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Friday, 31 January 2014

How to Overcome Problems with Plotting

This week I have been one lucky author. On Wednesday I visited Great Baddow High School in Chelmsford, Essex, to take part in an event for the Essex Book Awards. I met some fantastic staff and pupils, all of whom are incredibly enthusiastic about books.

I'd never been to Chelmsford before and my taxi driver told me it is known as the birthplace of radio. In1898 Guglielmo Marconi set up the world's first wireless factory in an old silk mill, a building which apparently still stands today. It seemed apt, as reading and writing are all about communication, and the Essex Book Awards is getting students together to talk about books, to form strong opinions, and to try genres and stories which they might otherwise not be tempted to delve into.

It was lovely to meet and sit alongside another short-listed author, Nigel McDowell whose book Tall Tales from Pitch End, I began to read on the train home. It is beautifully written and the tension in the first chapters really draws you in. The cover is amazing too, strong and spooky. All credit to Hot Key Books for the design of this.

Nigel and I each gave a ten minute talk followed by a question and answer session. Afterwards I took a short workshop. Earlier in the week,when preparing for this, I wondered what would be of most use to the students.In this blog I have veered away from giving writing advice as there are so many people out there doing a much better job than I could. But over the years, through a lot of trial and error, I have learned some valuable things. Giving the workshop made me think that maybe I ought to pass on those nuggets of information in the hope that it may help some of you who are writers and who may be struggling with the same issues that I did in the early days.

As well as writing my own books I also do some critiques for a literary agency. The most common thread I encounter when looking at manuscripts is that they don't have a strong plot or a plot at all. I sympathise because it took me ages to understand what plotting was. I thought it was so hard to get right and yet really, when you know how to approach it, it's not that difficult. I wish that I'd known this when I started writing. It would have saved a lot of heartache. Often the manuscripts I see comprise a sequence of events. This is not the same as a plot. There are plotless books but if you intend to write a book without a plot I do think that you should start it from a point of knowledge, that it should be a conscious decision to abandon the notion of a plot. On the whole, especially when writing for children, I do believe you need a plot. In simplest terms:-

 Plot = a problem for your main character

(That's not rocket science, is it? So why did it take me so long to understand? I have no idea.)

The problem can be a predominately physical one which your hero/heroine has to tackle, such as an arduous search for a long-lost valuable artefact in an adventure story.

Or the problem can be a characterisation device whereby your hero has a weakness or an emotional conflict such as guilt versus duty or fear versus responsibility, which needs to be overcome.

Often it can be a combination of the two, whereby your character has to overcome a weakness or fear in order to fulfil a task.

When your story comprises just a sequence of events it will lack tension. Underlying tension is what keeps the reader turning the page, asking the question, 'Will the hero manage to overcome this obstacle/how will the heroine solve this problem?'

Plot creates tension

Your story must also comprise a beginning, middle and end or to put it another way:-

The Set-up
The Conflict
The Climax
The other important thing which is related to plot is character. Character is a big topic to cover but for your plot to work successfully you must know your characters, especially your main characters, very well indeed. Always remember:-

 Plot and character are inextricably linked

If you know your characters, how they will behave in any given circumstance, what their worst nightmares are, what their heart's desires are, then your plot will come together much more easily. You will find that your main character with all of his/her strengths and weaknesses helps the plot to reveal itself, dictates the plot and drives it forwards.

I hope that's clarified the mysteries of plotting to any of you who have been wrestling with it. To be honest I'm not sure that those students who attended the workshop really needed my input. Under extreme time pressure they came up with some absolutely amazing story ideas and first lines. I wish I could do that! I do hope that they'll continue to develop them. They are writers of the future, every one of them.

Here are Nigel and I surrounded by some of the students from Great Baddow and the other local schools who attended. It was such fun meeting them.

Next week I will talk a little about the beginnings of stories and if there are any other writing problems you would like me to try and cast some light on please let me know. In the meantime thank-you for reading.


  1. I love the advice given here. Definitely some useful tips. Looking forward to next weeks post... I hate writing beginnings!

  2. Thanks Lia, yes beginnings can be tricky but once you know a few tips they can be easier and even enjoyable!