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ENTRY

The mystery of plotting, the plotting of mysteries
August 29, 2008

At a book festival several years ago, I attended a session with the author Robert B. Parker. He mostly writes hard-boiled PI and detective novels, notably the Spenser series. He spent a lot of time talking about dealing with Hollywood (another story) but one thing he mentioned stuck in my mind. He said he'd recently changed his plotting style. Previously he worked from a detailed plot outline, now he doesn?t work from an outline at all. He didn't elaborate much beyond that other than it allowed him to go where the story was taking him.

Personally, I fall somewhere between the two extremes. I develop a rough outline of a few things that will happen in a chapter or section. The notes are primarily focused plot, that is, what moves the story forward. At this stage I don't need to get into what the character is feeling or how they are developing. Those elements of the character should arise from the action and reactions of the plot. All together I usually have one or one-and-a-half pages of plot notes. Certainly not a detailed outline. Here is an example of my notes for a chapter for a novel I'm working on:
Mariko practicing with string quartet, conflict with her and other members, all high strung except one who is laid back cooperative, she is borrowing another violin, talks with them all but focuses on the one the symphony hall employee noticed, she sees reason for rivalry
One of the key parts of this rough plotting process for me is to have an idea of the ending. It gives me something to shoot for when building the rest of the plot. I usually develop a few other main plot points I strategically place in the outline. These plot points propel the story forward (sometimes backward). They move toward a surprising yet powerful and inevitable ending. Like in a good mystery.

When I'm writing the story, the rough outline gives me something to hang onto, focus my efforts. But I'm not a slave to it. I'm always monitoring my satisfaction (see Theory of Satisfaction entries) Not that I always stick to the ending I foresaw, in fact, I'd say rarely does the book end up looking much like the initial outline. Characters become fully formed (or not) and can take the plot in different directions.

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COMMENTS

Number of comments: 3
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Jo Reed
Hmmm, kind of how I do it, but I lean more toward a "let things unfold" kind of outline. It's more like exploring, discovering, less like architecture.

Todd
I like that description, Jo.

Jo Reed
Hmm, the first thing I've said you like...

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