Writing Dangerously: Plotting ~ Christopher Koehler: Outside the Margins

Join us as Christopher Koehler goes Outside the Margins.

Chris-Koehler-OTMWriting Dangerously: Plotting

Christopher Koehler

When I started writing I stumbled into one of the big debates going around. No, not whether or not women should write m/m (don’t get me started…), but plotting versus pantsing it. This baffled me. I thought everyone outlined, but oh no, nothing of the sort. Apparently quite a rift exists between those of us who plot and those of us who write by the seat of our pants. Not the second-person plural pronoun. I still regard us all as part of the same community. It’s just that you pantsters make me nervous.


I started outlining my essays at the end of my undergrad career when my papers grew too convoluted to keep track of in my head. At some point in time, assignments reached a critical mass of complexity and keeping track of the details exceeded my capacities. No comments from the gallery, thank you very much. The complexity of papers certainly didn’t decline in grad school and I just kept outlining, which is plotting by another name.


When it came to the biggest paper of my life until that time, I plotted like Machiavelli. I certainly never informed my dissertation committee that I viewed my dissertation as a dry run for a novel, but that’s what it was. Think about it—what’s a dissertation but carrying an idea along for tens of thousands of words, developing it along the way? It’s a plot, I tell you, a plot, only a lot more boring.


I carried this right on into fiction, long or short. The only difference was one of detail. And fun. You must never forget the fun. Writing should be enjoyable. Yes, it’s maddening and frustrating, and most writers I know write because we have to, but it’s also highly enjoyable.


So what exactly do I get out of plotting, besides a deep-seated satisfaction at seeing things line up mostly the way I need and want them to? To begin with, by the time I’m done with my first draft I’m basically done with my last draft, too. Yep, that’s right, I don’t have to throw out tens of thousands of words. The thought of that makes me twitch, by the way. I hate wasting time and effort.


Sure, I have edits to make. You wouldn’t believe how often I drop words. Sometimes my husbands thinks that’s what his job as my first beta reader is—official dropped word catcher. I have to rewrite a passage here or there to improve clarity. I’ll even add passages. But wholesale deleting? Nope. Knock yourselves out, pantsters. Since I know where I’m going, I almost never write myself into a corner.


Okay, so what do my plots actually look like?


I plot so much that I even follow a plot structure. Think of it the scaffolding on which I build my story, or the endoskeleton on which the meat goes. I use a W-shaped plot structure when I write. The ends of the W represent the high and low points in the action, both emotional and dramatic: things are great; then it goes to crap; but then the protagonist pulls it out of the manure pile and everything looks wonderful; but wait! just when he thinks all is golden something happens to pull the rug back from under him; then there’s one last, desperate chance to fix it all; and then it’s the HEA.


Technically, at that last, desperate chance, it could go either way, but this is Romancelandia and it always ends in the HEA, or at least happy enough for now.


I’ve thought of experimenting with other plot structures, but when it comes down to it, the W works for me. Of course, when I write a short story, like my Toby and Derek stories, I’ll use a part of a W. Think of it was a V—(action starts), high point, low point, resolution on a cheerful note. See how this works?


The W is a fairly standard plot structure in television, although motion pictures seem to follow a different structure. That said, there are many, many structures for plots, and if this is something that interests you, I recommending looking up ‘plot structure’ on your favorite search engine. Prepare to be inundated.


Here’s a snippet from First Impressions. It represents the first arm of the W. Actually it gets me to the first arm of the W, because I plan even that out. As a writer I map out as much as I can.



Setting the stage: introduce Henry & Cameron, their friends, their needs and goals
0 à 1

