A while ago I asked what topics you’d like covered, and Toni mentioned she’d love a post on plotting. As a pantser, I don’t believe I’m the best person to offer advice, so I’ve asked Ebony McKenna, author of Edit Your Romance Novel, to give us a rundown on her process of plotting.
I hope you guys find this post as interesting and helpful as I did ☺
Hi everyone, my name’s Ebony McKenna and I plot my stories before writing them.
I used to think all writers plotted. Because that’s what I did, so it must be what everyone does, yes? After all, how do you know where you’re going – how do you pace the story – unless you plot?
Over the decades of writing, I’ve created a structure that really suits me, and it’s perfect for writing romance novels. It involves 13 main plot points that give the story strength and purpose. It works really well writers who love a little structure before starting. If you’re a pantser (writing by the seat of your pants) you probably still do plot, just not as deliberately. It’s probably a subconscious thing you’ve picked up from reading novels. The plotting often comes later, when you’re revising.
Whatever works for you, keep doing it. For me, plotting is my jam, and PLOT is definitely not a four-letter word.
Why do I plot?
Call it a hangover from high school, where we were encouraged (in some cases severely encouraged) to plan essays before launching into them. “Have a plan,” the teachers said. “Show us where you’re going.” After high school I became a journalist, which meant planning and structure were part of life. Plan the questions I’d ask, have an idea of what the story would be, write it with the most important details first as (here’s the depressing bit) people only read the first three paragraphs of any news story before skipping to the next one.
This was the 1990s, and we had short attention spans back then. *eye roll emoji*
Plotting gives me comfort. It’s how I get things done. How I stay on track. Turns out, I have a really short attention span and I easily lose my way. But I also have an excellent sense of direction and can read road maps without having to rotate them. Alas, I also get hideously car sick, so I am hopeless at directing the driver.
I like to know where I’m going. With a novel-sized story of multiple characters and plot points to keep track of and a growing romance to unfurl as the story goes along, plot is my salvation. It gives me a fair idea of how to build bridges between major moments. It doesn’t mean I know absolutely everything before I start writing. That feels like too much work. But it gives me a couple of big markers to get the story in general shape. Plus, if I know my character is going to find herself locked in a library overnight . . . I will get to know her character and discover exactly why she’s in there. Is she a librarian? A swotty student? Maybe she’s a clumsy thief? I don’t force my characters to ‘be at this point at this time because the plot says so.’ That would be infuriating to the reader. Instead, I examine the character and work out what would motivate her to be in that place at that time. That kind of internal logic is really satisfying.
I hardly ever plot the whole story out though, because I don’t know every little thing.
Most times when a character is fighting for my attention inside my crowded brain, it’s the ones with a truly entertaining ‘call to adventure’ or ‘crazy moment of action’ who end up getting written. This gives me the spark of excitement that I’m possibly on to something. With the Ondine novels, that first spark of excitement was a really strong image of a teen girl with a rat on her shoulder, standing in front of a Duke. For some reason, someone wanted to kill the Duke, and the rat was talking. LOL, talking rat. Suddenly, the rat wasn’t a rat, he was a ferret! Oooh, interesting! Then the ferret jumped down from her shoulder and transformed into a handsome young lad! Instantly I had to know more (and I was pretty sure I was on to something!) I had no idea this would become four books – I had a moment, not even a whole novel. The more I thought about this girl and her talking ferret, the more I wanted to know about her. I wondered what their black moment would be. (They would part, of course … but why would he leave her if they were so happily in love?)
Plotting before I begin writing helps me nail these really pivotal scenes. I imagine what the character has done to find herself in this terrible situation. I let her suffer for a while longer, thinking about how she is going to get out of this fix. She has to be the one to fix her own mess, by the way. Someone else stepping in and making it right is so unsatisfying.
If these major scenes stay with me, I feel confident enough to make a whole novel out of it. I get to know the characters and what they want, what’s holding them back, who is in their way etc. (There are so many more novels in my head, but they have to fight for my attention before I’ll commit to writing them – did I mention I had a short attention span?)
As you’ve no doubt realised, because you’re so smart, a ‘Call to Adventure’ and a ‘Black Moment’ are only two scenes. The way to get go from two scenes to a whole novel is to make sure I have plenty more moments. That’s where I bring in my 13 Main Scenes and have a play. My 13 scenes are:
- Opening Image – Regular world
- Call To Adventure
- State the Plan
- Further Complications
- The Promise of the Premise
- Bad Guys Close In – Things Go Wrong
- Ticking Clock
- Black Moment
- Climb Out of Pit – New Plan
- Storming The Castle
- Closing Image
Despite this magnificent structure, my first draft is still a huge mess. That’s fine, because first drafts are meant to be terrible. But once I’m done with the draft, I understand my characters and know more about how they act and react to things. After a while (it took six drafts with 1916-ish) the characters start telling me the truth. Because until now, they’d been on their best behaviour. And characters lie. Once I know them and they know me, we build trust and they let me in.
So yeah, it took six or seven drafts for me to realise Ingrid in 1916-ish was ADHD. And then another draft for me to realise I have ADHD as well. Things really started to make so much more sense after that.
Structure brings me comfort, and I’m sure on a subconscious level, my readers find that structure satisfying too. There is plenty of room for surprises and plot twists, and it helps me understand my characters. Even if you’re a panster, a love of structure and plotting will help with later drafts. It will get your manuscript into excellent shape to send out on submission (or hire an editor if you’re self-publishing).
Ebony McKenna is the author of the RuBY winning The Girl and The Ghost and is the author of Edit Your Own Romance Novel, which features the 13 Main Scenes.
Thanks Ebs, for your wonderful overview on plotting.
If you’d like more information on Ebs’ process, take a peek at her book, Edit Your Own Romance Novel.
Or you can visit her website at www.ebonymckenna.com
And that’s all folks!
I hope Ebs has given you food for thought when plotting.
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Michelle Somers is a bookworm from way back. An ex-Kiwi who now calls Australia home, she’s a professional killer and matchmaker, a storyteller and a romantic. Words are her power and her passion. Her heroes and heroines always get their happy ever after, but she’ll put them through one hell of a journey to get there.
She lives in Melbourne, Australia, with her real life hero and three little heroes in the making, and Emmie, a furry black feline who thinks she’s a dog. Her debut novel, Lethal in Love won the Romance Writers of Australia’s 2016 Romantic Book of the Year (RuBY) and the 2013 Valerie Parv Award. The second in her Melbourne Murder series, Murder Most Unusual was released in February 2017.
In between books, she runs workshops – both face-to-face and online – for writers wanting to hone their craft. The first book in her Simply Writing Series, Simply Synopsis, is changing the way writers craft this vital, yet perplexing, writing tool. And through her Simply Writing series of blogs, she hopes to simplify so much more.