Plotting A Framework

I’ve been plotting this week (cue maniacal laughter).

Of course, that shouldn’t be a surprise. No matter what novel or story a writer is working on, there should be a certain amount of plotting going on at regular intervals: decisions about new characters and what’s going to happen next. Even the most meticulous plotters have to check what they’ve written against their plan to make sure they’re on track (and that they still like the plan).

Well, I’m not a meticulous plotter. As I mentioned a while back in “Plotting with Post-Its,” I tend to use several different plotting methods. Actually, it’s more like I use bits and pieces of every plotting method – whatever suits my mood and gets me where I need to be to write (although I didn’t realize how true that was until I went to explain how I do it in an article…).

But when I’m starting a story, I use a method that could loosely be compared to the Snowflake method (the mysterious Morgan explained it well: “Plotting Methods for Meticulous Plotters“). In reality, what I start with is simply a combination of 3 brainstorming styles: list, free writing, and outlining. As I brain storm, I write down whatever scene or detail comes into my head. At the same time, there are also specific aspects that I make sure that I explore.

  1. Main Characters
  2. Conflict
  3. Setting
  4. Plot Arc

Yeah, that list looks like a middle school story analysis. But there’s a reason that they make everyone learn about those ideas – they’re the framework of a story. Having some ideas about what you want these 4 parts to be (at the very least) will make writing a coherent story somewhat less challenging. And (we hope) require fewer revisions.

If you’re starting a story, you probably have a vague idea about a couple of these things already (unless you’re starting a story by accident… *cough* twytte *cough*).

Most of the time when I start a story (deliberately, anyway), I have an idea for at least a character and a plot OR a character and a world. It’s very rare for me to have only a plot and a world, so I generally start with the character and start filling him/her out. With characters, this tends be micro. What the character looks like, does, did, acts like, etc. Then, that leads me into another character or situation.

I don’t do micro for everything. I need nitty-gritty details about the characters to be able to get a complete picture of them and start getting a feel for their behavior and motivation (like in acting). I only need micro for the setting as far as it affects the characters and the plot.

Beyond that, I’m looking for the big picture: the general arc of the plot, who’s involved in the conflict, and a basic idea of how it turns out. It’s usually not pretty, it doesn’t include all the details of the story, and, probably, no one will understand my notes but me.

But that’s not the goal – the goal is to get me enough information that I can start writing the story without stopping every time a question comes up to do research and brainstorming.

Think about that for a minute. If I didn’t plan ahead at all, every time a new character came in, I’d have to consider his/her role in the big picture, think about his/her background, and design the character (name, physical characteristics, personality, etc). Every time the characters move to a new setting or even a different room, I’d have to make decisions about how the world works, what the person has (or would/should have), what the culture is like, or even whether there’s something in that space that the characters need to notice and remember later.

Unless you only use the characters you started with, and they never go anywhere, that means you’re going to be stopping to figure stuff out all the time.

Some people are fine with that because that’s the part that they like best, and they like to do it the whole time that they’re writing. Other people get frustrated because they feel like they never get anywhere with the writing because they’re always getting stopped.

Personally, I don’t mind stopping sometimes, and I don’t like to spend too much time plotting – I want to get to the writing. That’s why I’m not a meticulous plotter. On the other hand, if I’m having to stop too often, that means that I don’t have a clear idea of where the story’s going, which means bigger revisions later (for me, at least). That’s a sign that I need to stop and plot some more.

That’s why when I start plotting, I try to lay a framework for the story: a set of basic rules or ideas that will guide later decisions. If I get enough details down to begin with, I won’t have to spend as much time thinking about each decision later. I’ll only have to pick the option that goes best with the framework I already have in place. That’s faster for me, which means that I can get back to writing without getting too bogged down.

That’s the part I think a lot of writers forget when they’re trying to explain plotting methods. They’ll explain the methods but not necessarily what the methods are trying to accomplish. Without that, picking a plotting method to try is a little like throwing a dart at a wall of balloons. Blind-folded. (You’re going to hit something…)

Don’t get me wrong. Looking up different plotting methods is great (Here’s Valerie Comer’s “5 Plotting Methods for Fiction“). Try as many or as few of them as you like. But once you learn how you feel about stopping as you write, you’ll be able to make a more educated decision. And if one method isn’t working, try another. Try a combination. Just make sure you have what you need to write the story.

That’s what matters, right?


  1. […] Use the big idea to direct the plot. Plotting with post-its can be handy for this to make sure you stick to your big-idea arc. At least for the main points (like a framework). […]

  2. […] a novel, you should have some idea of the storyline already – even if you’re not a meticulous plotter. So… start on a scene and see where it goes? Worse case, you’ll find out where it […]

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