More Than You Wanted to Know About Plotting

(Crossposted from Fangs Fur & Fey where the Topic of the Month is:
How did you plan the last novel you wrote (and successfully finished)?
Outline? Synopsis? Summary? Divination Rod? Nuthin’ at all?)

I’m a plotter. I love plotting. I plot and plot and plot. My bookshelf overrunneth with plotting books. I’m convinced if I discover the perfect plotting method, writing the – you know – story will be easy. Yes, ha. Until I find perfection, though, I’ve used this complicated (yet still half-assed enough to please some pantsers) method to plot my last three urban fantasy romances (um, only one of which sold, so caveat lector):

High concept:
I usually start with a vague idea. Often a “what if.” I squash it around until it sounds like something that could fit in the TV Guide listings, about 25 words or fewer. I start with:

(Somebody) wants (something) but (can’t have it because).

Then I try to dress it up with cool nouns and punchy verbs and a few particularly shiny adjectives. People hate high concepts, log lines, whatever you call them, since distilling to one line can suck the life out of an idea. But in addition to being a plotter, I’m a plodder. It takes me a long time to tell a story, so I need that simplicity to keep me on track.

Creating character:

Having been a reporter in a previous incarnation, I have the five W’s for my major characters, that breaks down like this (more explanations after the graph):


Who is she?

Motto (See 1 below)

When do we meet her?

Main issue (See 2 below)

What does she want?




Ordinary World

Special World

Why does she want it?




Ordinary World

Special World

How come she can’t have it?




Ordinary World

Special World

Where is she going in her life?

Growth arc (See 4 below)

1. Motto
The motto is a handle – in the trucker sense too – for my characters. The motto is deeper than the 2-word adjective-noun combo that you sometimes see for character descriptors. Luke Skywalker’s descriptor might be restless teen, and his motto could be “May the Force be with you.”
Where to find this: Clues for the motto comes from the character’s main issue, outlook on life, or lesson to learn.
Purpose: To give me an intrinsic sense of the character’s inner workings and a reminder of the default position the character returns to in times of stress.

2. Main issue
The hero’s and heroine’s main issue or hang-up is the root of what’s holding them back and causing them troubles. In a romance, the love story pushes this hot button for them until they’re forced to address their issue.
Where to find this: I look in the hero’s and heroine’s internal motivation for clues to their main issues.
Purpose: To add depth to and conflict for the characters and contribute to the pacing of the plot.

3. Goal, Motivation and Conflict
If you’ve been in RWA (Romance Writers of America) five minutes you’ve heard of Debra Dixon’s great book GMC: Goal Motivation Conflict. It’s short, simple, elegant, and I recommend reading it since I’ve kind of messed it up, adding an ordinary world GMC (before the circumstances of the plot spin the poor character into chaos) and a special world GMC. And then things get even more complicated because the special world goal often changes in the course of the story. Like going from “get the hell away from these vampires” to “now I’m a vampire and I have to save the world.” But there’s not enough room in the chart for that.

4. Growth arc
The arc tracks the changes in my character forced by the external plot and interaction with the lover. It’s similar to that word game where you change the word “black” to “white” changing only one letter at a time.
Where to find this: One good weakness to exploit is the character’s worst fear. If they start the story paralyzed by a fear and are changed enough to confront it at the end, I figure they’ve grown as people. For the middle steps, I consider how my characters are going to address their main issues. Most likely, they’ll screw up at first, dealing with their issue poorly and making things worse. They’ll only figure it out when the stakes are at their highest and all seems lost.
Purpose: Keeps the pace and stakes of the story moving forward and makes sure I don’t have a static character or – just as bad – one that has a sudden, inexplicable change of heart half a page from the end of the book.

I plot it like this:

Starting point (chapter 1)

Unable to confront fear

Baby steps (Act 1)

Face one, lesser aspect of the fear

Insert intervening steps here (Act 2 – damn the sagging middle)

Wins & losses as dictated by plot

Epic fail (dark moment)

Triggered by reluctance to face lover?

Final attempt (climax)


End point (resolution/dénouement)

Show concrete detail to epitomize change

They say the villain is the hero of his own story, so he gets the same treatment with 1 through 4.

