Monday, February 15, 2016

Plot Holes? Resources for Repair by Marcie Flinchum Atkins

Plotting is my nemesis. I love to write lyrically. I love to write description. I love writing myself into a hole. I half-hoped that somewhere, I’d find a plot, waiting for me, one that I could just open up and it would fit my story perfectly. It turns out, it’s a bit more work than that. 

I write middle grade novels, I have a rogue YA novel-in-verse lingering on my computer, and I write picture books. In every single case, I have struggled with plot. I knew that plotting was the very thing that could elevate my writing, and so I began to study that which was so difficult for me. The ever-elusive plot. 

I wish I could be a plotter from the beginning, but I usually have to do some brainstorming, then I begin to write. I know where I want to end up, but I don’t always have a complete road map for how I’m going to get there. I’m a pantser, which is why I end up having to go back and do so many revisions—there are always plot missteps or holes along the way. 

This post is not about answers. I don’t have the perfect solution for your plot problems. I'm not peddling "Plot Your Bestseller Novel in 30 Minutes." I'm in the trenches with you. What I do have is a list of resources that I’ve used and some examples. All of these examples are for novels. I have studied plots in picture books as well, but that would be a whole other post.  

Books I Recommend

Save the Cat by Blake Snyder

Don’t shy away from this book because it’s for screenwriters. This book is a gem for novel writers because it helps you understand the essentials of good story telling. Snyder goes into explanations about beat sheets and how to break up your story. Check out the website with lots of plotting resources as well. 

Write Your Novel from the Middle by James Scott Bell

This is a new one I’ve recently read and I love his simplified version of dealing with plot and the essential elements you have to have. It addresses the needs of both the pantser and the plotter. 

The Plot Whisperer by Martha Alderson 

This book is full of details about plotting. She is the plotting guru. I’ve had friends tell me this book overwhelmed them because it’s definitely nitty gritty details on how to plot. For those of us who would consider ourselves more literary writers, it’s sometimes hard to wade through so much plotting detail. However, this is an excellent book about plotting and one that I definitely recommend. 

Here is a WIP of mine that I took apart while reading The Plot Whisperer

Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell

This is one I refer to quite a bit. He breaks down plotting techniques and makes them accessible and he understands the great importance of studying mentor texts to gain an understanding of how plotting works. 


Cheryl Klein’s Writer’s Digest Master Plotting Class

I took this course several years ago, and I can't find any upcoming dates for this class. However, her book Second Sight talks about some of the revision techniques she talks about in her online class. 
Be forewarned, you must love spreadsheets (and I do!). It’s a great way to see into an editor’s mind and really be able to delve into your own book. You need to have a book already written and ready to revise to really make this class worth your while. If you didn't have it written, it would be hard to employ the revision techniques. 

Techniques I’ve Used

1) Study books as mentor texts

After reading James Scott Bell’s book Plot and Structure, I realized I needed to study novels in the same way that I study picture book texts. I picked several of my favorite middle grade novels and mapped out their plots, chapter by chapter. Because none of the above resources (with the exception of Cheryl Klein’s class) are really for children’s writers, I wanted to see how the plotting was handled in the kind of books I wanted to write. 

Bell’s technique used index cards for recording the plot of each chapter in the mentor texts.  I recorded a summary of the chapter, characters, setting, ending (did I want to keep reading), and type of chapter it was (action, reaction, setup, deepening). James Scott Bell describes in detail how to do this type of study in his book. 

By walking through this process with books I loved, it helped me see the big picture and how those smaller plot pieces were woven together to make the big picture. 

2) Spreadsheets

Cheryl Klein’s class uses a lot of different spreadsheets. I use spreadsheets because it is another way that you can see the different plot elements of your book in a big picture way, while also keeping track of those little items. There are some elements I’ll always want to track, but some will change depending on the book. For example, for one of my novels, my spreadsheet headers tracked these elements for each scene: 

* Action
* Emotion
* Setting
* Characters in this chapter
* What does the character want?
* Climax
* Ending/Hook for next scene
* Clue revealed (specific to that book)
* Magic element (specific to that book)

The advantage of spreadsheets is that they are easily color-codable and it’s easy to see your whole book on a few pages. 

