Thursday, January 19, 2023

A Few Thoughts About Plotting by Marilyn Levinson

For me, plotting is the hardest part of writing a novel. Writing mysteries require extra special diligence when it comes to plotting because situations and scenes that occur at the beginning of the book must be followed up and addressed in what follows. I have no trouble coming up with an inciting event to start my story. It carries me several chapters. And then I run out of steam.

This never used to happen when I was a plotter and I'd figure out my entire plot while allowing for changes as I wrote. But I have turned into a quasi-pantser. Now, often after writing a third of my WIP with more than two hundred pages to go, I'm not sure how to move on. I know that my two storylines will converge; I even know my killer. But how to fill the next two hundred plus pages with logical, exciting, well-paced prose that ends on a satisfactory note requires serious thinking.

It's a good thing I have a few techniques that have served me well over the years and set me on the right track so I can finish my book.

1. I reread what I've written. After all, the first third of my mystery introduces the situation, the setting, my characters as well as the first murder. I'm lucky that whenever I go back to page one, I find I'm happy with what I've written. Also, I discover places where I can further my plot. Unbeknownst to me, my subconscious has been setting down important hints and clues that I'm quick to follow up in upcoming chapters. Think of Anton Chekov's famous quote “One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it." (Bartlett's Familiar Quotations.) Then of course, there are the red herrings to be added that serve to misdirect the mystery reader. Knowing that my WIP is in good shape so far gives me the inspiration and confidence to move on.

2. Plotting requires both logic and creativity—the ability to consider various possibilities and to choose the one that best suits your story. I am grateful that I belong to a group of mystery authors I can count on to help when I get stuck. Often one of their ideas will be the perfect solution. Other times the simple act of explaining the problem and asking for help stimulates my own creativity and I come up with the plotting solution all on my own.

3. I'm not good at sitting down to focus on a plot problem. My mind starts to wander. I check my email, my Amazon standings. Facebook. Instagram. I find that solutions to my plot problems come when I'm walking by myself. In the shower. Even in a doctor's waiting room. It's always when I'm doing something that doesn't require much thinking. I imagine it's different for everyone, the time when one's mind is receptive to finding new solutions.

4. Finally, I have faith that the necessary solution(s) will come to me and I'll finish the book in a satisfactory way. Why? Because I've done it before. Plotting a novel is a series of solving problems. I've come to trust my writing instinct because I've set up my What If? situation carefully and with much thought. Some of that thought process has developed over the years and now works on an unconscious level. Writing a novel is never easy, but somehow the procedure becomes part of the mind's inner workings. The mind cooperates and helps us along. I've yet to give up on a work in progress because I couldn't work out the plot. Far be it from me to know how this miracle works, but somehow it always comes through in the end.


  1. I rely on my sub-conscious to figure out any plot problem. I spend a bit of time thinking hard about the issue, and then I let it go. So far, my sub-conscious has always come through--often in ways never would have come up with had I relied on brainstorming or other techniques.

    The disadvantage of my approach is it takes time. But I always have other things to do while I wait.

  2. So true, Marilyn. Thanks for the tips.

  3. Jim,
    Sounds like your subconscious is well trained to resolve plot problems. As for brainstorming, sometimes, that jogs the subconsicous too. A suggestion can lead to a completely different idea.

    You're welcome.

  4. Congratulations on turning out one good mystery after another. However you do it.

  5. Giving my plot an overnight stay in my brain often works well, my version of the unconscious, subconscious plot solving. Your method is working!

  6. Thanks, Grace. I think plotting works a bit differently for all of us. We do whatever
    works, right?

    Kaye, A friend told me she used to put the question to her brain just before going to sleep and often got her answer the next morning.

  7. These are great tips, Marilyn! I, too, have learned to trust my sub (or un) conscious to solve plot problems.
    I've learned a bit late in the writing game that I like having an outline. Never did it before the last book, but now I find myself enjoying making one. What happened to me? I always used to enjoy pantsing LOL.

  8. I like to write an outline though my storylines often diverge from it. I think there's a bit of plotter and pantser in all of us.

  9. Keep trusting yourself, Marilyn. It's working! I've come to think of my outlines as rough, rough, rough first drafts. Those outlines don't spring full blown into my head. I'm pantsing as I work on them. And just like any first draft, they end up changing in the re-writes.

  10. Molly,
    You're so right! Trust is the word. I've learned to trust my method despite those times when I can't see the right path at the moment. And sometimes we need to write more to see where the book is taking us. And be flexible to make changes as we go.

  11. We do have to trust ourselves (and our characters) to ultimately lead to a reasonable plot. So many changes and twists along the way!