Here on Daily (w)rite, as part of the guest post series, it is my pleasure today to welcome Jacqueline Ward, bestselling author of Perfect Ten.
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.)
The following sections of the plotting sheet help to build the big picture of the story I am writing:
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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Thanks for sharing such a wonderful chart.
That’s interesting. I early on read Shawn Coyne’s Story Grid and, being more at home with spreadsheets than paragraphs, it resonated with me. If I ever return to my ‘practice’ novel it is well-documented by spreadsheet, although once I got into the flow, I tended to forget about updating the spreadsheet.
This has been the pattern, whether I use Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake method or my own (somewhat reduced) spreadsheet: I forget to keep it up. Still, like you, I like to know where I’m going before I start. Even though I don’t always end up where I expected.
I am always interested in how people write, how their stories are crafted, I write mainly short stories at the moment but am also a good way into writing a novel. As my book has progressed the need to provide some sort of plan has become obvious, at the moment this is an excel spreadsheet and a chronological chart in word, I need something a bit more comprehensive these suggestions are useful, thank you..
thank you for sharing this and for making her chart available. I am definitely going to take advantage of her advice. I write suspense and something like this will be very useful.
First off, thank you so much for liking my latest, and late, blog post. I appreciate you. Love the post. The analytics and insight are grabbing. I am looking forward to your blog and hoping to read more as time gives me. Any advice for my writing?
Jacqueline, as more of a pantser, I was skeptical when I first started reading this post. But after examining the worksheet, I can see how helpful it would be after the first rough draft is done. I’ll be making a template of the worksheet and studying the use you laid out. Thank you.
I’ve always been a pantser but my WIP has gotten me using some plotting tools. I’m going to spend some time with your process and see if it works for me. BTW, I don’t write thrillers, but at first glance, this looks useful for a lot of work.
Thanks Damyanti for introducing us to Jacqueline … I’m so looking forward to reading more – cheers to you both – Hilary
yowsa! You’re history with those in need is wonderful! And also, I imagine, sad in many cases. Big heart.
For me, I love both crime and psych thrillers… and it looks like I am on my way to Amazon for Perfect Ten!
Great method, and the chart is fantastic. Definitely will use. I am a planner with panster whimsies, and use a ‘semi-similar’ chart for timelines, but not nearly as cool as yours. I also use fictionary to plot things along, and the ever-present ‘does this push the plot along?’
And because it’s crime with subplot, I use a cork board to post victim and suspect pictures, notes on possible motives… and of course string to attach ’em all. I spend scads of time creating a person’s backstory, physical traits, oddities that may never arise but always fun, like distracting bushy brows on an otherwise tanned and leather physique 🙂
This is very useful. I have an outline of a Psychological thriller that I am hoping to write someday so this article was a great find for me. thanks for sharing. 🙂
That’s great, Kade. Hope it is useful when your writing begins.
Thanks for your explanation on plotting the various stages and the characters role, I have not had a long drwn out plot. I just write out where the ending would be and build up the events to that end. Though I have not written a novel size story. But your advice here is valuable. Thanks you Jacqueline.
You are very welcome, David.
This is such an interesting and informative discussion. I love crime thrillers and am always awed at how the various story threads are woven neatly and tautly to build a larger and complete picture. Plotting chart seems like a great tool to keep a track of everything. Thanks for this insightful post, Jacqueline and Damyanti.
Thank you for reading, I hope the plotting chart helps!
I have always wondered how authors keep a track of their plots and prevent loopholes. This was very insightful and answered many questions. I loved the chart. Very organized way for story writing. So much to learn from this post. Thank you.
Thank you for reading!
Thank you very much Damyanti for the opportunity to stop here and chat about plotting.
You’re very welcome, Jacqueline. Thanks for being such a wonderful guest.
Great, insightful post. Being a pantster who sometimes writes herself into a corner, I look forward to testing your methodology. Thanks so much for the chart!
Thank you, you are very welcome.
I don’t plot at all, I just let the story goes wherever it goes, but I do know the ending. That way I can be free with the story but still have a goal with it. I wonder btw how George RR Martin does?! He has a crazy amount of storylines
I sometimes do that too, Andreas. It just depends on what I am working on. It’s the storyline thing that always gets me!
