To Plot or Not to Plot? asks Crime Writer, Louise Phillips

THEY say crime fiction is not meant to be put down, but perhaps you can say this about all fiction writing. After all, one of the principle ideas around great story writing is to engage your reader to such an extent that he/she is fully immersed in the story, enough to suspend their reality.

If you’ve read Stephen King’s book, On Writing, you’ll know that the author has a series of trusted readers. One of whom is his wife! He uses these trusted readers to test his new material, and openly admits watching his wife intensely during her ‘reading time.’ He is always curious about whatever point in the story that she decides to put the book down. Then he asks himself - Why?

What was it about that particular page or point that she was able to resist continuing to read?

Pace, reveal, surprise, curiosity, tension, concern for characters and gripping dialogue all play their part in keeping the reader hooked, but there is one question that most writers will ask themselves at some point or another – To Plot or Not To Plot?

The use of plotting or road mapping will very much depend on the individual. Some writers create a road map for their entire novel. Others only use it for their opening chapters. Some use it as a tool to frame what I call the ‘Murky Middle,’ to aid them in the maintenance of tension and reveal. I’ve often used a roadmap to map out my final chapters. It is especially useful in crime novels where so many issues/conflict/questions must be resolved towards the end of the material. The roadmap becoming a form of checklist, if you like.

Many other writers, write a synopsis, hide it away and revisit it when the first draft is done. But a roadmap is more detailed than a synopsis. It is a chapter by chapter account of what happens, which characters are involved and what each chapter should, or will, achieve.

I look on road maps as part of the writers’ toolbox. I don’t plot, even though I know many writers who do, but I’ve called on the help of roadmaps in the past as an important tool.

The non-use of a road map is called ‘organic’ writing, which is hugely exciting and is mainly the way I write. However, if you find you’ve written yourself into a corner, maybe it’s time to look at/create a road map, even if it is only a form of skeleton outline.

You could compare it to traveling. If you have a clear idea of where you want to go, how you want to get there, and what you want to accomplish along the way, then you have the beginning of a roadmap/plot.

A good plot, whether you arrive at it from organic writing, or the effective use of a roadmap, will do many things whilst keeping the reader hooked. It will most certainly, also, raise interesting questions and, hopefully, plausible answers. So before you go off and have a think about whether you plan on plotting out your novel in advance; or use a roadmap to tidy up all the finishing bits at the end, or even work your way out of the murky middle, here are the four basic requirements of a plot.

a. At least two characters – a plot needs people!

b. A protagonist or protagonists – the ‘who’ of the story ☺

c. An issue which involves conflict – if a protagonist achieves his/her quest/goal immediately, there is no story. Therefore we need obstacles.

d. Conflict resolution – has the major conflict been completely or substantially resolved?


And finally a short note on Antagonism/the Antagonist, an area which sometimes doesn’t get the same attention as a protagonist in a story. Unless you have somebody or something opposing the hero’s/heroine’s will, there will be nothing between desire and fulfilment, and your story will end before it begins!

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