Methods of Plotting

15 Apr

Plotting. It’s the thing that every amateur novelist on the internet urges you to avoid during the month of November and every writing class tells you must have so carefully worked out, before you start writing, that your outline is more like an abridged version of the story and every time your characters start to develop away from it you have to put them in a metaphorical straightjacket.

A more realistic statement on the matter would be that, while it is necessary to do some basic plotting before you write to avoid your work deteriorating into a mess of “and then”s with nothing to hold them together, the amount of plotting you need to do has no fixed amount. It is ultimately dependent on both the author and the type of story – although in every method it is still true that you should not continually try to force your characters to follow the plot you’ve laid out for them if they insist upon taking you down a different road. For all that they are flaunted about by their adherents as if they are the one true answer to everything (that would be 42) the two extremes of plotting are hardly the only methods available. Ultimately, what method you choose (be it one of these or some other I have failed to catalogue) to plot by, (mostly) before you start writing, depends not only on where you’re starting from, but also what works best for your genre and for you.


Roadmap Method: This is the method most commonly used by people who know where they are and where they want to end up (and possibly a few places they’d like to stop at along the way) but aren’t overly concerned with how they get there – and who are therefore inclined to plot as they write, so long as they keep going in the right general direction. It is, as the name suggests, plotting your story as if you were looking at a roadmap (or travelling on a road) and trying to decide the route to take. You know where your car, and story, will be starting from, and you know what place they need to end up. But instead of plotting out the sequence of events before you start writing, or driving, you follow the most logical routes – based on road signs and what the setting allows for, on other traffic and the behaviour of characters, and on the way the streets and shops are laid out and what plot events can occur if you choose to drive by or stop at them. This type of plotting means beginning with a very vague outline, perhaps entirely a few vague ideas in your head, instead of a specific one, and then constantly adjusting (just as you would if you were driving in a new place) to work with the way things pan out. This method requires an author to keep a firm eye on the “road” their story is taking, because it is all too easy to go on excessive detours, because this or that looked interesting, and then find that you have gone completely the wrong way, or must double back, or have been circling a roundabout for three hours …while the rest of traffic tries to figure out if you’re street art or just an idiot.

Conclusion: Some people can write naturally in this method without crashing their story into anything, but for beginner writers who don’t find that it comes naturally it’s probably best saved for later projects (just as rush hour driving in a strange city is best left until later for someone who’s just earned their learners plate). Learners and experienced drivers alike must always keep in mind that every choice of turn, speed, and stop, must help them to get from A to B, else they’re likely to run out of gas or end up with their story driving down a one way street and trying to do an illegal turn. (If you can’t imagine why that would be a bad thing, re-imagine the situation with your readers as very enthusiastically vindictive traffic cops.)

Tapestry Pattern Method: This is a good method for people who like to have lists or plan ahead – as well as for anyone writing for the first time, since its key benefit is that it allows you to keep track of all your plot threads (and where they’re going) without becoming obsessively rigid and stifling the story if it wants to do thing differently. It’s also great for keeping on top of things when you’ve got a lot of different story arcs rising and falling around each other. Unlike the Roadmap Method, the Tapestry Pattern Method means that you work out your plot (and all subplots) before you start writing; like laying out the pattern for a tapestry before you start to weave. Generally speaking, with this method, you write up a chapter list – giving bullet point explanations for what things happen in each chapter – so that you have the frame of the story there in its complete form and can see exactly why each thing happens. This also allows you to rework your plot on the grand scale before you begin so that each particular plot thread gets to arc and fall in the right places, without being left to dangle unwisely long. This is akin to having a pattern to work from – and knowing how much of each type of thread you will need and where to start weaving them in – before you create the tapestry (the story) in its filled in, colourful, complete form. This method, of writing up the chapter list or laying out the patter before you begin, also allows you to do something which truly rigid plotting would not: it allows you to – if necessary or if you made a mistake – miss weaving the weft through some of the warp (or drop a stitch, if you want to use, more common, knitting terminology, instead of weaving) or change the plan of your story slightly because you just can’t fit something somewhere. Even better: it allows you to work out with ease exactly how failing to weave or ignoring a thread, or changing colours, at any one point will alter the entire shape of the story tapestry. This is invaluable; because it means that you stop and work out how to work with it, instead of making one change and then finding out down the line that you’ve made yourself a huge knot because you didn’t factor it in. This also means, in none metaphorical speak, that you don’t merely write up one chapter-by-chapter plot outline and then only look at what each chapter’s section says, but that you re-write the outline as you go along, to compensate for changes you make (allowing you to create a slightly differently patterned tapestry than what you’d originally planned, but avoid ending up with a giant knot or fraying mess).

