Posts Tagged ‘plot’

Cunning Plans & Fiendish Plots

A classic subject for blogs and other discussions on writing is plotting and whether one is a ‘pantser’ (someone who flies by the seat of their pants, not someone who writes pants/crap plots) or a ‘planner’.  And who am I to argue with such time-honoured traditions?  Except for when it suits me, of course, but today, dear reader, it doesn’t suit me, so we’re going to look at plotting.

A cunning plan in action.

In the past I’ve been both pantser and a planner, usually working to a very extreme form of one or the other.  In the past I’ve also been a writer who managed about 5,000-10,000 words of a would-be novel and then found it fizzling out.  I don’t think this is a coincidence. 

I think one of the most important factors in completing the first draft of a novel (which is often half the battle) is finding the way that is right for you.  Now, I may be speaking prematurely as I am only about one third of the way through A Thief & A Gentlewoman, but I think I have found the way that is right for me.  And yes, I know I have repeated that phrase, but to me “the way that is right for you” is vital to everything in life.  I don’t generally believe in absolutes and I think something as personal as writing absolutely requires the proviso of “here’s my advice/experience, but if it doesn’t work for you, then throw it out the window”.

And with that proviso firmly in place, this is the method of plotting (fiendish, cunning or otherwise) that works for me and has allowed me to get far further on a project than ever before, and hopefully it will see me over the first draft finishing line … 

I start with a vague idea of what I want to happen and I turn to one of my favourite things in life to help me set it out:

  • The
  • bullet
  • point
  • list!

Each event that I have in the story gets its own bullet point:

  • Girl meets boy. 
  • Girl and boy find out they’re from warring families.
  • Girl marries boy.
  • The pressures of their warring families mean girl and boy kill themselves. 
  • Families learn a lesson abut feuding (we hope!).

It is meant to be super basic at the moment – we’re talking vague ideas.  Eventually, however, this will become a list with a bullet-point for each scene in the story.  (OK, I know that sounds daunting, but I don’t find it so, especially as it’s written over time with scenes added and moved around as ideas evolve.)

I usually have these vague ideas floating about and then start fleshing out the characters involved before I come to this bullet-point process as this allows me to know how they will behave, but also whose eyes I want to see this particular scene through.  For really important events, I tend to overlap viewpoints, especially when it can create humour, tension or empathy by showing the different ways people can see the same incident.

From there I look at my scenes and think about what needs to happen between them, how the story will move from one scene to the next.  I also consider what will cause those events and how the cause will shape the form of the actual event – for example what is the exact form the warring family pressure that make boy and girl kill themselves?  This will give me scenes that come before as well as give me more detail for the original bullet points, so it might start to look something like this:

  • Girl meets boy.
  • Girl and boy find out they’re from warring families.
  • Girl marries boy in secret.
  • Boy argues with girl’s cousin (because cousin killed Boy’s best friend) and ends up killing him in a fight.
  • Boy gets banished for the killing.
  • Girl’s family arranges for her to marry another man, not knowing she’s already married.
  • Priest comes up with a plan to save the girl from bigamy and keep the couple together.
  • Girl takes poison and appears dead to her family.
  • Priest sends message to Boy, telling him about the plan and that Girl isn’t really dead, but just seems it.  Boy doesn’t get message.
  • Boy hears girl is dead and rushes to her tomb.  Unable to bear living without her, he kills himself.
  • Girl wakes and finds Boy dead.  Unable to bear living without him, she kills herself.
  • Families learn a lesson abut feuding (we hope!).

Still quite simplified, but you can see that we’ve fleshed things out a bit and that the original “The pressures of their warring families mean girl and boy kill themselves” bullet point has actually become two scenes as the idea has developed as we’ve worked out the specifics and the causes of the event.  That scene has also split to allow for the two viewpoints.  (Of course, this is Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, so as it’s not a novel it doesn’t have the two view-points as such, but if you were writing it as a novel with a third person narrator close to a character it would have to – Romeo is not alive when Juliet dies so the narrator can’t be near him for both events and Juliet is unconscious when Romeo dies so the narrator can’t be in her mind for both deaths.  Sorry, that’s quite a convoluted explanation, isn’t it?!) 


