Nathan Bransford, Author

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Do You Have a Plot?

It's really difficult to start a novel. Where do you begin? How many pages should be in a chapter? Should you outline? Should you just go for it? What about chapter titles? Chapter titles or numbers, which should it be?

Eventually these questions turn into extreme procrastinatory measures (if procrastinatory is not a word, consider it invented), such as a search for the perfect quote to put on its own page at the start of the novel, endless adjustment of margins and formatting, and "research" in the form of checking one's e-mail.

Having worked with many authors in the past, it's fascinating to see how many different styles there are. You have the planners, who outline every last detail ahead of time and churn out an almost-perfect first draft, and then you have the revisers, who write their way to what the novel is about, figure it out around page 150, and then go back and scrap the first 150 pages and rewrite them.

But in my opinion, there is absolutely one thing every writer should start with before they begin writing. And that's a plot.

And do you have a plot? No really, do you?

Multiple choice quiz! Hope you did your homework.

Which one of these is a plot:
a) Four women find redemption and love on a trip to Italy
b) A young man comes of age in an unpronounceable kingdom
c) A man and his video game collection discover the true meaning of love
d) Four friends realize they hate each other

The answer: none of the above!

These are not plots. They are themes. (Or at least what I call themes.) So many times when I ask people what's the plot they tell me what the novel is about. "It's about a young man who comes of age and discovers the meaning of life!" (note: also not a plot) All of these themes are descriptions of what is happening beneath the surface of the novel. It's what the novel is about. When I ask for the plot I don't want to know what the novel is about. I want to know what happens.

So let's try that again. Spot the plot in these:

a) Snakes get loose on a plane
b) A cat with a hat arrives to entertain children
c) A crazy general is hiding out in the jungle
d) The world is going to end when the Mayan calendar runs out in 2012 (because the Mayans were right about EVERYTHING)

Which is the plot?

Also none of the above. (I'm so predictable.)

These are not plots -- they are hooks! Or premises! Whichever label you prefer! They are a starting place. Also not a plot. A premise is just that -- a starting point. But where does the novel go from there?

Ok. So. Enough quizzes. What makes a plot?

Think of a book like a really big door, preferably one of those Parisian ones that are thick and heavy and last hundreds of years. Here's how it breaks down. Bullet point time!

- The premise is what happens to knock the door ajar. Something sets the protagonist's life out of balance. Preferably something really intriguing or like totally deep man.
- The climax is when the door closes. Maybe the protagonist made it through the door, maybe they didn't make it through the door but learned a really great lesson about door closing, maybe the door chopped them in half.
- The theme is how the person opening the door changes along the way.

What's the plot? The plot is what keeps the door open!! Why can't that person close the door?

So basically, plot is a premise plus a major complication that tests the protagonist. It's what opens the door plus what's keeping the door from being closed.

Check out these examples:

GILEAD: An aging man writes a letter to his young son (premise) because he doesn't think he'll live long enough for his son to really know him (complication -- also don't you want to cry already?)

THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET: A young orphan in Paris wants to repair an automaton because he thinks it will give him a letter from his deceased father (premise -- also tears), but in order to do so he must avoid the Station Inspector and enlist the help of a mysterious toy store owner (complication).

A good plot starts with an interesting premise and an interesting door-block. A great plot also implies a quest and a resolution, which is what makes the reader want to read more. We don't like chaos, we want to see order restored, we want an interesting journey along the way, and we want to see the ways a character changes after facing these obstacles.

So when you're starting a novel, don't just think of a theme and leave it at that. The complications are everything.

Wow, that turned into a long post.


bookboy28 said...

Yeah, but wow, that was really helpful. And as an English teacher, I give you an A for your definition of dramatic structure.

Emily said...

Nathan, you've outdone yourself. Great post, and funny, too! Plot is indeed the pitfall of many beginning writers, which I bitterly experienced myself with my first novels. Now I map out the plot before I start writing, and boy, what a difference!

Anonymous said...

OK, but what's that old literary saw about there only being 3 truly original stories? What are they? Quest...what else?

Ah....and have any of you messed around with these software based "plot generators"?

I write thrillers myself, which are inherently plot-driven, so premise and plot are extremely important to me.

Gwen said...

It may be long, but it is FABULOUS.

I also just realised how little I actually understand the fine points of writing...

Off to hit the books!

