Last week I spoke about my preliminary work I do before real plotting. I also explained how James Wymore abuses our national symbol and terrorizes other writers in their homes. Also, I reduced my diet coke intake by half, so I might have been hallucinating a wee bit.

But that’s neither here nor there. I also did the prelim work for my next novel, sketching out characters and themes. This week, I take those initial ideas and bang them into the foundation of a plot.

Phase One: Real Brainstorming.

In this phase I write down everything that might help me in plotting. Names of groups and places (maybe). Concepts. I assign all the archetypes to characters if I didn’t in the last step, even if I’m going to use a more complex character model, because I want to make sure that every Point of View is covered at least generally at this point. If all the main ways of looking at the world aren’t covered, then the book will make an incomplete argument. In the end, I’m making a statement about which of these conflicting forces are better than the others (but not always with the same answer from book to book). To ignore an argument is to shortchange the reader.

In one book in the past, I wanted to use greek names for things, so I started a list at the top of the document where I listed all the words I might need in the book and that they meant. For interest, if I wanted to remember what a greek general was called, I’d write Polemarch=General a the top. I used this list all the way through writing that book.

After I get those initial notes down, I brainstorm all my plots. Some of them have to be there:

Overall Story Throughline…

Main Character Throughline…

Impact Character Throughline…


Main vs. Impact Character Throughline…

Some don’t have to be, but usually the book will be worse without them:

Love Story …

Then I might put down ones that are specific to this story:

Drug use plotline…

The Secrets of the Main Group that must be revealed …

Antagonist Plotline …

Plot coupon plot line …

I might have a theme I’m trying to cover. For instance, this book will be a comedy, so I created a list of all the terrible gaming clichés that didn’t make it into the first book. This will be put in as a list of gags to build into the overall scenes.

If one of my themes was loss, I might have:

Ways of Dealing with Grief …

Like the joke plotline, this one wouldn’t have a full arc, but I’d be looking to make sure everything on the list is seen in one character or another through the book.

Now I go through and I brainstorm a plotline for each plot or subplot. They might look like this:


Bad guys start killing people.

Good guys are standing against them. (Are they really altruistic?)

Bad guys start slaughtering good guys.



  • MC loses everything. Gets closed off from his feelings
  • MC becomes a smith.
  • MC must try to heal young girl.
  • Etc.


  • Impact character plagued by nightmares, show why.
  • Impact character’s nightmares go away whenever he fights the thing that terrorized him as a kid, but can’t see that himself.
  • Etc.

MC vs IC:

  • IC convinces MC to try to save the world.
  • MC sees something that makes him agree.
  • MC figures out the secret of IC’s nightmares, tries to convince IC of the truth.

At this point I don’t even care if they are in order. I might have:

  • Travel to locale 1
  • Travel to locale 2
  • Travel to locale 3

…Just because I know I’m going to hit a lot of places. I can shuffle them into the right places in the next stage.

I might make sure that at least the following happens:

  • Act One: MC enters new life at the end.
  • Act Two: MC moves toward goal.
  • Must have a mid act twist, bring the whole story into a new light.
  • Must have an end of act revelation or twist.
  • Act Three: Must be really exciting. Probably involves intercut storylines.

I might not even fill these out. I could have those very lines in the plot as placeholders.

In fact at this point, there are probably a lot of placeholder scenes. For instance, my entire climax might look like this:

  • Love Interest POV: Integrated climax.
  • Contagoinst POV: Integrated climax.
  • IC POV: Integrated climax.
  • MC POV: Integrated Climax.
  • Love Interest POV: Integrated climax.
  • Contagoinst POV: Integrated climax.
  • IC POV: Integrated climax.
  • MC POV: Integrated Climax.
  • Love Interest POV: Integrated climax.
  • Contagoinst POV: Integrated climax.
  • IC POV: Integrated climax.
  • MC POV: Integrated Climax.

I don’t care if a plot is complete now. I’m just getting everything I can on paper. I might even turn on numbering so I know how many ideas I have.

As a general rule, the first act shouldn’t be no longer than a quarter of the book (I like shorter, if I can swing it. In a movie a half hour of setup is fine, but in a big fat fantasy, 150 pages of it might be a little much.) The third act might well be the last quarter of the book (150 pages of running fight scenes aren’t too much if you do them right, just make sure you do.) The second act is everything in between.

If I have a small amount of chapters, like 12, I actually start the climax one chapter early and leave the last chapter for the denouement. If I have a lot of chapters, I just start the climax at the three-quarter mark.

Another thing I often do in this step is copy the sample novel plot out of Dramatica. In the next stage, I’ll look at every scene in that plot and make sure that its represented somewhere in one of my plotlines. I don’t want to put in a love story that has no complications, for instance. How boring is that? Plus, I know that some things have to happen in certain types of stories. For instance in action story, the MC must meet the bad guys early on and kick some minion ass, so the reader gets that dose of wish fulfillment that makes them want to be lik the characters. After that, the MC must have his ass handed back to him by the bad guys in some way, or else the threat isn’t big enough. They need to get out alive, but it should seem like they couldn’t do that again. Finally, the MC should probably have his moment of doubt and fear.

My version of the Dramitica sample plot, in the next Death by Cliché, is going to be a bit more cinematic. I want the book to be paced just like a movie, so I stole the beat structure straight out of the great movie plotting book Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. I figured out about how many chapters the book will have, converted that to number of pages in a screenplay and wrote it out as a plot called “Cat Saving for Fun and Profit.” That gave me a list of what chapters should mark what major plot developments.


Finally, I want to do a bit on the terrible tropes we see with female characters. I didn’t want to miss any big ones so I went ahead and groupsourced that on Facebook, putting the question out there for all my female friends to answer. This generated a healthy list.

It’s not pretty. It doesn’t make any sense. This is the point where I’m most likely to be convinced that this book just won’t work. But it doesn’t matter. This stage isn’t about good ideas. It’s about lots of ideas.

We’ll start making them make sense next week.

[originally posted at:]

The next installment awaits...
Slouching Towards Amazon: LTUE Post Mortem