Plotting the Novel

         Every book starts somewhere—with an idea, a character, a setting, a situation.  Every book ends somewhere—with the resolution of a problem, solving of a murder, solidifying of a romance.  And every writer has a multitude of ideas on where to start.  But what then?


         Here are the steps I take when plotting a murder mystery.  And, while some of the steps I use are germane to the mystery, most work for any type of novel you’re plotting.


Step 1 — Nail down the genre


         The first thing you need to do is figure out what you’re writing.  Is it a mystery?  If so, you’ll need to have a crime, a protagonist who solves the crime, an antagonist or villain, suspects, clues and a resolution.  If you’re writing a romance, you’ll need a handsome hero and a beautiful heroine, a conflict that keeps them apart, and a resolution.  Same goes with almost any genre you choose—you’ll need characters, conflict and resolution.


Step 2 Come up with the idea.


         Every story needs an idea—or a theme.  What are you writing about?  I write birdwatching mystery novels, so my books revolve around murders that happen in the bird world.  For example, in my first novel, A RANT OF RAVENS, my idea was to write a story about the illegal trading of peregrine falcons to the Middle East.  In DEATH OF A SONGBIRD, I wanted to write about a coffee company that sells only “bird friendly” coffee.  In A NEST IN THE ASHES, I explore the concept of “prescribed fire.”  My books hinge on environmental themes.   


Step 3 Generate a story.


         Once you have an idea, you need to generate a story.  In my current novel, DEATH SHOOTS A BIRDIE, I decided to the story would be about Rachel Wilder, whose partner has asked her to get to know one the keynote speakers at the convention she’s attending—a birder later accused of murdering another keynote speaker.  To complicate things, she encouraged her friend Dorothy’s romantic interest in the alleged murderer.  It’s now up to Rachel to unravel the mystery and ferret out who actually killed the keynote speaker before she and her friends end up dead.

This is a good place to develop a log line—a sentence or two describing what your story is about.  I use a modified method of the Gary Provost Sentence, a method created by the late-author and columnist for Writer’s Digest, and documented in How to Tell a Story: the secrets of captivating tales, by Peter Rubie and Gary Provost.


The sentence goes like this:  Once upon a time, something happened to someone, and he decided that he would pursue a goal.  So he devised a plan of action, and even though there were forces trying to stop him, he moved forward because there was a lot at stake.  And just as things seemed as bad as they could get, he learned an important lesson, and when offered the prize he had sought so strenuously, he had to decide whether or not to take it, and in making that decision he satisfied a need that had been created by something in his past.



Step 4 Create believable characters


         I write a series, so I have a pool of characters to draw from, however when I wrote my first book I had to develop the cast.  In DEATH SHOOTS A BIRDIE, my protagonist is Rachel Wilder, the protagonist from my first book—now divorced, in a new relationship and with her friends at a birding convention set on a coastal Georgia island.  I chose her as my main character for several reasons—she’s the one responsible for involving her friends in a murder case.

         When developing characters, I use a method I learned in a workshop presented in Estes Park.  “Discovering Story Magic” was developed by two writers, Robin Perini and Laura Baker, whose website provides more information.  The process is to figure out the following for ALL of your characters (minor, major, good or bad, live or dead):

1.     Inciting incident — what starts the story for the character. 

2.     Long Range Goal — this is what the character wants five years from now. 

3.     Short Range Goal —what the character wants right now. 

4.     Fatal Flaw — what is the character’s main flaw, the one that causes him trouble with others? 

5.     Personal Relationship Barrier —an outgrowth of the fatal flaw. 

6.     Worst fear Realized — what is the worst possible thing that could happen (note, it usually goes back to the fatal flaw)?

7.     Epiphany — the resolution, or what your character learns. 


By filling out a chart with these seven items for every character in my book, I know what my characters goals are, and, more importantly, what motivates them!


(FYI — in a mystery, you typically need 5 or 6 suspects, so you have lots of material.)


Step 5 The story structure, or fleshing out the skeleton.


    This is the main plot.  I start with a grid like this one (again a tool I was offered by Robin Perini):























TP stands for turning point, or places where the story takes a twist.  If you look at the character charts, you’ll find many scenes that you’ll need to insert somewhere in your grid.  Add to that any scenes that have jumped to mind in the course of coming up with your idea—for example,  I knew there would have to be a finding-the-body scene, a scene in the swamp, a scene where the police crawl over a crime scene.  All of these scenes are plugged into the grid in the spots where your reader needs the information. 


STEP 6 Putting it all together


    Armed with your log line, your character charts and the plotting grid, you now have everything you need to write your novel.  By following the plot grid, you can write a chronological synopsis of your story and prepare a proposal for submission to contests, to agents, and/or to editors.  You’re on your way. 

While plotting may not be the easiest thing to do (trust me, if you’re doing it right, it is hard work), having done the work makes writing the book all that more enjoyable.

Christine Goff is the author of the Birdwatcher’s Mystery series published by Berkley Prime Crime.  Her first two novels were both named finalists for the Willa Literary Award, Best Original Paperback category.  Her current novel, DEATH SHOOTS A BIRDIE, was released in March 2007 and was a finalist for a Colorado Author’s League Best Genre Fiction Award.  For more information on this author, please visit her website at:




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One response to “Plotting the Novel

  1. Thank you very much for providing this information. I am writing a mystery romance and found this to be the most helpful info. in getting my plot organized.

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