Thanks, Nathan. :D So, so helpful.

Will Entrekin said...

Long, perhaps, but also extraordinary and arguably necessary; too few writers understand the nuances of plot, and too many cling desperately to the idea of the "plotless" novel. You know, because "real life doesn't have plots! It's messy."

Which always makes my eye twitch.

I always think of plot as a novel's bones (i.e., it gives structure, balance, and form).

Min said...

This is a timely post for me! Your second paragraph is a good description of what I've been up to lately as I try to work out these plot ideas.

I do like the door analogy. The way you've described each of the components is helpful.

La Gringa said...

The three basic plots are

Man vs. nature
Man vs. man
Man vs. himself

At least that's what I learned in school way back when...

Adaora A. said...

You could have been an English teacher Nathan, you have a great way with words. You explain things very well(which hopefully we all know and in turn, we're all hear to 'investigate' you before querying). That sounded much better then the English teacher's of my past.

In university multiple choice quizzes are the plague. One or two words are switched around to make life hell for you. I much prefer essay questions. It gives me shivers thinking about my multiple choice questions off of my exam this past term.

jade said...

I thought this was a fantastic post. And if you read the Query Shark website, the shark herself has done much tearing apart of her victims lately for exactly that reason.

I don't think that a plot has to be plotted out from the beginning, though, because some people (like me) aren't the planning types. If I had to write a structured plot of the novel, I'd be so bored afterwards I'd never write the book. But even when you're winging it a bit, it is still possible, and very important, to remember this great advice as you go.

Sera Phyn said...

Perfect timing, Nathan!

While waiting for comments on the book I'm currently sending to agents, I decided to work on something new and just started plotting today! I've been looking at a bunch of different tips, tricks, techniques and tidbits of advice on plotting and, low and behold, you've got some too!

Here's hoping that, by the end of today, I have a premise, a problem, AND a plot! :D

Lisa said...

Hi Nathan,

I'm new to your blog and have been going back and reading the archives for about a week. Everything has been tremendously helpful. But I think your post today tops it all and has solved all my "procrastinatory" problems. (an excellent word I must say)

I have had so many different themes running through my head and only a handful of unrelated scenes actually written. Now I know my problem. I have no plot, and barely have a premise.

I have felt overwhelmed by these nebulous themes and when I sit down to write I try cramming the whole message into the three pages I'm working on. No wonder I get discouraged so easily!

Plot. How could I have missed something so simple?

Ulysses said...

La Gringa:
Let us not forget...
Man vs. Photocopier
Man vs. Child ("You WILL clean your room")
Man vs. Significant Other
and of course,
Man vs. DMV.

I don't write out a plot to begin, but that doesn't mean I don't have one in mind when I start. Unless I know my plot, I don't know my beginning, I don't know how to keep my middle interesting, and I have no idea when story's over.

Travis Erwin said...

After reading dozens of books on the craft and attending counoltess workshops at various writers conferences I gotta say this is the best explanation of plot that I've ever seen.


Nothing But Bonfires said...

Um, it's like you read my mind. THANK YOU for this.

David said...

What a great post! It has a hook, a theme, a -- well, it doesn't have a plot because it's a blog post, but anyway.

Really good.

moonrat said...


ahem. sorry.

Dave F. said...

Good post on what it takes to create a novel.
Here's a what if:
A group of archeology students explore the remains of a spaceship sunk in a 1000 year old moor. They want summer credit but the spaceship wants a new crew.

Kristin Laughtin said...

What great timing! I was grumbling not five minutes ago about my difficulties in coming up with a plot for a story I want to write (and the fact that plot bunnies are biting me with ideas for another story). I have ideas for the characters and themes, but haven't figured out what they're going to do yet. This was a very good and interesting breakdown, especially since plot's been on my mind lately.

150 said...


Corked Wine and Cigarettes said...

My writing lair is really a procrastinatorium. Also, it's just my office.

JES said...

Hey, this is great. Thanks for concretizing it (and if concretizing isn't a word...).

Question: how much of a given novel's plot do you want to learn about in a query? Is there -- for you (I know it depends, for others) -- such a thing as knowing too much in advance?

Nathan Bransford said...


Yes, there's definitely such a thing as too much plot in a query. I just want the essence.

Sue said...

Nathan - You rock! I now feel so much better about my WIP that is in it's revision stage.

