Today she talks about her process, and generously shares the sheet she uses for plotting her psychological thrillers.
(She’s also giving away 3 copies of her book to commenters, so do not forget to leave a question or comment for her.)
I’ve been writing crime fiction and psychological thrillers for ten years now.
One question that comes up regularly is: do you know what you will write before you write it? My answer is a resounding yes! I am a plotter. I like to plan.
Initially, I was reluctant to plan as I thought it would somehow crush my creativity. As my writing practice developed I realised that, for me, plotting and creating is not an either/or situation. Rather, it is a balancing act.
I have learnt that my psychological thrillers are multi-dimensional and complex. To maintain balance, I let my imagination run riot. But during the writing process, I keep track of different dimensions of my novel on a plotting sheet.
I have filled it with an example for illustration purposes. (You can download it at the end of this article.)
Complex novel structures – different ways of plotting (or not plotting!) Not everyone wants or needs to keep track of their plot. But if you are writing a complex structure with plenty of strands and depth of subtext, at some point you will need to know where your story is going – and where it has been. Before I begin my novel, I take a blank plotting template and make columns for the dimensions of my story that will make up the world of my novel.
Story Arc – plotting the main story : Sometimes I can use the plotting chart before I write to plot the beats or plot points of the main story. I might have a column for plot points I will populate initially with the initial ideas I have about the story, plotted against a three-act structure. This will give me an outline to work with, although I never feel that this is final, and I often change it as I write. I plot this in the chapter number column.
Who? – character arcs and development The Who? column is for characters. This is the mainstay of my novel, the people who will live in the novel world. I write their name and any details I need to know against the appropriate chapter. I might even split this into separate scenes where various characters appear. When I have completed a first draft, I colour code the characters so I can see the character arc.
Where? – mapping locations As well as people, places are very important. Not only does plotting them allow you to situate your characters but also to make sure you have got your continuity right. If Anita has flown to Spain in one scene, then later she is in a bar in London, then you need to explain how that has happened. Places also provide a backdrop for delicious description and an opportunity to add light and shade to your writing.
Strands: Timelines – working with backstory and non-linear timelines If I am working with different timelines, I will have a column in my plotting chart for each timeline. For example, in my latest novel my main character was narrating 1978 in the current time. I had a column for now and a column for 1978 and some characters populated both timelines. This was useful when looked back over the story.
Strands: Story Strands – working with multiple narrators Although my psychological thriller Perfect Ten had one narrator in first person/present tense, my other novels have had multiple narrators. This can become confusing as the individual stories need to be roughly aligned time-wise, and invariably during the novel their stories will collide. Plotting them allows an easy comparison of where they are in relation to each other.
Subtext – plotting different story strands The subtext of a story is the most difficult to plot because it is often intangible and sometimes does not show itself fully until the end of the novel. Often I have had that ‘Ah, so that’s what it’s about!’ moment as I am writing the final chapters. I like to leave a subtext column blank to fill in as I go along, or even retrospectively.
What happens next… Psychological thrillers are both character and plot driven. It is essential that chapters and scenes are economical and contain events that move the story along. So I always include a column in my plotting chart entitled: How Does This Move the Plot On? This is essential for me both when writing the first draft and on every edit afterwards. It helps me to avoid going off on a tangent and stops the characters wandering off on their own little sub-story.
Bringing it all together – my plotting chart When I have finished the first draft I use my plotting charts as a tool to look over my novel – a kind of summary of who, where, what, when and how. This forms the big picture of my novel. It’s useful, when I am writing, to remind myself where I am and what I need to do. But it has been invaluable at the editing stage.
My editor once sent me structural edits where a new character strand was needed. This meant removing a lot of backstory and adding a new voice – and ten thousand words! It also meant that I had to change the remaining story to reflect this new character and their story. My plotting chart made this so much easier to do as it meant that I already had my story laid out in front of me with existing plot points for reference.
I hope that my plotting chart is useful to you too – please adapt it to suit your own project. CLICK HERE to download it.
Do you read or write psychological thrillers? Have you read The Perfect Ten? Do you believe in plotting or are you a pantser? What do you think of Jacqueline’s plotting chart?
Drop your questions and comments below–Jacqueline is giving away 3 signed copies of her book to randomly chosen commenters!
Jacqueline Ward is a Chartered Psychologist and her debut psychological thriller, PERFECT TEN, was published by Corvus Atlantic Books in 2018 to national reviews. Her second psychological thriller, HOW TO PLAY DEAD, will be published in November 2019.
Jacqueline is the author of the DS Jan Pearce crime fiction series and a speculative fiction novel SMARTYELLOW and enjoys writing short stories and screenplays.
She holds a PhD in narrative and storytelling which produced a new model in identity construction. Jacqueline has worked with victims of domestic violence and families of missing people as well as heading a charity that deals with the safety and reliability of major hazards, and received an MBE for services to vulnerable people in 2013.
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