Lost the Plot? Plan your way to success!

Help! I'm plotting mad...

Are you a plotter or a pantser?

Me? I'm a shocking pantser. I try to plot - I do. I do, I swear! But I quickly lose it, as I take a tangent here, and wind my merry way there... 

Inspired by all our talented SCBWI authors who plot and map and colour code their way to success, we've brought together some great advice to help with plotting. 

Come on, take a look at other writer's planning boards, you know you want to take a peek.

Jo Franklin: 

Jo Franklin's Planning Wall
photo by PJ Norman

I never used to plan my books. I went from idea to pen marks on paper in sixty seconds. I felt so brilliant about my own creativity, I didn’t stop to think whether I was writing a satisfactory story or just words on the page. 

The crunch came when a top agent and my dream editor were both interested in a manuscript, but both said I hadn’t developed the story enough for them to take it further. 

It was a low point in my writing life. I had to face the fact that I could write words but I couldn’t write a book that anyone wanted to publish because I didn’t know how to plot/plan a story. 

So I studied the art of plotting. 

I read every book on the subject, I applied what I wrote to various projects, I dissected other writer’s books and I developed my own planning process over the next two years. 

Then I wrote Help I’m an Alien. I was taken on by my agent Anne Clark and soon had contracts in two countries. I am a total convert to planning. 

Now when I am working on a new idea, I follow these golden rules: 

  •  Don’t start writing without knowing how the story is going to end. 
  •  Plan the book in three different ways:

  1. Cards on the board (see photo) 
  2. A synopsis – 2 or 3 pages at this stage, but will end up as the 1 page selling synopsis 
  3. Chapter by chapter outline – for my use only 

  • Work between the three formats until each one works 
  • If a plot point is difficult to summarise in the synopsis, it will be impossible for the reader to understand it. Re-work it.
  • Ask someone else to look at the synopsis (my crit group and/or agent). 

A fresh pair of eyes is really useful, but never show the first draft to anyone. 


Jo Franklin writes funny Middle Grade. She is delighted to be published in Germany and USA (Autumn 2015) and has just signed a contract with Albin Michel in France. Jo is still chasing her first UK publishing contract. 


Linda Lawlor: 

Linda's planning board featuring various
adventures over three busy days!
Plotting out my story on a big magnetic whiteboard means all I have to do is look up when writing to see where I am in the story. 

Different colours denote settings, actions, characters and so on, and I can usually find 'photos' of the main characters from my huge collection (cut out from magazines) to put at the top.

I'm a very visual thinker so having the whole story mapped out like this gives me a sense of security (and it can easily be modified if inspiration strikes).

Its greatest benefit, though, is in the actual making: 

I can work on it for ages, moving key events around then siting other scenes nearby to see what happens. And, truth be told, messing about with coloured cards is a lot of fun! 

Charlotte Comley: 


Charlotte colour codes the beginning, middle and end, to reveal areas for that need attention. 

You can’t fix it, 
if you can’t see it.

Sally Poyton: 

Sally's sketch pad for plotting.

I write quite tight knit plots for YA MG fantasy/ sci-fi, so plotting is essential to ensure that it doesn’t have gaping holes, or wander off at a tangent or even worse become so complicated that it’s difficult to follow. 

I use two main ways of plotting, one which veers more towards my creative side (I come from an art background) and the other from my slightly pedantic, organised side. 

Plotting is key to the project working. 

Sally's Plotting Notice Board
Sketch Pads & Notice Boards – this is a very visual plotting technique, ensuring that everything is on display and is tangible, this really helps to ground the plot and ensure that no plot strand goes astray. 

Spreadsheets – I plan my plot by breaking it down into parts and chapters. 

I work out what size each chapter should be and what will happen in each. This ensures that the plot is paced well, and that the story arc is running in line with the planned end word count. I use the spreadsheet to put off-page action, setting and character notes so that I know exactly what is directing the plot. The spreadsheets is also good for re-plotting and keeping track or any changes that need to be made in future edits. 