Intriguing premise- Check
Climax- Check
Theme- Check

Of course, I continue to struggle in other matters (example-- steering clear of cliches- but really, What isn't cliche these days? I have to remind myself that it's not about what's been done in the past, and what hasn't- but more, my unique twist and fresh perspective I place on the matter at hand. But I digress.

And having read this blog faithfully, as well as a few others, I feel confident that when my work is (or as close to) agent ready, I will have learned a valuable thing or two beforehand :)

stepping over the junk said...

Whew. I'm exhausted...what? (just kidding). I wrote two novels in college (that are in boxes) and just kind of wrote. And they changed, the plot changed as I went along and i realized that I had to be flexible with that. And in the process I would be like "ah, THAT'S what this is gonna be about". (in essence) Same with my other writing classes, they rarely end the way we began them (the plot, that is). as Lamott says, "Bird by Bird". (how many times have you heard that?) This was long, sorry.

Lorelei Armstrong said...

Thank you. If I never see the word "redemption" again, that'll be just fine. Of course, I'm off to a writers conference on Saturday, so what are the odds?

M Clement Hall said...

Been told it over and over, but I'm a slow learner -- a plot requires a goal.
Aristotle and the film script is a useful basis.
120 pages. First act, 25%, culminating in "Inciting Incident." 2nd act 50% with its complications, 3rd act 25% with resolution.
There has to be purpose which is resolved. Not everyone can get away with speculating whether a trip to the lighthouse is worth the effort.

Parker Haynes said...

Terrific! Definitely a WOW post!

Nathan, You should write a book. I have shelves sagging under the weight of writing books and nowhere among them have I found such a clear description of plot. You Nailed it, Dude.


Sam Hranac said...

You missed your chance to use a (well worn) title. "Got Plot?"

Still, great post.

pjd said...

For me, the reason it's important to have a plot before I begin writing is that it's impossible to get to a good plot without knowing the theme, the premise, the characters, their motivations, and the conflict. (Granted, you can know all those things and still come up with a lousy plot.) Well, not impossible of course, but they all are intertwined.

Gwen Hayes said...

I just realized I plot around my theme and premise, and wonder if perhaps the middle of the book slump would be avoided if I developed theme and premise from the plot instead.

Heidi said...

I think higher education (well, seventh grade and up) does this to us. In English class, when a teacher asks "what is this book about?" they mean theme.

Ask any eight year old what a book is about and they will give you plot.

When I'm writing, my kids ask, "What's your book about?" I give it to them in plot, because that's what they are interested in. It helps me clarify for myself, too.

Anonymous said...

Even with my short reading attention span, you had me hooked all the way through this post. Well done!

Anonymous said...

Heidi, I think that is the most insightful comment I've seen on any blog in a long time.

Josephine Damian said...

Today, it's:

Man vs. Blogger since blogger is down for the count.

pseudosu said...

Brilliant. I'm linking this post in my blog.

Josephine Damian said...

Nathan, when I query you (first!), it will start out with a description of a story that is
preferably something really intriguing or like totally deep man.

Bet the totally deep part will be the part to cinch the deal for you and make you wanna sign me on the spot.


All fine and nice, but what I hear over and over again is that it's about the character: character over plot.

Just_Me said...

Thank you for the post. Your timing is excellent.

As for writing and finding a plot- usually the idea comes first and then I try to find a way to spin the tale past page 2. Or, as I think of it, why the MC can't shoot the problem and move on with their life. The door block in your analogy. If I can't find a reason why a gun or violence won't solve the problem the story probably isn't going to go anywhere.

Wade said...

Along the same lines, somebody (E.M. Forster?) gave this example of what is and is not a plot: "The king died and then the queen died" is not a plot; "The king died and then the queen died of grief" is a plot.

When I was in grad school, getting us highbrow literary folk to recognize that our efforts were not exempt from the necessity of a plot was a real chore for our instructors. We couldn't believe we didn't get a pass simply because of our high intentions and pretty sentences. When an instructor led us through some avant garde, seemingly plotless works--"Ulysses," the Beckett trilogy--to show us that even Joyce and Beckett paid attention to plot, it started to click. Sitting in a Rolls Royce and looking out the window is nice. For a while. But pretty soon you want somebody to start it up and hit the road.

Heather Harper said...

I have a date with my plot board this evening, so thanks for your timely (and awesome) post!

Erik said...

