The 7 Ps of Plotting
© Catherine Castle
I love alliteration, and lists of alliteration. So, with the aim of adding a new twist to an old narrative, (did you catch that alliteration?) I’ve taken a few permissions with plotting and renamed the familiar parts—but not the nitty gritty—of this basic craft element every writer should know. And if you don’t know about plotting, here’s a quick lesson I hope you enjoy. Just so you don’t get too confused, the normal names of the plot parts are in bold italics,
The 7 Ps of Plotting (in my alliteration list) are Promise, POV, Problems, Predicaments, Pacing, Pinnacle, and Peroration.
1. The Promise—The opening of every book holds a promise. A dead body usually promises mystery or suspense. A meeting between a man and a woman, with a spark of attraction, usually promises romance. If your character gets stuck in a doggie door while trying to retrieve her stray cat from the neighbor’s property, you are promising your reader comedy. The promise of your book is the hook you hold out to catch the reader. You have about three pages to hook a reader, agent or an editor. So make your opening a great one by introducing a character that’s important to the story right off the bat. Make sure you have, at the very least, a hint of the conflict to come, a hint of the setting, and a hint of your voice. Notice, I said hint. Don’t bog your reader down in copious amounts of back story or narrative with your opening. You’ll have hundreds of pages to work that in.
2. The POV—Make sure you’re telling your story from the right POV. Who is the character, or characters, at the heart of your story? Readers want to identify with your characters and if you don’t know whose story you are writing, they aren’t going to care about reading it. If you start out in the POV of a character you kill off in the next chapter, readers are going to be confused, and maybe even a bit angry at you. They have invested in your character already.Most romances have two POVs—the heroine and the hero. You might get away with adding a villain, but be very sure you need him. Longer books can support more characters, but be careful not to head hop. If you choose omniscient POV, realize readers want to connect with a character, and omniscient POV doesn’t allow them to easily do that.
3. The Problems—Problems, aka conflicts, are at the heart of your plot. Without them you have no story. Every plot and subplot must have problems for your characters to resolve, goals they must achieve. These problems can be internal or external, or both. Let the reader know upfront what your characters are facing. Waiting until chapter six will be too late. You don’t have to reveal everything in the first page, a clear hint at the upcoming problem can be enough to catch the reader’s interest.
4. The Predicaments—Predicaments are the obstacles that keep your characters from accomplishing their goals and solving their problems. They are the plot turning points in your story that complicate the characters’ lives and frustrate them on their journey. Predicaments drive your story forward. They lead your character to the point of no return, to the black moments when it seems like all is lost. They provide the resolution to finish the job or get the goal at any cost. They increase tension, affect character development, lay the groundwork to achieve the goals, and lead characters to where they need to be to solve their problems.
Make your characters’ predicaments powerful enough to keep readers interested. Pile them on to raise the stakes, making it harder to achieve goals. Plot twists, unexpected elements that take readers by surprise, are great ways to raise the stakes and take the ordinary story to the extraordinary. Be sure to plant seeds for any plot twists earlier in the story, so when the event happens you won’t leave your readers feeling cheated. You want them to say “Wow, I didn’t see that coming, but it makes sense if I think about it.”
5. The Pacing—Pacing and plot points go hand-in-hand. If you front load plot points you can end up with a sagging middle. If you place them too far back in the book, you’ll lose readers’ interest. When plotting your book, consider graphing the pivotal plot points, spacing them out so they push the story forward naturally. Each plot point must support the rest, yet be different in scale and intensity. A story composed totally of fast-paced plot points is a run-away train that gives readers heart palpitations. You want their hearts to race at the proper times, not give them heart attacks. Slower scenes interspersed within those heart-racing scenes creates ebb and flow that gives readers a chance to take it all in, and gives you a place to drop in some of the narrative writers love so much.
6. The Pinnacle—The pinnacle is the climax of your story, the peak of emotional response from the reader, the place where the protagonist solves his or her problems. At the climax, the reader knows there will be a happily ever after, or the murderer will be punished, or the world will be saved from invasion. The pinnacle of the story must be satisfying and resolve the stories issues in a logical way, or with a twist that readers didn’t see coming, but fully understand by the clues you planted along the way.
7. The Peroration—Yes, I know it’s a weird word, and I’m taking some literary license here, since peroration isn’t actually about novels but is the wrap up of a speech. It’s also the closest P word I could find to use for the “wrap-up” section of a plot. The last part of a plot, which is everything that occurs after the pinnacle of the story, is actually called the denouement. Mark Twain called it the “marryin’ and the buryin’” It’s the part of the story that wraps up the fate of any characters not mentioned in the climax and shows the results of the plot. In romances you’ll often see the denouement depicting a glimpse of the happily ever after, the requisite happy home, happy husband and wife, happy 2 1/2 kids and a dog. In other genres you might see life returning to normal for a murder victim’s family, incarceration of the bad guy, the wounded soldier getting his medals, or the earth recovering after alien invasion. This section of the plot gives the reader closure and answers any questions about characters or events you might have left dangling in the breeze.
Brevity is the key word in the peroration, or denouement. Short, sweet, and to the point. After all, the story has ended, the problems are solved, and there should be no more predicaments left … unless you have a sequel waiting in the wings. And, if you do, the same rules of plotting apply to that story.
So go forth … put pen to paper, plan … and plot!
How much plotting do you do in advance?