Sally Poyton’s previous careers include hand-rearing parrots and has selling paint to the queen! Now Sally writes MG and YA she has been honorary mentioned in Undiscovered Voices and longlisted for The Times / Chicken House Children’s Fiction Competition twice. Sally is totally thrilled to be represented by Shelley Instone.

Amy Robinson:

Post-it notes! Everywhere like a giant jigsaw, shuffling them to squeeze extra in. A historical novel I did for NaNoWriMo was plotted onto a timeline with the characters' ages marked in. Oh, and once, I plotted an entire book into an old diary because it was about a wedding being planned over a year and I wanted to make sure the dates would be right. I never finished that one, though. 
Amy Robinson

Still lost the plot? 

Our lovely contributors have recommended some books on the subject of plotting for further reading: 


For humorous no nonsense advice try: 

How NOT to Write a Novel: 200 Mistakes to avoid at All Costs if You Ever Want to Get Published by Howard Mittelmark & Sandra Newman 

For advice on all aspects of writing and creative life which is relevant to all writing and illustration not limited to Manga try: 

Be creative (Manga Life) by Sonia Leong, Rob Bevan, Tim Wright & John Middleton.  


The Plot Thickens, by Noah Lukeman 

The Seven Basic Plots, by Christopher Booker 


Plot and Structure, by James Scott Bell, is a good one. 

My favourite book, Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maass  - isn't exclusively about plot but has a generous section on it. 

Jo's Stack of How To books.
I think it is important to read widely from the ‘How To’ books on offer and revisit them regularly. The advice you need changes as you develop as a writer. 

You never stop learning. 

Here is a stack of books from my shelves, but I also borrow every title that becomes available at the library and sometimes sit in Waterstones for hours browsing books on their ‘How to Write’ shelf. 


Louise Cliffe-Minns is the Events Editor and joint Features Editor for Words & Pictures.

Follow: @LMMinns


  1. Wow, there's some great tips in here that I am going to try and incorporate into my own lengthy process.

  2. Thanks so much for your helpful advice! I love the different methods writers use - I am a plotting and post-it-note convert!

  3. Brilliant. It's really useful to see how plotters plot. I'm more of a mole, digging blindly, following my nose - but more often than not this can lead to a golf course or a car park, when really I thought I was headed to a sunny glade (if you get my meaning!)

  4. I love this - I have to FORCE myself to do a story map but I do it after I've writtenthe first draft and then discover TONS of holes. How much time I would save if I wasn't so impatient.

  5. Hi Guys, some great plotting tips here, that i shall embrace and add to my arsenal!

  6. This is one of the things I love about being a SCBWI member - I have actually changed the way I plot as a direct result of other writers sharing their own processes. Gotta love being a scoobie ;)

  7. I loved this post! Especially Linda's giant magnetic whiteboard, as that way I won't accidentally stab myself with tacks. I have just started using Scrivener and that has a virtual Post-it board which I hope will also work well.

  8. Great post! Loads of helpful advice - though I have to say after years of developing and monitoring strategy the idea of producing a plot spreadsheet is enough to send shivers down my spine :-)

  9. Great post! I have a massive board above my desk with something like a caterpillar lifecycle diagram drawn on it. Only with plot outline instead of egg/ caterpillar/ butterfly stuff, obviously - otherwise it would be weird and pointless ;)

  10. Brilliant Lou - I love finding out how other people plot…or not!

  11. Fab post! I was a pantser, but I can see the worth in plotting. Scrivener is a great tool which I use, though, you can never go wrong with the trusted Post-it. :-)

  12. Fab post! I was a pantser, but I can see the worth in plotting. Scrivener is a great tool which I use, though, you can never go wrong with the trusted Post-it. :-)

  13. Great stuff! Jo's first few paragraphs about pantsing and realising that it wasn't working could be my own. I now use Scrivener to write - it has great plotting tools.

  14. Thanks for the tips. I use a mix of these approaches - from timelines and lists of chapters to flowcharts and a detailed story plan. I don't know how writers write without having pinned down their plot first. Even if I scrap what I have written that day and start again, having a plan means you always have something to aim for. It helps avoid writer's block.


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