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"How do you plot and what are some good resources for PLOTTING?"



Monthly Column: "Ask Us Anything About Writing" with three acclaimed New York Times bestselling Authors : Ariel Lawhon, J.T. Ellison, and Patti Callahan Henry.

I discuss the craft of writing with my author friends J. T. Ellison and Ariel Lawhon all the time, and we thought we'd bring some of these conversations to you. We've been soliciting questions from our readers and this month’s topic is a great one.



"How do you plot and what are some good

resources for PLOTTING?"




Ariel Lawhon


I approach plotting a novel the way I once approached shopping for a wedding dress: I stopped looking when I found the one that worked for me. (Otherwise I’ll go crazy trying to chase that mythical unicorn--a resource that will make the writing process sparkly and effortless).


In my case the perfect plotting tool came in the form of John Truby’s book, THE ANATOMY OF STORY: 22 Steps to Becoming A Master Storyteller. I love it so much, in fact, that I buy a new copy every time I start a novel. That way my notes and ideas from the previous novel don’t seep their way into the new one subconsciously. Truby does not provide a fill-in-the-blanks approach. Instead he teaches you how to build your unique story from the ground up, starting at Premise and moving all the way through Characters and Setting and Theme and Plot, right into Scenes and Dialogue. It’s a holistic approach to storytelling and it works very well for me. Be warned, however, that it is not easy. You will feel as though you have melted your brain by the end. But the end result is worth every headache and drop of sweat. You’ll have a story you’re proud of. And that’s no small thing.


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Patti Callahan

Such a huge question with so many paths, literally hundreds of paths to a plot. When I first started writing, I wanted one answer. I wanted the secret. THE secret. Well, there isn’t one.


I plot in a couple different ways, but I’ll talk about my most recent because it’s what I am writing now. When I write a historical novel about a very real person set in a very real time, their plot and life give me a beginning scaffolding. But only a scaffolding. All the rest – the plot – comes from the character’s desires, emotional journey and transformation.


Through the years, I’ve discovered that I need to know this, or as much as I can know, before I even set down the scenes. Everything in the plot will grow from this character’s desires. There a number of books I love about plotting but the two that I turn to again and again are STORY GENIUS by Lisa Cronin and ANATOMY OF STORY by John Truby. Like, J. T. I have started writing in Scrivener and this has helped tremendously in seeing the overall arc of the plot when I get lost in the weeds! Which I do and I will. Now plot on!


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J.T. Ellison

I love this question, because I guarantee we’re going to get some very diverse answers. Which should be your first takeaway: there are no rules, only what works for you. So. I’ve been using several “tools” for plotting my books, especially because I don’t like to plot, I’m more of a pantser—flying by the seat of my pants. I’ve realized that I can skip an outline for a series book, but a standalone must have some kind of plan or I can get lost in the weeds. Instead of an outline, I start by writing up 40 scenes, and I’ve found Story Planner is a wonderful tool for this. I can do topline or granular as I need. It exports into Scrivener too, which is a big plus. I also use Scapple for simple brainstorming.


This is a tool from the makers of Scrivener, Literature and Latte, and it great for non-linear thinking. But how do you come up with 40 scenes, you ask? That’s going to be different for everyone, but for me, I like to let the movie reel flow in my head. I’m a visual writer, and I like to hear my characters, see how they walk, move, dress. Sometimes it’s as little as X and Y in the kitchen having a fight over breakfast. Sometimes it’s more dialogue-driven, a line I’ve heard them say. Again, no rules. The “scenes” don’t have to all look the same or be in any particular order. You can fix that in the mix.


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