keep the story interesting. So that was a brilliant use of several years. The first novel I finished, a medieval romance, is a complete mess because I didn’t plot, and I still haven’t had the courage to try to revise it. The first book I plotted before writing was the first one I published.

When you’re a famous author, you’ll be able to get an advance after just submitting a basic plot for a book, rather than writing the whole manuscript. So why not prepare for your inevitable literary superstardom by getting used to plotting now?

By Bryn Donovan

Romance writer, poet, quilter, and dog cuddler.

7 replies on “Sunday Writing: Simple Plotting for Smart Writers!”

Bryn, this is good, even for a Pantser like me. Most folks will tell you pantsing (writing by the seat of your pants, no outline) is evil and never works, but on the one book I seriously gave plotting a try with I got so bored I never wrote it. Especially in romance, I swear I can smell a giant outline a mile away in the finished product.

But I DO do this — I make a one sheet word doc that says THIS HAPPENS, THEN THAT HAPPENS, ????, END. And it’s okay to leave the ??? in there, because you’ll get ideas as you go, and sometimes the plot you try to force your characters into is NOT the one they like by the time you get there. They can get all sassy and say, “Lucy, I would never do that! Geesh, idiot. Shut up and let me go do this now.”

I really like that outline idea. Usually I’m the type to just start writing and keep at it until I fall through the hole in the page, but I’ll be honest, that was my style back when I didn’t have a little one interrupting my all the live long day. It really isn’t working for me right now, so I’m going to try the outline aspect. At this point I just want to be able to get it done already.

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