3) Scrivener

I’ve written a previous blog post about Scrivener, but I always draft my novels in Scrivener. It helps me see things as a whole and I can also easily move parts around, much more so than in Word. 
The index card feature is helpful when trying to have summaries of your story at a glance on your computer. You can also print them off, cut them apart, and physically arrange them just like you would with real index cards. 

4) Plot chart

Remember 5th grade when you plotted stories on a chart that looked like a steep mountain? Another way to map out your story and see where it falls apart is to actually make one of these large charts of your book. After reading The Plot Whisperer, I actually got brave and did this with one of my books. 

5) Shrunken Manuscript

Darcy Pattison teaches how to do this technique here. Basically, it’s another way to see your novel as a whole. It helps identify your weak spots and strong spots. 

Plot On!

I still have a lot to learn about plotting. I’d love to know your favorite books about plot and your favorite techniques for revising for plot. Tell me about it in the comments. 


  1. Great post., Marcie! I've read several of your recommendations, and they are incredibly helpful, even for picture books!

    1. Thanks! Yes, some of them do work, but I also have some other favorite things I do for PBs. :)

  2. Marcie, I am your plotting sister in this. I know it's my downfall, too, I REALLY appreciate all these great craft resources. Here's to better plots. TY.

  3. Great post, Marcie. I need to get my hands on these books (and definitely take a closer read of Klein's book!)

    1. She has a new one coming out too. I look forward to reading it!

  4. Marcie❤️ Thank you for the great resources. Always fun to learn new things.

  5. Sharing with my crit group! Thank you!

  6. Thanks for sharing these great resources. I would love to read a post from you about plots in PBs! (HINT!) A wonderful aside to this post is that I learned you wrote a book about ancient China. I'm working on a CB set in China and am doing a lot of research. I'll be picking up your book tomorrow. :-)

  7. Thank you, Marcie, for sharing your sources and your own approach to plotting-great tips and advice!

  8. These could be useful! :D

    1. Thanks! I hope so. We're all in this together--this writing life. :)

  9. Here is information about Cheryl Klein's new book, which is a revision of Second Sight. It just saw it today:

  10. What a terrific post! Thanks so much for this. This is a real weak spot for me.

  11. Plot on! Thanks for all these suggestions. As one who struggles with plot and a few million other things, this is a tremendously helpful post. Love seeing your process. Makes me feel less alone in my struggles.

  12. Quick question: I see two books from Bell on your suggested list. Which do you think is most helpful? Or do they offer similar information from different angles?

    1. Great question! Bell's Plot and Structure is a more thorough book if you need a good foundation in plotting. I got it for $2.99 at a book sale and it has been worth every penny. It's in a series put out by Writer's Digest. The Writing from the Middle is a more focused look at a way to look at your plot, find the mid-point (a look in the mirror moment) and plot from there. It is not as thorough, but if you already know the basics, then this focuses on a technique that he'd been studying.

  13. Thank you for your words of encouragement to "Plot on," Marcie. You shared many outstanding tips and resources.

    1. I struggle with plot too, Marcie. I absolutely LOVED The Plot Whisperer--it is such a great resource. Looking forward to checking out the others!

  14. Blake Synder is such a great go-to source. Can't wait to see your novel that emerges from all this work Marcie. As for my
    plotting tips, I remember Hillary Homzie at Hollins telling me to always up the stakes, heighten the tension, keep thinking
    what else can go wrong. And make it go wrong! (to get right, later...)

  15. Thanks for the book recommendations. I forgot about the "Save the Cat" book and did shy away because it was for screenwriters. =)

  16. Thank you SO much for this post, Marcie! It took me awhile to get to read it, but it rewarded me with lots of terrific information and resources. Like you, plot is not easy for me.