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Plotting with your Characters

I don’t know about you, but I find plotting to be the most difficult thing about writing fiction.

But now that I write for a living, I’m required to submit a synopsis and/or detailed outline to my publisher well before I ever start a book.  And since my publisher pays me to do this, I have a huge incentive to pre-plot my books.

This being the case, I’ve developed a strategy for coming up with initial plot ideas.  I won’t say this is pain free, it’s not.  But it works for me.  And maybe it will work for you.  Here’s what I do.

I spend a ridiculous amount of time thinking about my hero and heroine.  I don’t find this painful at all.  Usually my hero is handsome and hot.  He has a wound.  He has a troubled backstory.  Same thing with my heroine.  Since I’m a writer, which is synonymous with voyeur, thinking about my characters’ inner and outer lives is no sweat whatsoever.  Once I’ve gotten to know them I will try to answer two key questions about them:

1)      What does my hero/heroine want more than anything?

2)      What does my hero/heroine need to learn in order to fall in love?

The answer to question 1 is where the external plot line lives.  The answer to this question has to be something other than ‘My heroine want to fall in love.’  Here are some examples of acceptable answers: My heroine wants a family.  She wants a business.  She wants to land that client or that job.  She wants to run away from the bad guys or her parents or her family.

The answer to question 2 is where the love story lives.  Here are some examples of acceptable answers:  The heroine needs to learn how to trust.  She needs to stop trying to control everything.  She needs to learn the power of positive thinking.  She needs to see herself as beautiful.

If I can figure out a link between questions one and two that’s terrific.  But often I can’t.  Also, if I can put the hero and heroine in conflict with these questions that’s a plus, too.  But often I can’t do that either.  And really it’s not necessary at this point.  Just knowing what they want and what they need to learn is the most important part.

Once I have these goals and needs nailed, I take out several pieces of paper and I let my characters brainstorm around three important questions:

1)      I ask both hero and heroine to list out at least ten things that could happen that would make it harder for him/her to reach the story goal, or make the story goal more important than ever.

2)      I ask both hero and heroine to list out at least five things that could happen that would make his/her story goal mean more to the community at large, such as friends, family, community, co-workers, neighbors, the guys at the bar.

3)      I ask both hero and heroine to list out one or two things that could happen that would make his/her story goal so important or difficult that it becomes a life and death situation.

After I’ve gotten these lists I ask my both hero and heroine which of these events or situations would give them an opportunity to practice whatever it is that they need to learn in order to find love.  This inevitably makes my list even bigger and more detailed.

When I’m done with this exercise I’ll have a long list of potential scenes that might not be enough for a full book, but is almost certainly enough for a few turning points, which I will try to assemble into my recipe for a seven paragraph synopsis.

So now comes the fun part.  Today I thought it would be fun to brainstorm a plot using this technique.  Here’s what you need to know about my hero and heroine.  (By the way, this is not a book I’m writing or planning to write, I made up these characters on the fly for this exercise only.)

Hero:  1) Rick wants to quit his job as a CPA and open an Italian restaurant.  He’s the quintessential foodie who yearns to cook for a living, but is afraid to express this to his friends and family.  2) Rick needs to learn not to always play it safe.  He’s spent his life doing the “expected” thing.

Heroine:  1) Suzy wants to lose 50 pounds.  She has always been a big girl and she’s convinced that her “real life” will start once she drops the weight.  2) Suzy needs to learn that real life is right now and you don’t want to miss a minute of it waiting around.

Okay now it’s your turn.  Post comments telling me how Rick and Suzy’s goals are going to be a) difficult to achieve or become even more important to achieve b) become important to their friends, family, and community in either a positive or negative way, c) become an issue of life and death importance.  And don’t worry if the obvious things get listed very quickly.  The really interesting (and funny or emotional) stuff usually doesn’t come out until you’ve jotted down all the obvious (and clichéd) possibilities.

And to add a little spice one lucky commenter will win a copy of Inn at Last Chance, my newest release in the Last Chance series of contemporary, small southern town romances.

54 responses to “Plotting with your Characters”

  1. June Love says:

    Hope, this is fantastic information. I’d like to play, but 1) I haven’t had my coffee yet
    2) I’m on a serious time crunch this morning
    3) I haven’t had my coffee yet 🙂

    However, something you listed made me think of something I needed to add into my current WIP. So, THANKS!