My plot is to build a giant clothes dryer that will give the world a terrible case of static cling. Then, when everyone is distracted, I will seize the mechanisms of power and ...

... wait, that's a plot to take over the world, not a plot for a novel.

Seriously, I have the plot. It took me a page to write the synopsis, but I have a plot. But I also have the characterizations, recurring themes, and power/control graphs. All that's left to do is write it. Hahahahahaha!

Shell I said...

Thanks - I am about to start on a major rewrite of my book (I am definately the 150 page type!) so this post is definately timely for me.


Icarus said...

Thanks. That was a very helpful comment. Not in terms of my writing--my nearly complete WIP certainly has a plot and complications--but in terms of not giving a wrong answer when pitching my book, and an agent asks me what the plot is.

-Joe Iriarte

Joseph L. Selby said...

Your example of Premise and Complication for the Gilead doesn't match your Premise and Complication for the Invention of Hugo Cabret. In the former, you list the character's motivation for the premise as the complication in the former but list the character's motivation for the premise as part of the premise in the latter.

I think I see where you were going, but I find your second example to be more accurate.

Anonymous said...


When an eccentric scientist figures out how to clone dinosaurs back to life from mosquito blood trapped in fossilzed amber, he creates a unique theme park on a remote island which proves to be beyond difficult to manage.

Plot: A renowned paleontologist is called upon by an eccentric geneticist to travel to a remote island off the coast of Central America. Only after they arrive are they told the name of the attraction: Jurrasic park, and the living wonders to be found there.

Janna Qualman said...

Nathan, this post couldn't have come at a better time for me. While I'm at the editing stage of my novel, I've been having the most difficult time defining the plot in mere words. I hope you don't mind, I've bookmarked this post.

Thanks so much!

Bethanne said...

I'm so glad this blog comes straight to my email. I'm a plotter... What do I do if my plot goes from A to B containing all necessary parts then during revisions jumps B and goes to C? That's my problem.

I've decided to write a choose your own adventure Romantic Suspense.

That may be the answer to all my problems.

Nathan Bransford said...


I intentionally used two very different books to show it applies to both literary fiction and genre fiction. With literary fiction the obstacle is that he's too old for his son to really know him. It's not an external obstacle, but it's still what drives the plot.

Anonymous said...

Wow, Nathan, Thank you!
I mean it! You are a very good guy!

Lupina said...

I thought the three basic plots were chocolate, brandy old-fashioneds and cheesecake.

No wait, that's the three basic food groups.

Nathan, that was an extremely sharp and hip exposition of plotitude. I did not read it in my usual Internet skim mode, but closer to word-savoring novel mode, and found it really made me think about what's going on within my WIP.

What seems to work for me is plotting out major crises, turning points and outcomes, then winging it in between to keep some mystery for myself. At that point, the characters start doing their own things anyway.

Thanks for another of the most cogent writing blogs anywhere.

V L Smith said...

That was great post. Thank you for all the wisdom and insight you provide. You should be knighted or have your own parking space or perhaps Ben & Jerry's could name an ice cream after you.

You deserve something.

Victoria Schwab said...

Wow, great post, and really helpful! It does make you take a look at your writing with a serious mental checklist.

I'm bookmarking this post.

cc said...

Add me to the list of people thanking you for this post.

Lucidity is good.

jeanoram said...

How very timely this post has been for me. Evidently, I like a lot of filler--and not just about what that door looks like either. Damn it, I need plot too!

Thank you! :)

Anonymous said...

Talk about filler, I saw that movie Disturbia last night and whew--that was a 105 minute flick that shoulda been 90 minutes MAX! I don't need to see some loser ssitting on the couch eating stupid stuff! On with the plot already! I felt like I was watching a consumer electronics expo for almost 2 hours...serious dreck they're putting out these days, screenwriters shsould learn how to plot, too.

Anonymous said...

The most thorough (and engaging) description I have EVER read regarding plot. It's over the top!

I do not agree however, that all writers "absolutely" must have a plot before beginning their novel. There may be that rare writer who is able to let the plot unfold as his or her story progresses. I'm sure this is not the norm, but there just are no absolutes when it comes to writing.

Anonymous said...

I don't ususally have a thorough outline before i start my thrillers, but I do have (what ai tink is) an engaging premise, with a beginning (opening scene, usually a murder), and a climactic ending....with a couple of stepping stones in between. Then I just go for it during the first draft.