5. Inter-relational conflict between the hero and heroine
This is the “desert island conflict” that would keep the hero & heroine apart even in the absence of the external plot. Pure, classic romantic opposition, like the cowboy and the city girl, the vampire and the Bain de Soleil model.
Where to find this one: It doesn’t seem to come as naturally as you’d think. Baggage from the past, current personal philosophies, and future goals can all add to inter-relational conflict.
Purpose: The inter-relational conflict – and its resolution – is the heart of a romance.

Into the thick of the plot:

I use pieces of author Carolyn Greene’s “The Plot Doctor” workbook with a few changes from Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey and Robert McKee’s Story: Substance, Structure, Style & The Principles of Screenwriting. This only gets the bones down, but it’s enough for me to write a proposal.

1. The opening scene
Which hopefully is the inciting incident – the “day that is different” – or very close to it. I try to start as close to the action as I can without confusing the reader. This is usually closer than my first drafts would lead you to believe, which is why I keep trying to plot them tighter and tighter. Damn those first BS chapters! (BS = back story)

2. The call to adventure
The challenge the characters can’t resist for whatever reason, the event or motivation that keeps them from walking away from my book.

3. Major turning points and mid point
These as the end of Act 1, the middle of the story, and the end of Act 2 in a three-act structure. They are really big events that keep the story moving forward, the points of no return, when everything changes and there is no going back.

4. Major relationship points
● First kiss
● First consummated love scene
● PCH (post-coital horror): The moment where I, as the writer, ruin the perfect beauty that is the hero and heroine lovemaking by throwing in an internal and/or external wrench.
● The moments where the hero and heroine realize that they love the other, even if – especially if – they don’t admit it, and the moment where they do admit it aloud.

5. The dark moment
When everything is lost. I think the longer I do this, the more it seems that this is THE key scene in my stories. Here’s where it all comes together, and it’s the perfect test of all these other elements we’re talking about. If I have a weakness in my heroine’s motivation, or my hero’s issue, or the major roadblocks my villain has put up for my characters, here’s where everything will fall apart, sending me back to the beginning.

6. The epiphany and sacrifice
When the characters smack their foreheads and go, “This is what I’ve always wanted, but now I see it’s not what I wanted at all.” There’s also the realization of what they can still do to win the day, except that it will require a sacrifice they couldn’t make before.

You can see how what you come up with here, so late in the storytelling, can affect all the character work you did earlier. If the heroine’s sacrifice requires asking for help, then her issue should revolve around something like independence and the hero might be someone who challenges her concept of independence. If her major issue is men in life-threatening jobs, then asking for help isn’t a big sacrifice.

7. The resolution
In the resolution, I check to see if all the threads I’ve woven tie together at the end. As I’m brainstorming resolutions, I often find dangling threads that I have to either weave in earlier, snip out entirely or dye a different color.

That gives me the bare bones outline for a story. Before I start a first draft, I also try to add a few of the major muscle groups, including…

1. Pivotal scenes
I sketch out setting and mood and whatnot for important scenes like the love scene or the dark moment.

2. Rising stakes & escalating tension
I make sure I’m closing doors behind my characters and driving them ever forward. I want the rocks I throw at our characters to get bigger and sharper. So I brainstorm ways to make things worse. While I’m contemplating worse and worser, I always think of the movie Pitch Black, which goes like this:


Relative worseness

Carrying dangerous prisoner


But it’s Vin Diesel


Crash land on desert planet


Prisoner escapes

Really sucks

Monsters on planet

Really, really sucks

But they are confined by darkness


Except the suns are setting, one by one

Uh oh

Luckily we have lights

Yay, technology!

The lights are running out

You didn’t pack the 9-volts?!?

But we have torches!

Yay, fire!

And then it starts to rain

Ah crap

The rain scene makes me laugh out loud, it’s played with such perfect timing. And it’s a great reminder that, see?, things can always get worse.

3. Theme
I love theme and subtext, but I usually find them by default. When a concept – like trust or following your passion – comes up enough times in brainstorming and plotting, that’s a good indication that my story is tending toward that theme. I can always strengthen it by running through all the above steps again. Did I mention I love to plot?

