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On Plotting And Writing Novels, by Phillipa Fioretti

The accepted wisdom in the writing advice blogosphere is that there are two ways of plotting. The first is flying by the seat of your pants and not knowing where the hell you are going with the story. The second way is to construct scene maps and character arcs and resolve all plot holes before you start to write. Personally, I think it’s a mix of the two as either extreme is unworkable.

Plotting a story requires the writer to hold a number of abstract concepts in their mind simultaneously: concepts such as narrative arc, that lovely thick spine we all use to hang our stories on, the three act structure, characters, themes and genre conventions. The action, which drives the plot of the story, takes place in scenes which should provide externalities that act on the characters. As a consequence of these, their inner lives and emotions change, triggering more action which then leads to consequences and events which continue to generate more ideas for scenes, and thus they are propelled through the giant python gut which is the narrative process.

Your job as a writer is to imagine situations and actions which will move the story along in a way that is true to the characters and their responses. At every step you have to think deeply about the characters’ motivations and actions, and then endeavour to steer the whole shebang in the direction you want it to go. There is an enormous amount of preparatory work to be done before you start to write, usually thinking, note taking, researching, talking and general rough outlining, but unless you are a serious perfectionist I think the whole plot process unfurls as you actually write.

Recently I listened to an interview with Vince Gilligan, creator of the television show Breaking Bad. What resonated was his account of how the actors inhabited the characters as filming progressed, bringing out aspects that the writers hadn’t or couldn’t foresee. So the writing of future scenes was adapted around the characters as they grew. For example, the main character of Jesse Pinkman was to be killed off in the first season but the actor’s interpretation suggested otherwise. Lesson? You don’t know – you can’t know – your plot in advance until you start writing.

It is while you are in the ‘doing’ that the ideas come. You can know your story, which is not the same as a plot, but you work out the best way to tell the story as you come up against problems along the way or get to know your characters better. This is the creative process of plotting, an organic and simultaneous use of craft, imagination and coffee.

I know every writer crafts a story their own way. Maybe some do set forth knowing exactly where each scene will go and how it will shift the story forward. It’s not how I work because if I knew the end before I started, I wouldn’t start.


Phillipa Fioretti’s author website:

Phillipa Fioretti’s bio page


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4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Good piece. I agree, there are infinite ways to write because every writer is different, and it’s a creative, subjective, often subconscious process. I will often start with nothing more than a character who shows up in my head and wants to tell me her story. I don’t know what the story is. As I write, I get to know the character, and she reveals the story. Sometimes the writing rambles on for a bit with a lot of back story — stuff that will eventually be cut or sprinkled around the story as needed. Eventually, I learn enough of the story to sketch out an outline. That outline may be a general idea at first, and gradually turn into a scene-by-scene outline. But even with a scene-by-scene outline, when I’m writing, the characters take over and surprising things happen. Then I have to decide whether to cut or change the scene because it doesn’t fit the outline, or change the outline to fit the unexpected scene, or see if the new scene still works within the outline.

    One thing different, perhaps, is that I usually know the end of the story pretty early on, sometimes even at the very beginning of the process. My outline then becomes a map for how to get from the beginning to the end. The map, the outline, will change and evolve as I write, but the ending never changes.

    October 31, 2013
  2. Thanks for your comment Robb.

    I often think of plotting as a large canvas, where you’ve done all your preparatory sketches and drawings and then you block it in on the canvas, start with under painting and build layer after layer, working on the whole thing and standing back constantly to get an overall view. You don’t perfect one corner and then move to the next, the whole thing has to be brought into being layer by layer, and the final touches of gold leaf or whatever go on last. And you have to be open to whatever is not working and be prepared to go where the painting wants to go. If you force it back to your original idea, it probably won’t work. Books are the same, I reckon.

    November 3, 2013
  3. What a wonderful article. The second paragraph particularly resonates with me. I started my new novel with a burst of energy – four and half pages, a short first chapter and then collapsed as I really hadn’t assembled my characters properly. Much more thinking was needed. I am definitely somewhere in the middle!

    November 8, 2013
  4. Thanks for your comment Debbie, I charge in too. Get to 20,000 words and droop, knowing I’m going to have to plod back to the start and do lots more development.

    November 12, 2013

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