Confessions of a Story Plotter by Jennifer Slattery

manuscriptAfter nine months of research, angsting, typing, deleting, and typing some more, I’d reached the end. It was my first real, full-length novel. (I say that because everything I’d written prior deserved to land in one place—the trash.) But this one? This one actually had a cohesive plot. More than that, I loved the story and felt as if God had birthed it in my heart and carried it through to resolution.

Grinning, I printed it out and brought it to my husband. “Would you like to read this?”

My handsome, railroader husband stared at the 300+ pages, his eyebrows shooting upward. “All of it?”

“Yep. Please?”

Based on his rapidly fluctuating facial expressions, a thousand thoughts flew through his mind. Apparently, Luke 9:23 rose to the surface: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”MeandSteve

Those married to a writer understand this. Those unpolished, noncohesive manuscripts are the cross they must bear—not only bear, but read, from eye-glossing beginning to migraine-producing end. Then they must find a way to tell their love the brutal truths that will help them grow.

Truths  like:

Your timeline’s messed up.

You never closed that plot thread.

Can someone really single-handedly save two-hundred orphans from certain death?

Those were the types of truths my husband told me. In my write-as-I-go fashion, I’d made a mess of pretty near everything due to an unplanned (also known as nonexistent) time-line. Fixing it wouldn’t be easy.

In fact, midway through, I began to wonder if it’d be easier to simply toss the manuscript and start over. I didn’t, but this experience did change the way I wrote my second novel.

Because of that frustrating experience, my inner plotter emerged, and it’s remained ever since.

brain-explosion stagePlotting begins with the same bones all stories do: an intriguing idea, scene, or character that won’t leave your brain. From here, I normally focus on one character. I determine her lie (I always start with my female characters for some reason), the thing she believes about herself that hinders her from living fully in God’s grace.

Then, I determine her goal, which is usually closely tied to her lie. This is where it gets interesting. Because her goal is based on her lie, when God’s truth replaces her lie, she very well may begin pursuing an entirely new goal. Because I write missional romance, which focuses on characters’ divine calling and their realization and pursuit of that, I will usually also pray over a social issue I believe my character is passionate about.

One they probably aren’t even aware of yet.

Rather, it’s more of a hidden passion, one God crafted into them but their lie, distractions, and false ambitions have kept it hidden from them.

At this stage, a great deal of research and brainstorming is done. Then comes the plotting, which I’ll share more next Monday.

What about you? Do you plot your stories or do you prefer to write as you go? What are some key elements that you include in every novel? What does your pre-writing brainstorming look like?

If you want to see the results of my plotting, you check out my debut novel, currently available for preorder at 26% percent off! If you plan to buy the novel, now’s a great time.  Here’s the purchase link:

Here’s the blurb:

BeyondIDocoverBeyond I Do

Marriage . . . it’s more than a happily ever after. Eternally more.

Ainsley Meadow’s encounter with a woman, her child, and their abuser sparks a passion that threatens her engagement. Will seeing beyond the present unite her and her fiancé or tear them apart?

Raised by a hedonist mother, who cycles through jobs and relationships like wrapping paper on Christmas morning, falls into a predictable and safe relationship with Richard, a self-absorbed socialite psychiatrist. But as her wedding nears, a battered woman and her child spark a long-forgotten dream and ignites a hidden passion. One that threatens to change everything, including her fiancé. To embrace God’s best and find true love, this security-seeking bride must follow God with reckless abandon and realize that marriage goes Beyond I Do.

Jennifer Slattery is a missional romance novelist with New Hope Publishers. She writes and edits for Christ to the World Ministries, is a regular contributor to, Internet Cafe Devotions,Inspy Romance, and Jewels of Encouragement,  and manages the social media for Takin’ it to the Streets, a ministry that serves Omaha’s working poor and homeless. She’s placed in numerous writing contests and her work has appeared in numerous compilations, magazines, and e-zines.  Visit her devotional blog,JenniferSlatteryLivesOutLoud, her editing services website, WordsThatKeep, or connect with her onFacebook or Twitter.

4 thoughts on “Confessions of a Story Plotter by Jennifer Slattery

  1. Oh, it’s different for me. My first novel was an experiment, a “why not?” sort of endeavor. I had one scene in my mind, a big conflict scene between my male and female lead, but I had no idea who they were, why exactly they were fighting, and where this was going to go. I just wrote the scene, enjoying the fact that there were secrets here, and then tried to follow what could happen next. It ended up being in the middle of the book, and then I wrote to the end, and then filled in the beginning. Weird, I know. I had a lot of continuity and timeline issues to clean up, but after doing this kind of investigative writing, it helped me see that I needed strong personalities and experiences to get these people to these plot points–and develop the inner struggles I was still uncovering. Then again, it was my first try.

    My second foray into writing, just recently after a long hiatus (ah, life), I wanted to do differently. I had this great idea for a trilogy, and I outlined the heck out of the thing. I knew the plot, made a calendar, and worked on back stories to make the characters interesting. Then April 1 rolled around (I really need NaNoWriMo to kick my butt in gear, it seems) and I stalled. The writing was mechanical, there was no depth to anything, I was constantly feeling confused about knowing what the characters should be doing but weren’t, and all I was accomplishing was purple prose. I nearly threw it away and decided that maybe this was God’s way of telling me that this is not a vocation for me. That changed when, in a fit of stubbornness over word count goals, I skipped to a near-random spot in the first book. I hadn’t planned this scene, but I knew I needed the love interest to poke his nose in before all you-know-where broke loose. I began writing a dinner scene…and suddenly it all fell apart. My female lead let me know that this is when she would finally lose her mind, let her emotions out over the horrible grief she was carrying (she had previously been described as a nervous wreck; as I looked at her character more, I realized she was the type to repress her emotions and just numbly go through life rather than crash). Her emotional fall-out would lead to the questioning of God’s character I knew had to come in somewhere as it was the main question of the book. It heightened the tension between the pair and made me simultaneously want to hug them and smack them for being so annoying and poor communicators with each other. Again, my pattern held–find the point of conflict, then move on from there. I learned more from my characters in this 5,000 word scene (yes, it’s long–I’ll trim it) than in months of organization. Before long, my book was practically rewritten. Several characters appeared out of nowhere, becoming integral to the overall story. Entire subplots disappeared. My bad guy, who had started as the average-Joe-gone-one-step-too-far, morphed into a serial killer. I have tons of scenes to redo, tons of notes to help keep continuity, and the knowledge that someone is going to have to read over my shoulder to make sure I didn’t miss anything (because I’m sure I will). Scrivener is a lifesaver in this process as I can be somewhat organized (as much as I ever am) while still having massive flexibility. My first novel was just a Word document. That was not the greatest plan. 🙂

    I admire plotters who can get everything figured out to the point where the novel becomes a fill-in-the-blank exercise. I’m sure it’s a much more speedy process with fewer errors. Maybe I’ll get to write one of those novels someday. Right now, I think my only recourse is just to keep doing what I’ve been doing: capturing moments, then linking them together like a delicate necklace. I might be deluding myself with calling this a working process, but for now, I’ll take the fantasy. 🙂 Kudos to you for finding what works with your system!

  2. We’re supposed to brainstorm BEFORE we start the novel? I do enough plotting to know my characters’ GMC and the major plot points. Then I usually find the temptation to start writing too strong. Kudos to Jennifer for still speaking to her husband. 🙂

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