From these pieces, I have enough to write the back-cover blurb and at least a short synopsis. From there, it’s a short jump to an outline. And it’s just one more jump (ha again) to a complete manuscript.

Speaking of the actual writing:

When I can delay no longer by plotting the plot, I delay by plotting out scenes. Yes, it’s a sickness. Blame Excel.







Plot description


Her arc

His arc

Bad guy

Scene notes

Act I

Limited awareness

Call to adventure

Reluctance to change

Overcoming reluctance


Turning point I

Committing to change
— Crossing threshold

Act II

Experimenting with change — Approach inmost cave



Pinch I




New Rules

Crossing 2nd Threshold

Ordeal (attempt big change)

Pinch II

Reward/ Consequences
of attempted change/
Rededication to change

Turning point II

Setback & info learned/
Pursuit on the Road Back

Retracing failure/ 2nd Ordeal


Worst of consequences/
Crossing 3rd Threshold


Ritual death/
Death of Dreams



Resurrection/ Final
attempt — Mastery


Resolution/ Return
with the Elixir

If you’ve read this far, you’re doing better than I do. About halfway through the chart above, I get really bored with the whole plotting thing and jump out of the frying pan. Which is about the time I remember that part about things getting worser. By then it’s too late, though, and all I can do is type and mutter, “I’ll fix it in revisions.”

But that’s a different post. If you have questions about any of the terms, ask in comments and I’ll make something up.

15 thoughts on “More Than You Wanted to Know About Plotting

  1. This is awesome, Jessa. My pantser side dominates, but, interestingly, I recognize these steps because they take place in my head as I work. I’m helplessly addicted to that feeling of discovering the story as I write. But there are serious trade-offs with the pantser-dominant approach – like mid-manuscript panic attacks and first drafts that need plenty of work!

  2. Oh, my gosh, that was a thrill to read. How geek-ish am I to love everything I just read. Hands down Jessa, your plotting method should be a must for every plotter out there. Great Job!!!

  3. Hi Jessa! I “met” you on Writerspace the other night. Thank you so much for taking the time to organize your plotting system and putting it out there for us to see.

  4. Jessa,
    What a great tool. Fun read too. My eyes glaze over with craft books after awhile, and yes, I have them all too. You make it very clear. Think it would save the “wall” that sometimes comes up because I haven’t thought things through adequately. Thanks! Can’t wait to read the book.

  5. I don’t know what I am. Lost, maybe? I can’t plot too much or I become bored, but if I don’t plot enough I suffocate in the sagging middle, or worse, I never make it to the finish line so I can revise and fix. I keep reading about plotting and trying to find some perfect, a-ha! worksheet. Makes me feel inept. I love my inner critic!

    I opened the most recent Savvy Authors newsletter, read your article and laughed, then checked out your website and found this article. I dig the way you’ve broken it down – it makes sense to my pea brain. So what if I’ll never use your spreadsheet, everything else appeals and makes sense, did I already mention that?

    Everyday I spend in our global writing community, the better it gets. I am repeatedly stunned by how giving writers are with what works for them. Thanks, Jessa.

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  7. Jessa,

    This is a delightful read; to the point, effective and hands the necessary information on a platter -so to speak! I love that you have taken time and put this all down in excel -such dedication; I’m trully inspired!!!

    I have to admit I do not use such formulas for my writing but having gone through the above; I have noticed, subconsciously, I have followed your guidelines. Plotting is great and I always try to work out the plots in books and films before it gets there so its all fab!!!

    Thank you for great wisdom and also a visonary way of putting it all down on paper/print etc… I look forward to more insights from you and hope to provide similar insights of my own -if and when I get down to it..

    Keep up the good work!!! 🙂

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  10. Of course my eyes glaze over when I have to start actually plotting when I’m a definite pantser, but I find that half way through I need to plot something… Usually I end up plotting backwards from the end to the middle. But I love how you’ve set out your plotting ideas.

  11. I’m extremely impressed with your writing skills and also with the layout on your blog. Is this a paid theme or did you modify it yourself? Anyway keep up the excellent quality writing, it is rare to see a great blog like this one today.

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