From there you also think about what is needed in this plot, such as the introduction of the key characters and setting up the idea of the feuding families (that latter of which old Shakey does with that brilliant “I do bite my thumb, sir!” opening scene) and add those in.  This is where I weave in the ‘set up’, by which I mean things such as the clues seen early on in Poirot but not initially appreciated for their full significance (like “Ah, but you have been to Egypt, non?  And so had the killer!  Duh duh duuuuuuh!”), or the mention of that clever little weapon hidden in our heroine’s knickers that will save her life in the penultimate scene (such as Roald Dahl’s Little Red Riding Hood who “whipped a pistol from her knickers” and swiftly dispatched of poor little wolfy).  So you go back and add an early scene where the protagonist overhears a conversation but fails to appreciate its significance, and another scene where we meet the protagonist’s teacher who also gives them a gift or teaches them a technique, which of course will save them in the end. 

Which also reminds me – I try to make my scenes work hard for their place in my story.  By which I mean that scenes have to fulfil more than one role, such as the above introduction of the teacher and of the important object.  A scene that is only doing one job just isn’t pulling its weight.  Sometimes it can be hard to imagine how you can make that scene that introduces Bob do something else, but if you give it some thought and look at how other people do it, you’ll soon impress yourself with your cunning by showing the reader Bob’s relationship with protagonist Jane, showing characterisation of Jane and Bob (Jane through her thoughts, words and actions and Bob through his actions and what he says to Jane) and setting up mention of the strange spate of catnappings on page 12 of the local newspaper that Jane is using to wrap up the glass Bob just broke (because he’s clumsy which is part of the characterisation you’re showing to the reader) … and so on. 

At this stage I find the major scenes tend to become quite long in their bullet points because there are so many important details that I need to remember to include, which is great because those major scenes can be rather daunting to write and can be easy to get lost in.  This bullet-point method also allows me to tick off scenes as I write them, which gives the list-writer in me a sense of achievement and reminds the writer in me that I’m one step closer to finishing the first draft. 

It’s also a great foundation for those snippets of conversation that come to you on the bus.  By knowing that at some point Jane and Bob will have a discussion about Bob’s vegetarianism and Jane’s love of meat, my mind will have that idea on the back-burner and when I wake up with that great bit of punchy dialogue, I have somewhere I can keep it safe, rather than just writing it on a scrap of paper that gets lost or in a notebook and not being able to find it when I come to write the scene.  Because when I come to write the scene, I’ll have my bullet points (that usually get printed out and scribbled on and then re-typed and re-printed to include the scribblings when the paper’s about to fall apart) with that snappy conversation and I can decide whether I still think it’s great or whether I think “whatever was I thinking?!”

I enjoy the whole process of plotting in this way, it’s a time for getting stuck on a problem, puzzling over it, then deciding to go for a bath and having that eureka(!) moment while you cook dinner.  It’s really fun weaving and winding your webs of intrigue and inter-connectedness – Hell, it’s the only way I can think of that allows a person to spend days fiendishly plotting without being a Bond villain!  And I do like a good bit of fiendish plotting.

Kitty doesn't care about plot, so long as kitty gets to sleep.

 Now, I know some argue that this approach doesn’t allow you any space for creativity – I’ve even said it myself in the past when I’ve been pantsing and even on previous attempts at planning – but I find this particular way of working does the opposite for me.  I can always change my bullet points at any time, I can copy and paste the order of events or just delete them, or split scenes up to allow for a flash-back half way through, but having that list there actually allows me more creativity when I’m doing the fun part of actually writing the scene.  Rather than sitting down and feeling tense and stifled because I’m thinking:

oh Gods, what’s meant to happen in this scene?  How on earth did I write myself into this rut?  I know I need to get to Lord Devilish’s house for the big climax, but how the Hell do I get there from here?!  Man, I really don’t want to write this scene if I’m just going to have to delete it when it comes to editing … Angst!

I get to say to myself:

OK, I know that Jane needs to ask Bob to the dance at Lord Devilish’s in this scene, and that he’ll think he’s finally getting lucky, but that he’ll be disappointed because she’ll explain she’s only doing it because she needs a date who’s quite plain and therefore won’t draw attention to himself.