Conclusion: Tapestry Pattern Method is a good choice for any writer who doesn’t mind planning ahead, but especially for beginner writers and those who have a great many plot threads and character arcs which need to have their page time and pacing carefully monitored. Any writer using this method, however, needs to keep in mind that they are working with fabric and patterns, not hard rules set in stone, and anyone who has trouble changing a plan once it’s set in motion would be advised to treat this method with caution.

Jigsaw Puzzle Method: Unlike the previous two methods, the Jigsaw Puzzle Method is not suitable for any type of story (depending on type of author), but rather is suited to one specific kind of story: those which are inspired by the ending and worked backward. Thus this is the best method for the writing of detective and mystery stories. In this method the author starts out knowing the solution to the puzzle or the end situation of their story – just as a puzzler begins working on a jigsaw puzzle with the complete picture on the puzzle box. Then the author, or puzzler, must take all the individual pieces and figure out how they go together to make that ending or image. As with putting together a jigsaw puzzle, it helps to begin with the frame (or a very rough outline – setting the boundaries of the story). After that, however, the method is not about figuring out the order of things until the end of the process, when the best order for the plot to progress will have naturally revealed itself, but about figuring out how all the different pieces of plot, world, setting, and characterisation fit together. Some will naturally tie into each other (once you know – from the finished image – that character X has something to hide, and possibly how they were hiding it, you will know what clues to must be portrayed of it before its reveal and how that character’s pieces connect to the other pieces around them), but there will be no obligatory order in which to start putting it together (that character’s pieces might all tie into place, so that you know roughly what order their clues get revealed in, but float unattached to the main frame until later – unconnected – work allows you to see where they would fit well and slide them into place). The method, thus, begins by writing up the ending scenario or solution. Then you draw lines backward from each fact or image detail in that ending and writing down the steps required to reach it (and what clues it would leave). You then right up a basic frame (“story begins with detective getting request for aid in mystery”,
detective meets suspects”, “near climax detective is almost murdered”, “detective gathers everyone in a room and explains what went down”). Finally, you jigsaw the various events and clues – taking care to watch how they interlock (what has to come before what, what could trigger or flow into something else, etc) – into that framework until you have a cohesive plot outline which matches the solution or ending image perfectly.

Conclusion: This back to front method is pretty much vital for writing anything with a mystery or puzzle of some kind as the main point, but all the plot-thread-reverse-tracking can be a bit of a headache for those who simply started out knowing where they wanted to end up (came up with the idea for a cool climax or ending first), in which case other methods – such as the Roadmap Method – may be more suitable. The Jigsaw Puzzle Method also requires that the author be able to view the plot in a non-linear fashion, and to move the plot and timeline around to suit the needs of sets of cause and effect which ripple out from the complete solution at the end. While excellent for keeping mysteries from contradicting themselves, it can be a headache for anyone not tied to the restrictions of the puzzle-solving types of genre.

Bricklaying Method: This method is akin to the worldbuilding method of starting from a point of major change in recent history (world, local, or personal history). Compare it to coming across a partially-made garden path, where the brickwork which has been done so far has a distinct pattern to it, but it is abruptly left unfinished and all the materials needed to complete it are sitting to the side: awaiting use. The author, or avid bricklayer, can see what has happened up until now (the bricks already set down in hardened mortar being immovable, each representing some incident or plot point) and can continue on using the same pattern, or alter the pattern, as they please. However, they will always be constrained by the fact that they have only the left over materials to use and so must judge how wise it is to make any given pattern. For example, if the pattern was so far chiefly red bricks with a simple diamond pattern of black bricks worked into it, then the author could add three rows of black only brickwork if they so pleased, but they would likely have none left for the rest of the path (massive action in the middle and then talking only for the rest of the story). This method differs from the Tapestry Pattern Method as there is not pre-laid out pattern etched into the ground for the bricklayer to follow the rest of the way. Instead the bricklayer decides how to direct the path and work the pattern by checking back on what has come before and what options they have left – making it up as they go by analysing and comparing to that which has come before. If the story the path is telling is a personal drama, for instance, a crossing point of two lines of different coloured bricks might represent a pair of characters fighting over some issue, in which case the remaining bricks that sit to the side of the path are each representative of the feelings and arguments those characters might have as a consequence of the fight, and which of those the bricklayer chooses to put down – and in what pattern – decides how, based on the building materials on offer from what came before, the story shall progress.

