Guest Post: M.Sean Coleman — The Plot Thickens

“A plot is just one thing after another, a what and a what and a what.” —Margaret Atwood.

On several writer's groups of which I am a member, a question which appears from time to time, causing much debate, is whether fellow writers are plotters or pantsters. I have to admit, I had to look the latter up the first time I read it—it refers to a writer who flies by the seat of their pants, allowing the story to unfold as it comes.

This is not for me. I like to plot. I like my coloured record cards and coloured pens, my columns and my graphs. I plot visually first, with crazy sketches and scribbles charting the character arcs throughout the story, and overlaying them where appropriate.

Plotting diagram
When timelines interact and collide...

Then I move onto record cards, and fill in the detail. I spend between two weeks and a month plotting solidly every day. I write the main scenes out on their own cards and lay them out in order. At the beginning of each plotting session, I read through all the cards looking for gaps to fill, shuffling, adding, and removing scenes, until the pace and story feel right.

I keep the sentences brief—little more than bullet points. This means I don't get stressed about dumping whole scenes, even chapters. I learned the hard way that I get too attached to a clever phrase or lovely scene if I've written it out in full. I find it too hard to delete them, even when I know they're impeding the story.

record cards of scenes laid out in a grid
The plotting table

So I keep it short and simple until there is a well structured plot for the whole book. Everything stays as bullet points on those little cards until I am happy with the pacing, plot and character development and then I turn to the computer, create all the scenes as blank templates, and start writing.

Each scene has a silly title to remind me what it's really about, like 'Chasey McChase Scene', or 'Oh Look, An Angel', 'Everybody's Dead–Part 1'. This means I have a strange file tree full of spoilers and flippant comments about important plot points, but I find it helps me to focus on the essence of the scene and not get too hung up on getting everything right in that first draft.

This is the point in my writing where I let the story unfold and find its own pace. Perhaps because I am happy that I have a decent map of the path I will walk down with the book by this stage, I feel happier to let the writing flow.

Despite the weeks of rigorous planning, this is where the surprises tend to come. This is where writing, for me, becomes fun. Characters turn out to be undercover agents, or the killer's sidekick, or suddenly—and most unexpectedly—dead.

The thing is, I don't think I would find this stage fun at all, if I didn't have my route map to fall back on. I can go off on these little journeys of discovery, but if they prove to be red herrings or false starts, I still have the skeleton to go back to, and that means I have the space to create.

Everyone has their own process for plotting a story but, over the years, I have found that this works for me and allows me to power through the words to the end of the draft. Just one thing after the other, as Margaret Atwood said.


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