And I get the simple enjoyment of that dialogue with a bit of sulking by Bob and back-pedalling by Jane and those fun little thrilling signs for the reader that they both like each other but don’t want to say, whilst still being safe in the knowledge that I’m taking the story in the right direction. 

In short, the bullet points tell me what has to happen in the scene, but I get to enjoy seeing how the characters take me there – and sometimes they surprise me.

If you’re stuck in a plot-rut or just can’t get past chapter 5, then maybe it’s time to try something different, try pantsing or this planning method, it might just help.  And scribblers, do tell me about your own cunning planning methods – I love to hear about the different ways people work!


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Today I’d like to share a couple of wonderfully helpful articles out there in teh interwebs/blogosphere relating to writing and submitting fiction (though some of the advice might very well apply to other forms of writing)…

First, let’s start with the writing, because if you haven’t written anything, you can’t submit it!  My favourite ‘crabbit old bat’ (her own words), AKA Nicola Morgan, has written a thoroughly bloody brilliant post about Story Structure and Shape.  She likens the peaks and troughs of a story’s structure to breathing – and she is completely right!  This is a truly top article from a truly top blogger.  Read it and follow her.  That is an order.

Next, we move on to the scary world of submissions… Now, as I haven’t finished writing a novel (yet), I haven’t started on that particular merry-go-round/rollercoaster/other speedy, spinney ride, but that doesn’t stop me (like other aspiring writers) from thinking about when that time comes and researching how it works.  Forwarned is forearmed.  Or something.

So, yes, let’s think about submitting our work to publishers…

Do the words ‘slush pile’ send doomladen shivers down your spine?  Don’t have a clue how to submit to one?  Want to know how to stand the best chance of getting that submission read?  Then Daniel Clay’s A Winning Strategy for Escaping the Slush Pile is just what you need.  It’s written in a very readable and humble style that imparts lots of useful information and offers that thing that us writers need to cling to – hope.  (Via Girl Meets World – an informative blog from a fellow aspiring writer.)

And finally, I leave you with something non-writing-related but which (I hope) will prettify this post and perhaps even tantalise your tastebuds… Here’s a very cute turtle cupcake and the recipe/instructions:

Turtle Cupcake

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Welcome to my little corner of the interweb!

I will be mostly rambling on about writing, research, the 18th Century, bits and pieces I make and anything else that catches my little magpie eye.  So, without further ado, may the rambling commence!

I’m in the last few weeks of an MA in Creative Writing (scary!) and just editing my final project – A Thief & A Gentlewoman (it’s going to be mentioned a lot, I’m afraid!  Will be calling it ‘T&Gw’ or whatever else my fingers decide to type at some silly hour of the morning).

It’s an historical fantasy about Quin, a young woman from the Gutter Streets who steals her way out of poverty.  When she meets her latest mark, Fehrim, she finds herself liking him rather more than she should… And the situation for our heroine only becomes more complicated when he is framed for the assassination of his cousin, the Sultana.  Quin must choose whether to help Fehr or continue her safe masquerade.  Meanwhile, a serial killer stalks the slums where she is from and she cannot help but be drawn into the murders.  She must discover the connection between the assassination and the killer before they strike again… Dah dah daaaah!

The series is all about swashbuckling fights, romance, intrigue and adventure in Arianople, City of Cities.  There’s a more posh blurb on the Blurb tab of this very blog, if you fancy a look.

So far, I’ve written part 1 of the first book – just over 40,000 words – and plotted out all scenes and chapters of the first book and outlined the second and third books.  The whole process took a while and has undergone some changes, but I’m pretty happy with it at the moment.  Actually, that might be an understatement – I spent a stressful couple of weeks re-working the existing plot to add some extra depth and a better resolution… Sleepless nights!  Fingers crossed, it’s all OK now… Famous last words.

Anyway, as much of a pain writing can be when there are big fat problems, I love the characters who have graced me with their presence and I just can’t not do it.  (Ah, such graceful prose from a writer!)

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