Last week I gave a talk to the writers group I attend (somebody different does it every month – it’s not that I am that erudite – just buggins’ turn). I talked about planning and plotting a novel. You could just about apply the method I discussed to a short story but it would be overkill I think.

I picked one particular way of identifying the main character, their journey to the end you decide (or they decide) their story takes them and the pitfalls and joys they experience along the way. There are various types of format for identifying your main character, describing this process and the ways the main protagonist progresses and struggles and the sidekicks who aid and obstruct them on that path. In the end however they are all much the same.


As I prepared for the talk I wondered how much I actually use these formulas (and that for me is one of their problems – their formulaic nature) and how much I use them, when I do, to deconstruct what I have already written and see if it hangs together and makes sense. This is a little cart before horse perhaps but I find it much more useful to take a segment of a longer novel (or the outline of it) and subject it to analysis, after I have done a fair bit of spadework. Is the main protagonist the person I thought it was going to be or am I more interested in someone who was going to be a side character (I always got bored with Romeo and Juliet after Mercutio bows out)? Is their goal what I thought it was or is it a minor peak in the journey to a bigger end?

I normally get a pretty good idea where I am headed instinctively after an idea pops into my head. It doesn’t always remain the goal, but I would probably lose all enthusiasm if I sat straight down and worked through the process of laying it all out as the various pro formas suggest one ought.

I have found JK Rowling style spread sheets very helpful in keeping me on the straight and narrow for plotting. I tend to use it as a way of keeping track of what has happened to now though rather than being too precise about keeping to milestones on a pre-planned journey. I generally know where I am headed but some of the byways are a surprise to me. However had I adopted this method earlier I would undoubtedly not have made what was, on re-reading, a fairly glaring plot error in my ‘Lagan Bubbles’ screenplay (nobody pointed it out at the BBC- but they didn’t like it for other reasons anyway so I wonder how seriously they read it). Re-write in progress (which I hate).

My concern, to which I alluded earlier, is that sticking rigidly to any of the plans and plotting course recommendations (web, college, correspondence course based etc etc) leads to very rigid formulaic stories. They may tick all the boxes but I’m not sure I want to read by the numbers novels.

Some of them do make a lot of money however. :^)