    Okay, still haven’t had my coffee, but because I just have to throw in my.02 and because I like TV Food Network – I would have to involve a Food Network show in some way for Rick. Like he’s given an opportunity to participate in a challenge or something. For Suzy, maybe her position in town requires she spearhead whatever Network project will be filming there, which means she’ll be around food. A lot. If set in a small town struggling for income and in threat of being incorporated into a nearby larger town, then this project could possibly bring in tourists to help revive the town. The town is depending on Rick and Suzy to pull this off.

    Lame, but need coffee and must get going. Great post, Hope!

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    • Hope Ramsay says:

      OMG this is NOT lame. I wouldn’t have even thought of a Food Network show as a backdrop. I was thinking more in line of a local Italian Restaurant. But this is a great example of how knowing a little bit about a couple of characters can lead to lots of ideas. I love this idea.

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  2. jbrayweber says:

    If it weren’t that I woke up an hour late, I would be inclined to play. I’m about to start my next book, and this will come in handy. Great post, Hope.

    My favorite line: …I’m a writer, which is synonymous with voyeur…

    Jenn!

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  3. Laurie Kellogg says:

    Great post, Hope!

    Suzy HAS to be a culinary magazine food critic who struggles with her weight. She’s scheduled to debut as a new regular judge on The Iron Chef in three months, so she has to lose some weight ASAP so she won’t look like a fattie instead of a foodie on camera. She’s shied away from romantic relationships because she doesn’t believe any man could possibly find her Rubenesque figure sexy.

    At the same time, she longs for someone to sweep her off her feet. So after she’s lost 15 pounds and she meets Rick at the gym she’s joined (and they become friends using the elliptical machines together every morning), a spark of hope is ignited. If she can just lose ten more pounds, she’ll have the confidence to encourage Rick.

    Unfortunately, Rick asks her out and ends up cooking dinner for her and confessing his secret desire to open a restaurant. Of course, Suzy’s appreciation of Rick’s talent and enjoyment of his cooking will only render her more appealing to him and make him more eager to tempt her with his luscious offerings.

    Suzy realizes, she absolutely can’t let herself fall any further for Rick because she’ll never lose any more weight or even keep off the 15 pounds she’s already shed.

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    • Hope Ramsay says:

      Laurie, I knew there was a reason I love your books. 🙂 This is a terrific synopsis for a great story!

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    • Laurie and Hope,

      Pretty please plot my next book…or my current WIP. This is a wonderful post. I’m taking notes.

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      • Hope Ramsay says:

        Katie, I’m not nearly as good at this as Laurie is. 🙂

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        • Laurie Kellogg says:

          Sure you are, Hope!

          I just related to this heroine because she’s me–a fattie/foodie. Gwyn always complains about how much detailed description of meals I include in my stories. But I enjoy reading about the sensual experience of dining.

          Someday I’m going to have to write a chef as a character. The only problem is I’m not as into gourmet cuisine as I am good ol’ fashioned home-cooked food, and I despise the current trend of piling foods on top of each other to create food architecture. So I may have to just stick to heroes and heroines who love to cook and eat. 🙂

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          • Hope Ramsay says:

            Or may Rick wants to open a restaurant that serves plain old home cooking. And Maybe his family is annoyed because he wants to use all of Granny’s “secret” recipes. Nothing like creating a chef who’s tired of food architecture. You should go for it. 🙂

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    • Elisa Beatty says:

      Love this, Laurie!

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  4. Wow. I don’t even know if my characters would talk to me before I started writing. I’ve done the character interviews, outlines, synopsis and the characters are mum…crickets. Now once I start writing, things happen and they tell me what they want. That’s when I can start figuring out what they want. And how to take it away from them (insert evil laugh here).
    Great post Hope, and good luck.

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    • Hope Ramsay says:

      Melanie, I have pantser friends who tell me this all the time. And I can’t imagine how terrifying it would be to have a contract and have to actually write the book before knowing what the characters want. But that’s me — I’m a complete OCD control freak. 🙂

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  5. Vivi Andrews says:

    This is so cool, Hope! It’s not how I attack a story at all, but I love love love seeing your process. Thank you!!!

