Thursday, October 27, 2005

WORKSHOP - The A, B, Cs of Plotting

by Michelle Monkou

This mini-session is designed for the beginner storyteller. There are marvelous resources for help with the advance skillset that do not require a reinvention of the wheel. For the young (in experience, not age) writer who has the passion to give the characters or story in her head a chance to breathe and grow, this session is for you.

Basic Tools:

Characters – always a good thing in any story. There are books on characterization that can guide you on creating three dimensional characters. Based on the story, you will need a hero, heroine – these are the winners, whether it is a materialistic win or victory after a gut wrenching emotional journey.

The bad guy/girl – remember not to make the character bad, just for the sake of being bad. Think about current day court cases about a serial killer. You find out about their troubled childhood that may give way to their current criminal adulthood.

After creating the major characters, who will be the minor players? Although they are secondary, they must still serve a purpose. There is no room for walk-ons to a scene. Any friends or family (characters) members who desire a role must come prepared to work that scene and move it forward to the ultimate goal.

Setting – the location, time period, or region is important to know early on. If it is an historical piece, research customs, clothing, culture, etc. This cannot be ignored. Even in contemporary stories, proper research may need to be conducted to show differences between someone living in urban New Jersey to someone living in the wilds of Montana. Setting is the character in the story that may not have a vocal cord, but still has a voice that sets a tone. Give this element its due.

Goals – once the characters and their backgrounds are in place. The goals should be developed. There are two types of goals - internal and external. The internal goal is the soft stuff. Think inner feelings, desires, secret wishes. It can conflict with the external goals. Example: A woman struggles to be independent after her messy divorce. She will rely on no one ever again.

The external goal must be tangible, concrete, material. It should have a level of urgency so that the character has to complete these tasks, in order to achieve success. Example: A woman borrowed money from a loan shark. She needs a job, any job, to get the money before he comes after her and her little boy in 48 hours.

Tension/Conflict/Obstacles – Think about the music score to a movie, about the ups and downs, the crashing cymbals. The score can heighten the emotion, give forewarning, escalate the tension of a scene. Well, each crisis, challenge, attack on the goals of the characters add layers of drama. Adding drama for drama sake irritates the reader. You must stretch the characters so they develop and continue on their journey to being a better person or a worse person. But they have to change. The obstacles provide the legitimacy of that change.

Resolution – all good things come to an end. You must wrap up loose ends. Even if the story will have a sequel, the writer still has to provide a certain amount of closure for situations and characters. Think about a thunderstorm that begins with small rumbles and sporadic lightning. Then it builds to a climatic point when, even as an adult, you are ready to run for cover as the thunder shakes the room. Once the fury has been spent, the storm winds down, until it is simply a soft rumble with the sun peeking out from behind the clouds.


Plots are not made in stone. Your plot is designed to get you started, provide a general path. However, allow the story to unfold and head off a path that you not have intended. Your re-write is the time for you to reshape, delete, or accept what you have written.

Know your genre. If you are writing mainstream fiction, then you are not under certain constraints that may be specific to a genre. However, if you’re writing romance, make sure that there is a romance. If you writing mystery, make sure there is a mystery. In other words, do your homework by reading and researching the genre you have selected as your medium.

Don’t lock yourself to one style. Sometimes a writer claims one style to plot even though they may not ever have written a book or they used one style to plot the only book they wrote. It might take several attempts to determine what is your style. Are you the type to plot with a loose framework and then fill in the details as you write? Are you the type to plot down to the smallest detail about the type of trees in a particular scene? Or are you somewhere in the middle? There is no right way. Your best friend, successful author A, may have style that works for her, but doesn’t necessarily work for you.

Other creative outlets may hold the key. Read plays, look at movies, study poems. Study how the person got their point across to the reader. What techniques did they use? What emotions did it elicit? My favorite task is to review the behind-the-scenes of a movie, which is provided on most DVDs. When you hear the director’s or screenwriter’s perspective of the story and why he used certain techniques, you get a better understanding of how to plot and reveal the story’s nuances over a period of time.