Conclusion: This method works very well for both those people who like to take stock of what has recently happened and what options are immediately available from that and those who have a visual organisational bent and find it easier to understand their plot by drawing up the lines of events in some artistic rendition of patterned squiggles. The author can use the paper or blank image as the ‘main’ or background bricks their pattern is set into, and then use different colours and shapes to show how the characters and plot points interconnect and what they do. However, for those who do not like to constantly look backward before asking “now what” and/or dislike moving forward without a distinct plan it can be a less than appealing method. Writers using this method should also keep a close eye on how many of each type of “brick” they have left (how many big reveals, new characters, types of plot point, etc, they can get away with).

Obligatory Chess Metaphor Method: Have I mentioned that I hate the cliché old chess metaphor? Never mind. This method is the best for those authors who are trying to plot out a political or strategy-heavy work. In order to use this method successfully, an author has to be able to write without playing any favourites among their characters – and that means treating protagonists and antagonists equally. It works thus: imagine how many sides your story has which are fighting each other (this may be armies, or individuals, or both) and imagine that each one is a different colour and side of a chessboard (this almost inevitably means your imaginary chess set will now be rainbow-hued and possible hexagonal – just go with it). It’s possible that your sides/characters are not all starting with an even number of pieces (which is why, were it slightly better known, a D&D comparison would work better, but oh well). In order to keep track of everything, the author will need to make a timeline as they plot – noting down what each side does at each instance. Now, whichever side instigates the plot takes the first move. The author has to imagine themselves as playing that side of the chess game (white, in this case). After this the author needs to go to their timeline page and write down the “opening play” of Round Zero. Next the author needs to imagine themselves playing each of the other sides of the chess game (we’ll say: black, red, yellow, blue, and green, for this metaphor) and each of those sides gets one move to respond to the white pieces’ move. Now here’s the most important thing: you have to play white as if you’re playing to win, but you also have to play black, red, yellow, blue, and green as if you are playing that side to win. Write down these moves in a line called Round One, under Round Zero. This is where it gets confusing. The author will probably do best to cycle through all the colours/sides in a set pattern for all of the remaining rounds (however many that may be) so that they don’t forget any of them, but each round is played to counter the previous round’s moves (by all the sides) and so if red comes after white in the circuit of playing each side, which the author performs each round, then the author must remember to counter only white’s move from the previous round and not the current move (which, supposedly, is happening at the same time). This also means you have to be ware of moves which could cancel each other out (playing from blue side and putting a rook on one square and then playing as purple and putting a knight on the same “empty” square – next round both sides will need to deal with that clash).

Conclusion: This is an excellent method for those writing politics, plotting (as in being sneaky, not story-plotting), and/or strategy heavy works. However, for it to work effectively the author really must be able to play every side as if they want that side to win and most authors have pre-decided who their heroes and villains are and will rig the game by playing less wisely as their less favoured sides. The key with this method is that you have to accept that your designated hero side might lose if you’re using this method correctly and there’s nothing wrong with that. This is an extremely difficult method to pull off, because you really do have to think every action everyone takes through as if you were playing chess against [as many people as there are characters or sides] at once.

