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On Plotting My Novel, by Kathy Stewart

A debate most novelists have is whether they’re ‘pantsers’ or ‘plotters’. Many confess to only having the beginning and end in mind and then fleshing out the middle as they go. That is, they’re pantsers. And that’s how I started – with a vague idea of the direction of the story, relying on developing the characters as I went.

But with Steve Rossiter’s help, I’ve now realised the value of plotting. This time, with my fourth novel, I’ve written out detailed character interviews and then drawn up outlines of each chapter so that I know ahead of time which direction each scene will take.

I must admit, though, that there is a certain amount of satisfaction in discovering the characters as you go along. It’s as if some part of your mind knows the story all along and was just waiting for you to uncover it. And I’m sure this will happen, even though I’ve done such detailed planning. I fully believe I’ll discover wrinkles and nuances I had no idea existed. That’s what makes writing so much fun.

At one stage I thought plotting would obviate the need to write so many superfluous words, but that was not to be. Given the detail included in my character interviews, and the detailed plot points in each chapter, I’ve already written many thousands of words.

But the value of all this planning is that I now know my characters really well. I can see them, feel their pain, laugh at what makes them laugh, so when it comes to writing the scene, I know what they’re thinking and feeling and it’s just a case of conveying that to the reader.

It sounds easy but I’m sure it won’t be. Finding that correct phrase and just the right word will still be as much of a challenge, as will be keeping the pace going to keep my reader interested.

In the first weeks, Steve had us write out the main points that would be covered in each chapter. We discussed at length the motivation for each character. He reminded us of the importance of keeping description and introspection to a minimum, to keep our characters full of action, allowing the reader to interpret the thoughts of characters through what they do and say, much as one would do watching a movie or play. All good advice and something I hope I can achieve as we progress through our novels from week to week.

I’ve set myself a 5000-word target to achieve each week and this is quite a big ask. This is when I hope all the plotting and planning will pay dividends by giving me a clear direction of where I’m heading.

Although previously I’ve I always thought of myself as a pantser, in actual fact I think this plotting might suit me very well. Only time will tell, of course, but I’m looking forward to the journey.


Kathy Stewart’s bio page

Scene and Structure (The elements of fiction writing)The Art of Dramatic Writing: Its Basis in the Creative Interpretation of Human MotivesStory Structure Architect: A Writer's Guide to Building Plots, Characters and ComplicationsWriting for Emotional ImpactPoetics (Dover Thrift S.)Writing Genre Fiction: A Guide to the CraftThe Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. This was really helpful Kathy. I know I can’t even start writing till I know the beginning and the ending. In the past my main focus has been on short stories but now with the novel I’m having the ‘luxury’ of being able to really fine tune the middle without having the word count hassling me!
    Go well.

    March 22, 2012
    • writeronline #

      Thanks for the comment, Janet. I think I’m a big fan of plotting now. It makes writing so much easier – once you get your head around it!

      March 25, 2012
      • ‘The snowflake method’ is just the idea of starting off with a short summary or description of your story, such as a sentence, expanding it to something longer, such as a paragraph, expanding it to something even longer, such as a page, and so on until you have an outline long enough to confidently start writing scenes/chapters.

        This is nothing new but the term ‘snowflake method’ has been promoted and spread widely in the past few years. The idea of a story premise, a short synopsis (of a paragraph or under a page) and a longer outline/treatment of multiple pages, for example, is quite common.

        Some use the term to refer to the general concept of starting small and expanding to something bigger, while some use the term to refer to a defined methodology, often with a series of steps to follow. Some try to link it to speculative theories about fractals or the supposed structure of minds or societies, etc.

        Here is an online article covering a snowflake methodology with specified steps:

        March 26, 2012
      • jpm1966 #

        Thanks everyone. This has been really enlightening.

        March 26, 2012
  2. I did Professional Writing and Editing through TAFE last year and learnt about the Snowflake method in the long fiction unit. I too am in the process of interviewing my characters, and expanding a one sentence synopsis of the novel into a paragraph, into a page, into four pages etc. On one hand it’s frustrating because I just want to bang out the words, but on the other it’s exhilirating because I feel so close to my characters.

    March 22, 2012
    • Tell me more about ‘snowflake’ Vicky. I think I have an idea … but do tell! Where did you do the course?

      March 22, 2012
    • writeronline #

      Hi Vicky and Janet
      Mmmm. The snowflake method? I have no idea. Can you elaborate, Vicky? Thanks.


      March 25, 2012
  3. Excellent post, Kathy, thank you.

    Would you mind elaborating a little on what “character interviews” entail? Do you do a Q&A with your characters on issues?


    March 22, 2012
    • writeronline #

      Thanks, Margaret. The idea for the character interviews came from James N Frey’s book How to Write a Damn Good Mystery. I did first-person interviews with each character, asking them to tell me about themselves and how they felt about events in their lives and in the book. Of course some of them lie or try to put a spin on things they’re uncomfortable about divulging – we always want to believe we’re right and good and the characters are no exception. It was fun getting to know them and now that I’m deeper into the novel I’m so grateful I did the interviews. It’s helped a lot. You’re supposed to write down detailed descriptions of the physical characteristics as well. I did do that for most of them. Mainly I kept track of motivations, birth dates and other important dates in my characters’ lives so I could keep the timeline consistent.
      I hope that answer helps!

      March 25, 2012
      • g2-3d6f58195e61f5ebefd0d92f2c4a36ed #

        That is really useful and fascinating, Kathy. Thanks, and good luck with the project!

        March 26, 2012
  4. jpm1966 #

    Thanks everyone – this was very helpful and enlightening.

    March 26, 2012

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