Plotting Ideas:

Magazines – doesn’t matter if the magazine is gender or relationship focused. It can be a magazine on architecture for selecting the perfect house or setting. Vacation magazines like AAA’s monthly magazine provide great locations, along with the history and key tourist spots.

Newspaper Articles – Gives the everyday reports on politics, lifestyle, and crime.

Asking what if – take a tried and true story or idea and turn it up side down. Maybe switch roles or occupations of the characters. Introduce new and interesting characters at odd moments. Think how you react when you hear juicy gossip. Those are the elements you need to copy to make your “what if’s” explode off the pages and keep readers turning the page.

Plotting Partners – this is different from critique partners or critique groups. A plotting partner is specifically for this task. The person is your sounding board with no censoring. Nothing is too outrageous. I’ve gone on weekend plotting sessions where we book a hotel room and develop a plot from start to finish in a weekend.

Fairy Tales – Invest in a couple fairy tale books or children’s books. They all have great themes which occur in adult stories. However the stories, as basic as they appear, can provide the first spark in developing your plot. Take Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, etc., and change a character, the setting, the time period. Add a mother, father, jealous spouse. Change the genders. Now think how these stories take on a new flavor that can get your creative juice flowing with a vibrant story.

Additional Resources:

Prescription For Plotting by Carolyn Greene. This is a work manual that has comprehensive explanation and exercises to assist with plotting. The manual is sold on her website at

Techniques of a Selling Writer by Dwight Swain. Covers more than plotting, but all helpful in the overall goal of telling a good story.

The Screenwriter’s Workbook by Sid Field. Easy to understand instruction on writing and developing screenplays. Information is also transferable to the writing fiction.

Michelle Monkou
Island Rendezvous (Sequel to Finders Keepers) - April 2006, BET Books
Sweet Surrender - September 2006, Kimani Press


Anonymous said...

Hi Michele,

I'm struggline with a plot line. I know that my character has changed, but I want to show that her past in still intruding on her present. The man in her life will be very troubled by her past. I know that I want to introduce the conflict in the story, but I'm unsure when I should do this? If I introduce this convict midway through the plot, will it work. Or if I introduce it at the end, will the reader feel as if she has been fooled. I'm uncertain where to go.

M Monkou said...


Try to introduce your characters early in the story. How many points of views are you planning to use? One option is to use the convict's point of view also. So that even if the convict and the woman don't interact, the reader still knows that this person will intersect the woman's life at some point.

If you choose not to give the convict his point of view, then the woman's experience must still touch on the convict or his influence on her life. So that when you do introduce him, it's not a shock to the reader's system.

Introducing any characters or new elements at the end of the story will make for lots of unhappy readers. There will be a feeling that the story's ending is rushed.


Shelia said...


Do you think it will be too confusing to the reader to have the story told in 1st person from 4 different point of views...if each chapter focuses on that character's point of view.

Shelia (#16)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the help. I have the begining plotted and some of the middle, and I know where I want to end. However, I don't think the story will be long enough to fit most of the guidelines. Do you have any suggestions in terms of plotting to extend the story?

M Monkou said...


1st person from 4 different points of view is a complex task, but not impossible. Try it for a couple chapters, then share it with a few folks to see if they can follow. Don't just take - yes, I liked it or no, it didn't work for me - as answers. Dig to see what stopped or motivated the reader to continue.

Everyone says the unique things are impossible or warn writers against it, until one rebel breaks the mold. But be cognizant that you may have to go back to the tried and true, if it doesn't work.


M Monkou said...


I'm going to assume that the story warrants a longer plotline. As such, I would insert from crisis/challenges for the character(s). What scares them? What would make them break down and cry? How can you steal their dream? Would losing someone special or the fear of losing someone make them stronger or weaker? Depending on your character and direction of your story, these could be additional scenes that provide substance and are not just fillers for the story.


Shelia said...

Thanks Michelle. I will do what you suggested.


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