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Why Plotting Sucks and How to Make it Suck Less

I suck at plotting.

This realization has been a long time coming. When I first beamed at my open laptop with a sparkle in my eye and a maniacal grin on my face and exclaimed with all the innocence and joy of a child, "I am going to write a book!" (see right), plotting was the one thing I thought I had a grasp on.

I had ridiculous spreadsheets upon spreadsheets of story arcs and scene descriptions and sneaky little twists and turns (despite the fact that I didn't really know my characters yet). This was, of course, my way of procrastinating the actual act of writing. Once I did, I realized I had a lot to learn by way of voice, tone, style, nuance.

But – I thought I had the plot thing down.

Most of us struggle with plot in different ways. Some writers know where the characters are going but don't know how to get them there. Some have the logistics nailed down but haven't grasped the emotional arc of the plot quite yet. Some struggle with finding even a single subplot, some have so many the plot is all but indistinguishable.

About a month ago I heard Holly Black's keynote speech at the SCBWI Western Washington Conference. Imagine my joy when I discovered her topic: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Plot.

I took a lot away from Ms. Black's speech that really helped me figure out a few things on my current project. These ideas came from the speech but with my own paraphrasing and additions:

1. Get out of the story.

This might involve closing the document for a day or so, especially when the plot starts to feel thick and confusing and out of your control. Simplify and go for a bird's eye view - what is the character's goal? What is stopping her? How will she overcome it? - to help you focus on what matters.

2. There are 4 types of plots. Which is yours?

Ms. Black stated that the four types are to stop, to escape, to retrieve and to win. Fitting your story into one of these categories and analyzing the plot from that angle can help clarify things.

3. What do you want to see? What do you expect to see?

Those are two very different questions. Most often, as we plot we know (or think we know) what we want to see. If you get stuck, forget what's supposed to happen next and look at your project like a reader. What would you expect to happen next? It may not be the right thing necessarily, but it can trigger an idea or help one of those tricksy plot pieces fall into place.

4. Understand subplots.

From Ms. Black: "Interaction between plot and subplot makes a story." There was a nifty chart to illustrate this. I do not have the chart. Picture a grid with two wavy lines. Does that help?

This is not the chart. But it is genius nonetheless.
Seriously, the point was that the two are not separate. They're inextricably tied, one can't exist without the other, they're basically Harry and Voldemort. Oh wait, except Harry could exist without Voldemort after all. Scratch that analogy.

The example used in the keynote was how, in so many stories, the book begins and ends with subplot. Take a story about a king whose brother is trying to overthrow his kingdom. That's the plot. A nice subplot: the queen is in love with the brother. Damn, that's cold.

So maybe the story starts with a council. Amidst the tension, the queen is casting longing looks at said brother. We've got subplot. And when the plot passes its climax, whether the king is triumphant or dead or riding off on a dragon never to be seen again, we're still dying for that subplot to resolve. What does the queen do??? (Insert joke about a second climax here.)

5. Talk. It. Out.

Writing and talking aloud are not the same thing. We communicate with one another differently through written and spoken word, as Leila explained brilliantly in her post on epistolary novels. When I get stuck on plot, my instinct is to open a document and write it out, explain it to myself, type out questions and try to find answers.

That works...sometimes. But talking about it with vocal cords and flapping lips is another thing entirely. Have you ever had someone ask "so what's your book about?" and as you try to explain you realize how rambling and weird it sounds and your companion starts nodding with that oh dear lord she's lost it expression and you just keep going and going and going...

Saying it out loud brings a whole other perspective. I tested this out with fellow Highwayer Amanda Hannah last week. Through the magic of Skype, we saw each another's faces and heard each other's voices (she has the cutest accent ever, y'all) and, after much laughing and only a few hours of giddy chatting, we talked out the plots of our current projects.

It was so helpful for me, and I think Amanda would say the same. We both threw out ideas, wrote them down, and I know when the call was over I was totally ready to get to work. (It might be important to note that it's more useful to talk it out with a fellow writer, not your neighbor or science teacher or that girl who sold you those cute shoes at Payless.)

Okay, all you Plot Masters out there - what other tips on making plots not suck do you have for us?
Michelle Schusterman

Michelle writes books for kids, screenplays for a tv/film production company, and music for anyone who'd buy a "groove matters" bumper sticker. She lives in New York City with her husband (and band mate) and their chocolate lab (who is more of a vocalist). She is the author of middle grade series I Heart Band - 2014, and The Kat Sinclair Files - 2015 (both from Grosset).

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  1. I am SO not a plot master and therefore have no tips to share, but I did want to say thanks for this! Great advice, especially the one about talking it out. (And the rambling when someone asks "what's your book about"? Yeah. Totally been there.)

    Great post! Thank you!

    Erin @ Quitting My Day Job

  2. I suck at plotting. I'm like one of those people you mentioned, the kind that writes down ideas and such and descriptions and more details without having any idea how it gets anywhere. I should try talking it out more often.
    Great and helpful post!

  3. Awesome post! I absolutely idolize Holly Black, so I appreciate you passing along the info!

  4. I love this post. I suck at plotting too.

    But I've recently gotten down a decent elevator pitch so when someone asks what it's about, I don't ramble. Lol!

  5. I am plotting - er, taking a ten minute break from plotting - right now! Thanks for the post!

  6. The beginning of this sounds SO MUCH like me. I've slowly realized how bad I am at plot...

  7. As a reformed spreadsheeter, I love the talking it out advice. It has gotten me out of many a sticky plot situation... many more than a spreadsheet ever did!

  8. Thanks for sharing this! That's totally me! Some plot's are so perfect and just rush out and others...not so much! I love your idea on 'talking it out' However, I've yet to find a fellow writer willing to listen to all of my rubbish lol :-)

  9. I love the "talking it out" part! (and of course Holly Black) I just recently pitched my MG story for the first time (an impromptu pitch to a friend's 12 yo, because that's my audience and I pitch 'em whenever I can!). It actually came out coherent - I was shocked! And his mom said, "That's a story I'd like to read!" *cue warm fuzzy feeling* But I only could do that because I had "talked it out" to myself (and my boys) before.

  10. I have definitely found that my plotting abilities improved once I realized that I needed to grab hold of that main plot thread and not let go.
    I would still not say this is one of my best strengths by far, but these are some great tips!

  11. Thanks so much, everyone!

    And Shauna, "reformed spreadsheeter" made me LOL. :)

  12. I never realized how hard plotting could be until I started writing this novel! You made great points and the one that I've found the most helpful is the point about talking it out. Now, whenever I get stuck, I turn to my husband - Mr. Logical - to offer suggestions and keep me on a realistic track. He also has great ideas!

  13. Thanks for the advice. I have no tip to share, but Take a trip to Pen and Ink and read The Writers Emergency Supply kit. This may help you come up with more plotting tips.

  14. I am horrible at plotting--still trying to get the hang of it! I know one thing I always have to have when I write--is music. In the parts of the story I listen to music that fits those parts. Music brings new ideas to my head and lets me feel whats happening.

  15. Oh my god! I want a Skype writing buddy!

    Other than that, lol, my favorite tips were: "Talk it out" and "What do you want to see?"

    I really hope I don't forget to implement these next time I'm brainstorming!


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