LindaBudz said...

O.M.G. By any chance were you at Germano's in Baltimore this weekend, eavesdropping on my conversation? I was whining to my sister and nieces about the fact that I am stuck in my novel because "I have a premise and a theme, but I don't really have a plot." My exact words.

Thank you for this ... very helpful.

Joseph L. Selby said...

I don't know... Perhaps if you reversed the two. The old man fears dying without his son truly knowing him (premise) so he tries to write him a letter (complication).

(Now, I have not read the book so I am under the assumption that the man is incapable of proper communication with his son and not simply that he just discovered the boy/man and doesn't have the time needed to develop a bond. Certainly if the latter were true he should be doing more than writing a letter. It's his failure to articulate, to communicate, to even think on a common level with his son [the former] that I'm assuming is the driving complication of the story.)

Anonymous said...

Nathan, thank you. That may very well be the single most helpful post I have ever read.

I have a premise, plot, and a complication, but capturing them together into something that made sense has been challenging. Your post helped unlock the struggle I'd been having with my query letter. A thousand thanks.

Monica said...

re: Gilead, I would say that "dying father writing letters to his son" is the premise, and that the conflict between Ames and young Boughton is the plot.

Betty Atkins Dominguez said...

Character over plot? or Character driven plot? I prefer the second.

Anonymous said...

Nathan, I can't get over this!!! You are more amazing than ever, and it appears to me that you wrote a thesis in a few paragraphs which had all the qualities of poignant teaching. Professorship??? :)

Anonymous said...

Plot is the dog that ate my underwear.

Diana said...

What an incredibly helpful post! Thanks, Nathan!

Gail said...

Omagosh! I get it now! Thank you, thank you, thank you!

C.F. said...

"Do You Have a Plot" is a fascinating blogpost for Juneteenth. I'm sure Ralph Ellison knew what a plot was, but I'm equally sure he didn't want to be bound by that knowledge for about 40 years.

Other Lisa said...

I add to the chorus: Great post.

I'm also fascinated by the different ways that writers work. Personally, I have never been able to outline. I kind of wish I could because plunging into a book and not knowing where you are going is a little scary at times. But I love what Ian Rankin said about this - he's the Scottish mystery writer, for those unfamiliar.

I read an interview where he revealed that he knows some elements of his story and leaves others to discover and develop during the process.

He said, "If I knew what was going to happen, why would I need to write the book?"

Anonymous said...

I am struggling with my synopsis and this has helped SO MUCH. I am definitely querying you first, because if you're this smart on a blog, you're definitely worth 15%. :D

jlboduch said...

This is one for the archives! Thumbs up on articulating plot so so memorably.

Susan said...

Ah, she says, scales falling from eyes.

Am I correct in assuming the same applies to a memoir?

Sheryl Tuttle said...

A long post, but a very interesting one! I'm new to your blog but am thoroughly enjoying it. Thanks for all the helpful tips.

Ciar Cullen said...

Hate that whole "you need a plot" thing. It stinks, I tells ya. I'm a panster to the nth degree, and I'm trying desperately to change. Cause there's nothing like a guaranteed mid-novel slump. Or wall. For banging head against. This was a helpful post, thanks.

Anil Goel said...

Hmmmmmmmmmmm....I am writing my second thriller and I think I agree with everything you've said. I had a premise about a year ago, found the hook or a couple of hooks by late last year, I found the time to work out a plot earlier this year and now...
I feel like I am finally at the beginning of the writing process 

It’s like everything till here has been step number -3, -2, -1 and I am now on 0 :)))

I've opened the door, in your terms, and I know how its going to close and what it will do to the protagonist, so in essence I've got the elevator brief comes all the imagination of creating a story around it full of incidents, twists, turns, characters...that are all really superfluous...whose only function, which only I hopefully (and not my readers) know and realize, is to keep the door open :)

I've realized in getting started with this latest novel (My first is doing well but it came from nowhere and gripped me and made me a i cant say too much about the process for that one) that fiction is really, in a sense, quite a shallow and shameless task of creating characters, twists and turns to keep the pages turning around a core premise that - albeit brilliant and superbly insightful at the end of the day for the reader - is really something that can be expressed in a line or two without needing a full novel!

The sad part with most struggling writers is they start life somewhere at step +1 or step +2 without going through this process...

