Friday 16 September 2022

To plop or to plot ...

To plop or to plot … that is the question. Well, mine anyway. I’m currently writing my next book and I’m excited and filled with hope about a new idea. My natural instinct is to launch right in, to plop myself down in the middle of a comfy chair and race into the start of the story (and eat the last of the biscuits). Such is my keenness to inhabit any new idea, to look and see what I might discover there - rather like a visit to a continental supermarket - that impatience can get the better of me.

Similarly, I’m a technical-manual-refuser. A gung ho gah-I’ll-learn-as-I-go gal. Give me a manual and my eyes will soon glaze and blur in much the same way they did at school in subjects that weren’t History or English (sincere apologies, Notre Dame Comprehensive, Sheffield). It's why I still can’t operate anything that hosts buttons and flashing lights in my house. 

Losing the story plot
Which is fine, I can live with the inability to change channels remotely. But with writing - more often than not - I find that if I do just plop into a new story without some serious plotting first, I risk officially losing the plot.

And so, for my past two novels, I’ve been purposefully increasing my pre-plotting time. I’ve found – for me anyway – it not only helps develop my story structure, but it can really boost better idea generation. More ideas help to form a tighter structure; a tighter structure often enables more ideas. 

Therefore, fresh from a summer of plotting and filling up more notebooks than Nancy Drew, here are some of the crafting exercises and activities I have employed to help me avoid too much plopping …

Plotting exercises

📗Charts: I do lots of these as I begin forming a story. They can include charting key Strands, Character Arcs, pivotal Crisis ChoicesCause & Effect.

📘Craft books: re-reading screenwriting books such as ‘Story’ and ‘Into the Woods’ – I find guides that set out the science of our craft can really help develop structure and brainstorm ideas.

📙The 3Cs: Conflict, Choices & Change. A bit of a cross-check for acts and chapters against these critical 3Cs.

📕Story analysis: In my plotting period, I tend to analyse and critique more books and films. Assessing their midpoints, climaxes, motifs, character arcs ... and reflecting on my own.

📗The Circle: I get a bit addicted to drawing circles, lots of them. I quarter them into four acts and review how my story comes full circle, how scenes might mirror one another, how characters develop over time.

📘Map of Connections: I map settings, external and internal, present, past or imagination and I chart connections between these settings and the characters’ journey arcs.

📙Layer Trifle: I layer up revelations like a trifle, with key twists until the final reveal.

📕Stage set: I often draw key scenes as if they were stage sets, examining where characters are in relation to each other and to the audience (the reader).

📗Remember the Reader: possibly the most important part of plotting. I ask myself how the reader might engage with my story. What do they expect? How can I subvert expectations? What questions do I want them to ask? How will this make them feel? 

As Kevin Costner said, almost, Plot and the ideas will come. So, these days, I’m a reformed plopper; a born-again plotter through and through. However, technical manuals? I believe I’ll continue to press my remote control like it’s run out of batteries and wait for one of my teenagers to come home.


      Alex Cotter’s middle-grade novel THE MERMAID CALL was published on 7 July 2022 with Nosy Crow. She has also written THE HOUSE ON THE EDGE. Find her at or on Twitter: @AlexFCotter


Penny Dolan said...

Great tips, Alex!

Must try some of the newer (or forgotten) tricks out.

Alex Cotter said...

Thanks, Penny!!