Yeah, it’s always easier to come up with concepts and nice scenes than the actual story. The struggle of a writer
Thank you so much for the chart! I’m a semi-plotter. If I’m doing NaNoWriMo, I usually begin with only a vague notion of the story. Otherwise, I do a plot-point chart in the three-act structure, as you say. I go back and forth between writing spontaneously and then filling what I’ve done into the chart and forward-plotting on the chart and fleshing that out in the story. I’m definitely going to enjoy pulling your chart out of my toolbox now!
You are very welcome. That’s how I often work too.
Hi Damyanti and Jacqueline – thanks for letting us into some secrets about writing a successful novel, let alone a psychological thriller. I do so admire books that entertain, but which are informative about some aspect of life – each book could so easily take another journey depending on the traits given to the characters and to the overview of the narrative itself. I imagine you glean so much about life from your work – that you can mix and match these within the thrillers you write. That worksheet looks really useful … cheers Hilary
You are right, some of my work has informed my writing. I studied Identity Construction and this is really useful.
I’m a pantser who has lately realised she would do well or better with plotting because I never finish writing my own novels after many years of writing. This article is very helpful. It gives a structured guideline to how to start plotting and even better, it is the same genre I wish to excel in one day.
Go for it, Adlin! I’m glad you enjoyed the article.
Excellent post. I’ve downloaded the spreadsheet. Thank you!
Thank you for reading!
Nice. I plot with a spreadsheet so this is quite interesting.
Thank Jacqui and thank you for reading.
I have a question for Jacqueline. From where does she get inspiration from? Is it all framed or sometimes personally experienced by anyone?
Thank you Damayanti for bringing this together, Very useful for any fiction writing
Hi Geethica. I get my inspiration from subjects I care about, but all my characters and plots are imagined. I like to research carefully and to make sure that I get all the facts right, but part of my enjoyment is to create a world quite different from the ‘real’ one I have researched.
Very good post / article.
Thank you so much!
Very interesting and useful! I am not much of a plotter, my first novel I literally sat down and started writing, only to find afterwards that the plot wasn’t well developed so it took a lot of work to fix. My second book I gave more thought, but to be honest I still have no clue how a book will end when I start writing, a lot still changes on the way. And I like it that way. As you say, it is always a balance.
Another thing that really helped me is using scrivener, I now have more better overview of where my book is going. I can make little summaries per chapter, put all my notes together. Organised chaos as I like to describe it 😉
Oh my goodness, the cork boards in Scrivener! I love them. Thank you for reading.
Thanks for sharing this helpful post, I love to watch psychological thrillers and do want to write a thriller someday.
But whenever I decide to start writing I get stuck.
Hey Priyanka, just write! watching psychological thrillers is useful to understand the plot and shape of the story.
My poor pantser brain just melted! 🙂 Kidding. I’ve been forcing myself to learn to plot and I’m following something similar for my latest project. Not easy but I’m hoping it will cut down on revision time! thanks for sharing your outline – i’m adding it to my toolkit! 🙂
I hope it is useful, it does cut down on revision time and chapter shuffling! Good luck.
Very organized and professional.
I need to incorporate this into my writing. I tried years ago to write a full length novel, having successfully won a few short story contests. I failed miserably at it, struggling with the pace and plotting over a larger time period as opposed to a small slice of life event.
Any tidbits you can offer for people trying to take the leap from short stories to a debut novel?
Hi There. I started writing short stories. I used to write for magazines but one day my story just carried on. I found myself thinking ‘What happens next?’. I am a big fan of goal directed thinking and ‘little chunks’ of goals and I tend to think in terms of scenes and chapters and not full novels. I quite often think os a scene as a piece of flash fiction about the character, and a chapter as a short story. You can still fit this a plot outline – they are tied together with the story. It tricks my mind into writing!
Wow, I’m a plotter but that is way above anything I’ve done. Bet it keeps your stories on track though, Jacqueline.
It does Alex. And when my agent or editor comes back with changes it helps me to go back through and find out what I need to do.
I found Jacqueline’s discussion of a plotting sheet fascinating. I’ve often wondered how authors plan out their novels. This was like getting a behind the scenes glimpse of that process.. Thanks.
You are very welcome, Jim.