All this also reminds me of the superbly humbling "The fool doth thing that he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool"

A wise writer knows that he is a the extent that the bulk of his writing is keeping the door open..while the fools start with thinking that writing is all about intelligent and classy vocabulary and language.

It’s a tremendously painful process … creating meaningless but gripping stuff to package a very intelligent premise … but that pain is the essence of fiction.

P:S: I reached this blog from Joe Novella’s group of Facebook but I sure as hell am gonna stay! Great stuff!

nancorbett said...

Nathan, I'm adding a link to this post to my workshop materials. Thanks!

Renee Collins said...

Well, I was going to come and gush about how much I needed this post at this exact time, but now that feels kinda cliche.

Oh well.

Thank you for the awesome post! I needed this post right at this moment. You are great.

nymeria87 said...

That was a really great definition of plot. Thanks a lot for yet another informative post :D

I'm personally not a huge fan of intricate outlines, but there has to be a basic plot structure. Like you said: there has to be something to keep the door open and ultimately you have to decide on what closes it in the end. Of course writing involves spontaneity, but then again the plot itself has to follow certain mechanisms like exposition, climax, finale etc. to make it work. That's when and outline and scene cards are helpful to eradicate plot holes or superfluous scenes.

Kristan said...

Usually I try to leave a fun quip as my comment, but today all I can say is: thank you. I'm in that "sitting and pondering" phase, where I leave my manuscript alone for a period of time to consider it before I begin the big Revision, and your post just helped me understand why I'm so dissatisfied with what I have now.

I didn't have a clear plot.

It's not that I didn't have a plot -- I did! I do! -- but it's not clear. The door-block isn't clear every step of the way. It's confused with other door-blocks. Maybe because my character is so confused herself.

Regardless, you've brought me clarity, and I think I know what I need to do to make this manuscript rock. Thank you.

Eva Gale said...

Debra Dixon wrote a great book GMC, where she used your format ________ but ________ because _______.

et voila, PLOT.


Kylie said...

I don't like outlining all before hand because sometimes you can get really great ideas by seeing how the writing transforms characters and motivations in your head into something entirely new, adaptable, and exciting on paper. I do agree, however, that you need a clear idea of your plot before you ever sit down to start writing.

I guess it's like a road trip: know the final destination, but be prepared to take some back roads and pit stops that you never planned.

JDuncan said...

I'm the sort who gets down everything beforehand and then starts writing. It's all well and good to have a worked out plot. It gives me focus and a goal. I'm starting here and want to get to there. Generally though, characters happen along the way, and the fabulously crafted plot takes detours, stops for booze, takes in a movie, and tries desperately not to have a nervous breakdown. I let the characters shape things to some extent, thus you can't be overly attached to plot, or you end up with characters doing rather dumb and out of character things to achieve your brilliantly devised ends. Once you start, it's basically impossible in my opinion to then seperate character and plot. They morph and transpose and other nifty words about change. I alter my plots, because I realize the mc just would not do something, so I just come up with some devious plan to get them back toward the ending I want. It's fun to torture them in that respect. Anyway, interesting and valuable post, Nathan.


MzAuthor said...

I am currently published, (my first novel), and am seeking some advice.
My publisher, X Publishing, has suggested that I seek a new publisher, as X has taken me as far as possible. X Publishing, with the current industry trends, cannot continue.
I'm receiving two opinions: one is that I should just forget about my first novel, and start all over with another; the other opinion is for me to continue seeking representation.
X Publishing will be reverting all rights back to me, but I am still under contract for now. X wants to make sure I'm represented before cancelling said contract.
What is your advice?

Thank you,

Serenissima said...

Wow, one of your best posts! I'm passing this on.


abc said...

Wow, I really needed that post. thanks, Nathan. It was a good kick in the corduroy pants. Ok, capris.

Eiko said...

Thank you for this - excellent post, and Heidi - spot on as well.

I like to start writing, see where the characters are taking me, and then outline; it's kind of like pulling out a map a few hundred miles into a road trip. I write, outline, write some more, revise the outline...for me, the outline is a reference point, but I might change direction at any time. That's where the magic is.

Beth said...

Interesting analogy. I've never seen plot compared to a door before. [g]

But I don't think a writer needs to know a plot beforehand. All she needs is a character with a problem. Something he wants and can't have, or possesses but doesn't want. The plot will develop out of how the character handles the problem, as well as who he meets along the way and how their problems complicate his problems, because they want different things than he does, or maybe they want the same things...and so it goes. You start with a character and a conflict, add fertilizer, and before you know it, plot has sprouted, growing legs and tentacles and eyes on stalks.

