In the second session of my novel-writing class, we explored how to structure a plot. There are two main schools of writers, I told my students: those who just plunge in and write without certain knowledge of where they’re going, and those who plot and outline. (Members of the first group are often called “pantsers,” because they say they are proceeding by the seat of their pants.)

Steven King claims to be a pantser. He says he starts with a character in a situation and then just lets the ink ccontest-coverflow, writing at least 2000 words a day.

I contrasted King with engineering professor Peter Wong, with whom a wrote a middle-grade mystery called THE CONTAMINATED CASE OF THE COOKING CONTEST. The book was complicated, with four kids investigating an outbreak of foodborne illness. We had to weave together cooking challenges, meals aboard a cruise ship, trips to visit scientists, and lots of clues. Peter laid it all out in a spreadsheet with a timeline that showed everything from food to restaurants to encounters to how long it takes different bacteria to grow. Then we just had to put life on the bones.


Map of Lexicon
Map of Lexicon


Most books, I suspect, are written with a combination of the two methods. I started my first middle-grade book, LOST IN LEXICON, with two children entering a world of words and numbers. I had only the vaguest idea of where they would go or how they would return home. But before long I began mapping episodes and trying to figure out the form of the book’s final confrontation between intellectual freedom and control.


My most recent book, a young adult fantasy called THE BEECHWOOD FLUTE, began with a character facing a dilemma–his failure of courage at a pivotal moment. I knew themes I wanted to explore, but I had to build a world and an entire plot around those themes. I cycled between writing scenes and working out where it was all going. And yes, I drew maps for myself. Because the phase of the moon in different scenes mattered a lot (How dark is it at night? How does the moon guide Kiran, the hero?), I worked out a detailed timeline. Lots of sticky notes were involved.

During the class, I gave the students a few different approaches and tools for plotting. We talked about concept mapping and about writing ideas and brief notations of scenes on sticky notes arranged on a wall. We talked maps and timelines. We discussed rising action, and how it hits a high point very close to the end of the book (95% of the way through, we discovered, in looking at a couple of examples of middle-grade fiction). We discussed how the climax of action may occur at a different point from the climax of character, when the character embraces a new understanding or identity.

Then I briefly introduced the students to Randy Ingermanson’s snowflake method, which begins with a one-phrase plot description and one-phrase descriptions of main characters. Alternating from plot to character, the author builds out with ever more detail sections, chapter, scenes, and a complex history for each character. It’s like the fractal crystal growth of a snowflake as it forms.

One of my students really latched onto the snowflake method, while others felt more drawn to concept mapping. They split between outliners and pantsers. (I think I’d rather call them “plungers,” but maybe that sounds too much like plumbing.) I sent the students home with a big challenge for the week: to come in next time bringing either a full book outline or the first draft of a full first chapter. I’ll let you know what they came back with!

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