1) Henry Hughes arrives at his city condo to find it aired out, etc.2) Lillian, who knows Sac and people in it, plans to drag Henry to a party Grateful to Lillian, but wishes he had a special someone to look after him—and to look after in return (and not like the serial trophy husbands his Uncle Benton had). Content with life but wistful, longing.2) figures why not, even if he’s got his own friends to see while he’s in town
1) Cameron and friends at New Hel mocking the personals (01:1-19) before C’s birthday. They’re to see Lady Fellatia Manblower perform. The Aunties had tix they couldn’t use. BT3tells Cam he’s the one.2) V/T meet a woman’s eyes across the room (Lillian), badger Cam about a party 1) Cam thinks at least they’re putting themselves out there. All he has is a crush on Simon
1) on their way to her car, Lillian tells Henry there’s something she wants him to meet2) Better to be alone than loved for what he was…or rejected. “They’re not all like that,” she said. H: Too many seem to be. L: Give me some credit. H: Just…no.” 1) H is annoyed/angry—last set-up (by Uncle Benton/Lady Fellatia) was a disaster. The guy wanted Hugh Jerection and his money. Not sure which is worse, being sought out for his past or being judged for it. Both hurt and neither treats him like a person.
1) Cam gets ready for the party (01:23-31) and at the party (01:31-33) dancing with Troy while Van comes up with someone for him to meet2) first physical impression of Henry 1) cautiously upbeat about it, but not really sure he’s got time for a relationship.2) physical lust that quickly turns to utter chagrin
1) H meets C (01:34-38 but see Macroplotting) 1) Visceral reminder of the party circuit and the porn scene
1) Thread Luella Jameson answering machine message.



You’ll note that it’s actually a table within a table, but that’s because I’m an inveterate user of Word. There are plenty of writing programs that may well make this easier. I just don’t use them. My goal is to make money and I already own MS Office. These other programs cost money, and writing is a low-paying profession as is it. Anyway, you’ll notice that the inner columns detail the dramatic action, as well as what the protagonist of each scene feels. One of the major criticisms of my early fiction was that characters were divorced from their emotions, so this dual track outline helped me to include both drama and emotion.


So what of the charge that plotting eliminates spontaneity? To that I say, poppycock! Even with this admittedly anal-retentive approach to outline, I still have a subconscious mind, and it still churns constantly with thoughts of my plot and my characters, or as I think of them, my guys. Every outline has its vague spaces, places that are less detailed than others, and in those places my subconscious plays. Then, too, the internal logic of the story trumps any outline, and if something comes to me that makes more sense than the outline, that part of the outline goes right out the window.


Exhibit A is the character Owen Douglas in Tipping the Balance. He was the hot daddy firefighter Brad Sundstrom tricked with. He was one of the two protagonists in Burning It Down. Owen and that scene with Brad appeared nowhere in my notes or outline for TTB. Owen spun himself into existence in my imagination in hour it took me to write that scene in TTB. He simply demanded my attention and wouldn’t shut up until I gave it to him. Then he demanded a book of his own. The CalPac Crew series was originally supposed envisioned as a trilogy. Oops.


Usually this column aims to challenge people, but not this time. I have no intention of abandoning plotting. It serves me too well. I even plotted out this column.

~ Christopher Koehler

Farewell Giveaway
I have a number of paperbacks, most of which are signed, to giveaway. Over the between now (11 Mar 2017) and 31 Mar 2017, every comment on the blog (this post and all other new posts), will be entered to win 1 of these paperbacks. There are also some misc swag items, so there will be a few packs of these to give away as well.

Thank you so much for your support over the last 4 years. Prism will be closing its doors on 1 April 2017. All content will remain available, but no new content will appear after 31 Mar 2017. As such all request forms have been turned off. Again Thank you,

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2 thoughts on “Writing Dangerously: Plotting ~ Christopher Koehler: Outside the Margins

  1. Christopher, thank you, so much for sharing all of this. It’s always interesting to me to hear about different approaches, what works and what doesn’t, etc., for each author.

    The table within a table feels like a blend of plotting and pants-flying LOL. There’s room to play, shift and rework the order of things, but still be able to see the plot(s) mapped out.

    Also, major bonus points for using poppycock. *thumbs up* spontaneity still happens within a structured timeline, to sho.

  2. You’re welcome 🙂 I love hearing about how other authors do things, too. I think we’re all very, very different. My husband writes, now, too, and I *really* want to see how he does things. So far, he hasn’t shown me anything, writing or outlines.

    The funny thing is, I don’t really use the table much anymore now that I’m comfortable with depicting emotions. It sure helped at the beginning, however.

    And speaking of spontaneity, in my current WIP, at least two things have popped up in the plot recently that have forced reconsiderations of the outline later in the book. One of them was something I’d always had in mind, but the other was completely out of the blue. Oh well, it’s all good.

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