And it's way more weird and devious than anything you could've dreamed up at the beginning.

At least, that's the way I do it.

Karen Powers Liebhaber said...

What great information!! Thank you so much! I thought I had all of that down, but I feel much more confident about the premise and theme. Thanks for disecting it for us. I needed it!

Vinnie Sorce said...

I look at this and it reminds of the old saying (I'm paraphrasing), "I don't know art I just know what I like."

Why does it have to be so complicated?

Linda said...

Okay, I've been holed away from lurking here and elsewhere on my fave sites in order to hammer out... my plot.

This is BRILLIANT! More procrastination is in order; no more of this hermit-thinking-great-(thematic)-thoughts stuff. Peace, Linda

Anonymous said...

Here's a treatment (or whatever you want to call it) from Philip K Dick -

Aly said...

Wow, that was really helpful, it helped me figur out what my novel is truely about. thanks!

ZURIEL said...

One of the most inspirational blogs I've read!! Been through some writer's block and this post just brought back all the desire to continue writing. Now I know my plot Nathan!! Thank you loads mate!!

autumn's darkroom said...

Thank you! All of your articles are very helpful. The question is, is the story interesting enough to keep the door open? Or if your audience even cares if the door is open in the first place?

M. K. Clarke said...

Priceless information, Nathan, thank you!

Long, sure, but you nailed the definition of plot to force me to "bare bones" my works.

This breakdown is AWESOME. Take that, O Keepers of the Plotless Drivel! You can't turn a ship without a rudder, after all.

Can't have a body w/o a skeleton; can't have a cloud without rain; a 'copter can't fly without a wingfin; a dolphin dies sans its dorsal . . .well, you get the general idea.

There's some song lyrics in this, y'all. Just give me credit for the words :).

JohnWN said...

Well-put and extremely valuable. Thanks.

Lucy said...

Not only is your blog my hero, it's also very funny and one of the few that simultaneously teaches and amuses. I'm getting smarter while laughing out loud. Bravo, Nathan Bransford.

The Invisible Writer said...

Another way people are confused about plot:

Is this a plot? "The evil powers of Mordor are growing and threaten to plunge Middle Earth into chaos unless the "One Ring" can be destroyed in the fires of Mount Doom!"

Nope. That's the setting, not the plot. Plot focuses on the protagonist.

Anonymous said...

this was the most helpful thing I've ever read about plot (and theme!) totally straightened out my confusions. Thanks so much! :)

Donna Amis Davis said...

Excellent post, and so helpful. I just spent an hour or two crafting my log-line with the help of your post and a related one by Kristen Lamb. It's a lot harder than it looks, isn't it? But I want to thank you for your great advice, so freely given.

Robert Gerber said...

i wanted to join nano for a number of reasons, and this year my roomie is doing it, so i had this additional push to try to figure out how to make a book out of these ideas i have.

i had no idea where to start, and this really helped. Thanks!

Damian reigns said...

you rock. Reading more of your stuff.

Spellweaver said...

As a wannabe writer from my early teenage years I had lots and lots of started themes and stories but I could not finish them because somewhat they became watered down at some point. But this post pointed some stupidities I made while writing. The finished story arcs rushed to my head now, so clear easy write.

So thank you, Mr. Bransford, words cannot express how grateful I am. Thanks again, and If I ever get published I promise to put dedication to you as the person who opened my eyes for the great fun that writing is.

Anonymous said...

Everyone has said, "Thank you." I want to say, "THANK YOU!" I'm a beginning writer and so far I have idea #1, idea #2, idea #3, and so on.

Your blog has given me tremendous insight. I appreciated the analogy about the door and now I am anxious to scrap ideas to come up with a plot.

Again, thank you.

Soper said...

I'm still struggling with how explicit the conflict has to be in a one or two sentence summary of a novel. If I say "An unlikely friendship between a squirrel and a talking peanut leads to the discovery of a lost Confederate treasure and a gang of pirate chickens" would I have to spell out "the chickens are out to find the treasure for nefarious reasons and our unlikely duo has to save the day" or is that understood from context? Do you have to say "and therefore there will be conflict" or can it be implied?

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