Jessica Ellicott on the Mysteries of Plotting

LUCY BURDETTE: You may remember during my last "what you're writing" post that I mentioned how much easier plotting seemed to go after retaining Jessie Ellicott aka Crockett to help me brainstorm. I promised I'd try to get her here to explain her method, and hurray, she's here today! Carry on Jessie...please share your magic!

JESSICA ELLICOTT:  I know not all writers share my enthusiasm, but I adore plotting novels. I like it so much that a few years ago I began to work with other writers on plotting theirs too. I love coaching people who are stuck, either at the beginning of a novel or even part-way through and seeing their eyes light up as the ideas start flowing. 

The strategy I use with clients is really very simple. I believe that one of the reasons plotting can feel so painful and frustrating is that it is impossible to simultaneously generate ideas and also to sort out where the idea belongs in the story. Trying to do so feels like being stuck in a traffic jam with no hope in sight. It’s far more enjoyable to brainstorm a number of scenes that will be in a story first and then go about the business of slotting them into their proper places later. 

Usually, the client and I will meet via Zoom. I ask them to come to the meeting with any information they know, or think they know about the story they wish to tell. I ask them about the projected length of the manuscript and also for the average word count they naturally tend to write per scene.  If they wish to do so they email some thoughts to me ahead of time so that we can launch in straightaway. 

I have a large glass board mounted to a wall in my office and I use it to scrawl some notes during as the client answers some basic questions about the story, like the setting, the time period and any characters they know will appear in it. If it is a crime novel I ask if they have any thoughts about the circumstances around that. If they are writing a mystery series I will ask about the murder method, victim and perpetrator that appeared in the previous book.

Once we have a few bits of information to work with I pull out a pen 
and a stack of sticky notes and we begin to look at the notes on the board as potential scenes. If there is a murder, there needs to be a scene where the victim is introduced. So, I write “Victim Introduced” on a sticky note and place it on the glass wall at random. If there is a victim there has to be a perpetrator, and that character must also be introduced. I write “Murderer Introduced” on another sticky note and place it on the wall well away from the first one.

We repeat the process of adding small idea chunks that are parts of different scenes to the wall and I make certain at this stage to resist the urge to make any of it neat and tidy. I have generally found that the less organized it looks, the more at ease the clients tend to be. Before long, there is a satisfying number of sticky notes available to work with.

At some point the flow of ideas will taper to a trickle, and I know that it is time to switch tasks. This is where my earlier question about word count comes in. Based on the project length and the word count per scene it is easy to approximate the number of scenes necessary to tell the story. There is an underlying architecture to stories, and it is possible to use that framework to begin sorting the scenes into place. Many writers, either consciously or unconsciously, employ three act structure or the hero or heroine’s journey to craft their work. That strategy works a treat for arranging the chaos of scenes jotted on the notes.

As we place the character introduction scenes, clue dropping scenes, etc., I leave gaps for other ideas to appear. They may not arrive immediately, but eventually they always do. And since the gaps are present throughout the storyline feeling stuck is less likely to occur. There is no need to know what happens in a gap back in act one before a gap is filled in scene three. Creative brains seem to like to hop all over the place when generating ideas and a non-linear approach leans into that preference.

The process is easy to tailor to individual writers and even to different projects for the same writer. Some people like to plot the entire novel before they begin to write. Others like to swing back and forth between plotting forward a bit and then writing the scenes they know will be in the story. It isn’t even necessary to write the scenes in order and some people I have worked with discover they prefer to work on whatever feels interesting to them when they open the manuscript.

Many clients find that they like using the technique on their own after we have done a session or two together. Others prefer to have someone to bounce their ideas off and to ask thought-provoking questions. Either way, as long as they are happily able to make progress on their projects, I am tickled pink! After all, there is nothing better than new books to read, is there? Questions and comments welcome!

Agatha award nominee Jessica Ellicott loves fountain pens, red convertibles and throwing parties. She lives in northern New England where she obsessively knits wool socks and enthusiastically speaks Portuguese with a shocking disregard for the rules of grammar. She indulges her passion for historical fiction and all things British by writing the Beryl and Edwina Mysteries and the WPC Billie Harkness Mysteries.

Jessica’s books have received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly as well as one from Library Journal. Her first novel won the Daphne du Maurier award for mystery.