Globetrotting Method: As with worldbuilding before, this method is best used if you have a starting point in the form of a world map and want to figure out your plot from there. This method lends itself to journey focused stories, such as but not limited to; adventures, and tends to follow the basic structure of “I’ve made a really awesome map and named all the places, but [happy place name] is near [evil whatever of doom], I wonder how they handle that? And how does stuff from [place on the left] get to [place on the other side of the map] anyway?”. This, you could argue, isn’t much of a structure at all. But this is the method of plotting for those who love travel and the question of where would be interesting to visit. But author beware: anyone using this method should plan it as if they were genuinely in the shoes of their characters and embarking on a journey (thus considering: best travel route to reach destination, amount of money on hand at the beginning to reach destination, and purpose of travel) else they may drive their readers batty by attempting to visit every place on the map. The map isn’t a checklist. Un-visited places are ripe pickings for sequels. In this case, the map shows you where you are, where you want to go, and what dangers (and other travellers) stand between the start and end. In this way it is very much like the Roadmap Method, but where the Roadmap is a fairly small distance (and a metaphor to boot!), the Globetrotting Method means examining the entire world for an interesting journey and deciding the plot based on actual (not metaphorical) locations and traffic issues, rather than treating the roadways as a guideline for possible routes the story might take. In truth the Globetrotting Method is more akin to the Tapestry Pattern Method, as you begin by deciding what would be an interesting journey/nice pattern, and then make a list of how your plot goes from A to B in a step by step form. It’s just that where the Tapestry Pattern Method can take any type of plot and leaves room for adjusting the plotting and chapter list later, the Globetrotting Method creates a travel checklist “go to A, go through B to C and try not to get mugged there then head to D” (the plan the characters have for their travels) and then corrects it to what will actually happen “go to A, go around B because of confusion with guards at A, go to C and get mugged, pit stop at E to regain funds, go to D by way of M” – all according to what the map makes possible. Then these two alternate journey plans are used as a plot outline or chapter list which is followed from beginning to end.

Conclusion: This is a good method for those who like travel stories and exploration. However, it comes with the risk of trying to go everywhere or taking stupid paths if the map itself is not firmly adhered to. It also comes with the binding issue that maps – once complete and making coherent sense – are damn near impossible to change and therefore hugely constrict the number of options an author has for altering their course or getting out of a corner they’ve written themselves into. If you have created an awesome world and you don’t have a story to tell in it yet, then plotting from a map as starting point can be a great way of developing a story – but you have to keep in mind all of the realities of such a journey.

Central Object Method: This is the last method I will list, but is hardly the least of them. The Central Object Method is the method of plotting you want if you’re starting from an idea for an object or item (which could be a location such as a Temple of Doom, or a rare object like a Crystal Skull, or just a casino vault with lots of money). As you can guess, this method leans heavily toward action, heist, and adventure plots, because the plot is built out – both forward and backward – from a stationary object. Once the author has envisioned an object (which will be the objective of the major characters) they will have to decide where it is. The plot will thus be build backward (how did the main characters get into the room with it, how did they reach the room/cave, how did they get on the plane which they used to reach the room, how did they get to wherever they got the idea to find the item and left for the plane from, where were they before they got the idea to go find the item, by taking the plane to the room and the item inside it). But it will, be this before or after building backward, also be built forward (now that the character is in the room with the item how do they get it, how do they get out of the room, how do they get back to the plane/other mode of transportation, and how do they get back to where they started or where they will end).

Conclusion: This method is very much a start from the middle sort of deal, but for stories which are built on physical items, rather than emotional entanglements, it can be a very good method of plotting. It is important, however, to give equal attention to both the building forward and the building backward, else you might end up with a good beginning and middle of your work, only to have your main character do something insane like survive a nuclear blast in a refrigerator because you paid less attention to building out in that direction. It is also important to remember that either the characters must go in a different direction as they go to the item and away with it, or there must be a strong parallel of movement in both directions (go through the same locations with different plot actions within them).


Posted by on April 15, 2016 in On Writing


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

2 responses to “Methods of Plotting

  1. joynellschultz

    April 16, 2016 at 10:51 am

    Nice Summary! I’m currently reading ‘Writing Blockbuster Plots’ by Martha Alderson while revising the novel I wrote and it has been eye-opening. This is a nice compliment! I think I’ll be more of a planner the next time around. Thanks for sharing!


    • lcmorgenstern

      April 16, 2016 at 11:03 am

      I’m glad this post complimented your other reading well. Thank you for commenting! 🙂



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: