Monday, 17 January 2011

How To Plot A Book...

by Matt lynn

Over on the International Thriller Writers site, I've been taking part in a roundtable discussion about whether you should plan a book in advance. This is always a popular question I've found with readers. Anyway, here's my take on it, and if you head over to the ITW there is lots more.

Before starting the ‘Death Force’ series a couple of years ago, I spent about five years as a ghost-writer for Random House. I churned out seven action-adventure thrillers, books that were supposedly written by spies and special forces guys.

In many ways it was a frustrating experience. You get quite well-paid, but you don’t get any credit for your work.

But it did teach me one really useful thing – the importance of planning your plot.

When you are ghost-writing, you need to get the ‘author’ and publisher on board. The last thing I wanted to do was spend months on a book, and then get told it wasn’t what they wanted. So I started writing incredibly detailed outlines. I’d do a 15,000 word outline for a 100,000 word book. Every chapter and incident would be detailed, bits of dialogue, and character development. Then I’d make sure everyone was signed up to it.

And you know what. I found it was a tremendous discipline. It forced me to really think ruthlessly about where the plot was going. It forced me to think hard about turning point, and twists, and to fitting the characters into the story. And it made me much better at chucking things out – I could edit much more fiercely on an outline than I ever could on a finished manuscript.

So now that I am writing my own books I still do these incredibly detailed outlines.

And that has two big advantages.

First, the plots are much better. They start in the right place, they are tighter and leaner, and more exciting.

Second, when I’m writing the actually book, I don’t have to worry about plot and structure because that is already done. I can focus on jokes, dialogue, one-liners, terrific action descriptions, and all the other stuff that goes into a first-class thriller.

So if there is one piece of advice I would always give an aspiring writer it is – plan, plan, plan.


  1. Hallo Matt. Interestingly, I took part as an author on the roundtable a couple of months ago. Trouble was, only about three people bothered to join in. Quite disappointing. On the subject of plotting and planning, I have often fallen short of that, despite managing to produce seven thrillers. I have to admit that my last book, A COVERT WAR was written with nothing in mind other that the opening prologue. I literally made it up as I went along. It isn't something I would recommend to a new writer, but I seem to remember Lee Child, on an ITW interview, admitting that he hadn't a clue what he was going to do with a story after he'd written the opening sequence of 61 Hours (I think it was that book). It takes all sorts though, and thank goodness we all have different ways of coming up with the goods.

  2. By Peter Stuart Smith

    Hi Matt. I suppose in my books I kind of fall between the two extremes. I almost never do detailed plotting unless my agent thinks it's really necessary - like negotiating a new contract. I always know the beginning of the story, simply because it's extremely difficult to start writing it without this very essential piece of information, and I know where it's going to end. But the bit in the middle is often a complete mystery to me until the characters start telling me what's going on. And when I do prepare a detailed synopsis, I find it quite difficult work to it, because other - and hopefully better - ideas begin to intrude as the story develops.

    I suppose, ultimately, any author has to work in whatever way best suits him or her. I happen to know that Jeffrey Archer still writes in longhand, using a particular kind of pen. There's no possible way I could produce a book if I didn't have a computer. Yes, my writing really is that bad. He also has a fixed daily writing schedule, followed by an exhaustive editing process, and the end result is that the manuscript which finally makes it to his publisher at Macmillan is about the eighteenth draft. I write every day, but not to any kind of schedule, just whenever I can, and for as long as I can.

    As has been said before, it's a good job we're all different!