Plotting for Success

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Recently, we have been critiquing first-page submissions here at TKZ and focusing very much on that first ‘inciting incident’ that draws a reader into your book. We’ve emphasised the need to start at the right place (so readers aren’t sitting around twiddling their thumbs through backstory) and to introduce tension, character and exposition in a way that compels a reader to keep reading. 

Achieving all this is no mean feat but for many writers the next critical issue is plotting the rest of the novel so that initial level of tension and excitement doesn’t drift or sag. For me, the hardest part of plotting is keeping things simple (as I have a tendency to overly complicate everything!) and because of this I outline (and re-outline) throughout the writing and editing process. Even if you don’t outline, however, I think you need to have a mental grip on the key elements of plot as you are writing.

Now, I get to make an unsolicited plug for James Scott Bell’s excellent book Plot & Structure: Techniques and exercises for crafting a plot that grips readers from start to finish. In this, Jim summarises the basic plot elements with the acronym LOCK:

  • Lead (the main character that draws readers into the story)
  • Objective (what gives the lead a reason for being in the story – what compels and drives them -often either to get something or to get away from something)
  • Confrontation (the battle between the lead and the opposition – what is preventing the lead from achieving what he/she needs)
  • Knockout (an ending that answers all the major questions and which leaves the reader satisfied)

In so doing Jim neatly encapsulates the critical elements needed for a successful book – particularly a thriller or mystery. As Jim points out, confrontation is the engine of plot and at critical junctures in the book the lead must face his/her battles  in order to transition to the next level of confrontation in the story. 

When facing a sagging middle, I always remember Jim’s comment that middles are all about confrontations and setting up for the final battle to come. This helps me keep focus and tension in those murky middle waters. I also find that right from the start I have the key plot elements in mind and these continually inform the writing process and keep me on track. 

So after all the emphasis we have placed on first-pages recently, it’s now time to revisit the plot that drives the rest of the narrative, and for all of you who submitted (and those of you who didn’t), how would you dissect a successful plot down to its constituent parts? What advice would you give to fellow writers on plot and structure?
What, in your view, are the critical plot elements? 

11 thoughts on “Plotting for Success

  1. This post comes at a good time for me. I’ve only written two books so far. First one I plotted. The second one that I finished in March was SOTP.

    However, the new manuscript I started this month SOTP isn’t working out. I simply don’t know the core details of my story well enough to write it.

    I definitely need to go back to the drawing board and examine the LOCK of my story before I continue on.

    I’m having a Writer Identity Crisis. Can’t figure out if I’m supposed to be plotting or pantsing. Or maybe I’m destined to employ either or depending on the story at hand.

    The writing life is a confusing life. ๐Ÿ˜Ž

  2. I too have had that awful sense mid story that I don’t really have the basics down to keep writing and the LOCK approach did help get me back on track. I am an outliner and I still face the issue…goes to show the writing life is a constant challenge!

  3. Nice post, Clare. Great timing & tie in to our first page critiques.

    I did a post this year on plotting & shared my epiphany on a method that even a pantser like me could find useful. It involved a hybrid of the 3-Act structure “W” & the storyboarding technique that screenwriters use. As a pantser, I would falter around half way in. Usually not because I didn’t know my dark moment when all seems lost for my protag or how I would deliver my knockout ending. I faltered on the transitions inbetween the bigger movements in the plot I had in my brain. So I wanted a visual “thing” I could see & move around, like 3-M stickies on a whiteboard, to move my plot forward as I thought through the issue that got me stuck.

    Jim, the Wise Master of all things Author Craft, suggested that Scrivener is a writer’s software that can accomplish the same visual effect. I did purchase the program & plan to use it on my next project. Thanks, Jim.

    But whether an author is a plotter or pantser, thinking ahead to the bigger plot movements & how the story will transition between “acts” with good pace requires some planning, even if it’s notes scribbled on a cocktail napkin. Cheers.

  4. Brilliant book! The LOCK acronym was instantly burned into my neurons. Plot & Structure is a book I’ve got to read. Writers can always get better and we can always pick up new tricks.

  5. What a pleasant surprise to find my modest little tome the subject of a post by a TKZ blogmate. Thanks, Clare! I have been greatly encouraged over the years with how the book has helped writers. Plotting was a mystery to me when I set out to learn how to write fiction (something I’d been told couldn’t be done). It took me a couple of years and lots of study and writing to begin to get it. Then I wrote an article for Writer’s Digest on LOCK, and it caught on with people, and I eventually expanded it into the book.

    When it comes to middles, I always have students look to the OC: Is the OBJECTIVE strong enough? Does it have “death” on the line (physical, professional or psychological)? And is the opposition stronger and as motivated as the Lead (providing the CONFRONTATION element)?

    That’s why, at around 20k words or so, I “step back” and look at make sure those elements are the strongest they can be. Then I can write scenes that organically relate to central battle of the book. It makes plotting, either by outline or pants, much easier.

    And it’s not just for thrillers. You see the same dynamics in successful romance, literary and, really, most stories that work.

    Thanks again for the post, and the nice comments. I love talking plot.

  6. Joe, I’m still looking for the murderer right along with my detectives! We thought we had him/her a couple of times, but it wasn’t who we thought it was!

  7. I find using a SYNOPSIS as an excellent plotting device. While it can be a dreaded device to produce, the completed outline works two-fold: it works as a sales tool to pitch your story, and it offers the bones on which to flesh out your story. You can change as you go, but at least you insure the proper movement and structure for your work.

  8. Oh, jeez. You mean it won’t just pour straight out of my head, all tied up with a bow around it? Yeah, 20k in and you’re “lost in the woods” – as Leon Russell used to say. It’s a real approach-avoidance conflict, isn’t it?

    Why, this is a lot like working!!

    I love Jim’s writing books. Thanks! Larry Brooks has some good stuff, too.

  9. Nicole–I wrote my debut book NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM building a strong case for each of the five suspects. Towards the end, I could flip a coin & justify any of them. It was so much fun not knowing. I knew how the book would end, but revealing the killer could have gone in five directions.

  10. Sadly I often think I know what is going to happen at the end, only to discover I was wrong! So much for being an outliner. Jim, it is always a pleasure to discuss your invaluable insights into the craft of writing. I only wish I had read your book before I muddled through my own first effort at a novel. Would have made things much easier!

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