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    • Hope Ramsay says:

      Different strokes for different folks. What I find so amusing is when people tell me I’m plot driven. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I start with characters first and they tell me the story. I can’t imagine not starting in that place. But every writer’s process is different. So for anyone reading this post — do it the way it works for you. Now, if your process is not working and you’re getting stuck or never finishing, then start looking for stuff to try. Keep what works and jettison the rest.

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  6. Wow – what great help, Hope! Thank you for putting a process down in print. I have a process somewhere in my head, but this will help me immensely.

    : ) Heather

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  7. Elizabeth Langston says:

    I love the idea of #2–impacting the world around them.

    So, here’s an idea for Rick. As he’s putting ideas together, his best bud from high school has just left jail (not sure if it’s blue collar or white collar, but the guy was guilty, did his time, is remorseful, and is out again.) He comes to Rick looking for a job because it’s hard to get one. Now Rick is caught between helping his friend–and wondering if the restaurant would still have many patrons if they knew a felon works there.

    For Suzy, she is on a low-carb diet. She loves pasta; but now she is a Pastaholic–on a 12-step program to eliminate carbs from her life. What Rick cooks is poison for her.

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    • Hope Ramsay says:

      Oh I really love the conflict in this idea about Rick helping his friend. Rick’s friend can create all kinds of plot points for Rick to negotiate. And what would happen if Suzy hates this guy, but Suzy’s best friend who has a weakness for dark, tortured characters who ride Harley’s thinks he’s hot. And then, of course, something bad has to happen like money gets stolen and Rick’s friend is the likely suspect.

      Oh, wait, I’m not supposed to be plotting this story….

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    • Elisa Beatty says:

      Love those ideas, Elizabeth!

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  8. Amanda Brice says:

    Suzy is a food critic who has been scheduled to appear as a judge on a TV cooking show. She’s afraid to appear on TV since the TV adds 10 pounds, because that means she’ll look 40 pounds overweight.

    Rick is a hotshot celebrity chef.

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  9. Hope,

    I was stuck on my WIP so I spent the morning playing your plotting game. I’m 200 pages in and now I know what happens next. Maybe I should try out this whole plotting thing?

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    • Hope Ramsay says:

      Glad to be of help!!! And, you know, I didn’t start out as a plotter either. But the more I have to write on deadline the more detailed my outlines are becoming.

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  10. Tamara Hogan says:

    Hope, I love the idea of explicitly brainstorming plot ideas from your characters’ POV. I do something similar (I do a fair bit of character development work early on in my process) but I’ve never connected the dots between character development and plot quite so firmly. Me likey!

    Thanks so much for linking to your Seven Paragraph Synopsis post again. I’ve lost track of how many people I’ve referred to that post. 😉

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  11. How do I love thee, Hope? Let me count the ways. Seriously, though, I love this post because it crystallizes a lot for me. (And I agree with the writer=voyeur analogy.)

    I have to run out, so I can’t play the plotting game, but my first thought was that Rick will want to prove to his family that he can do this, so maybe he insists they let him cater a family event. I can see a lot of pressure there.

    Sorry – gotta run, because, like Suzy, I have to go work out. But you can bet I’ll be thinking about this all morning. 😉

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    • Hope Ramsay says:

      Anne Marie,

      Having to cater something for the family, definitely ups the community stakes. Which is what the second set of brainstorming questions is all about. Making a character’s goal more important to his friends and family automatically makes it harder to fail (or succeed if the family is skeptical.)

      Maybe he’s catering someone’s wedding or Granny and Gramp’s 50th wedding anniversary or something.

      And of course, something needs to go seriously wrong…

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    • Elisa Beatty says:

      “Cater a family event. I can see a lot of pressure there.”

      Not just a voyeur, a sadist!!

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  12. Diana Layne says:

    looks like a big help, I’m printing out, thanks

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  13. Elisa Beatty says:

    Hope, you are my absolute go-to Guru for plotting help! (I find it hilarious that you feel plotting is a struggle…you clearly do it so well!!)

    This sounds like a great technique for building story…and for having ESCALATING tension, as the stakes rise higher and higher not only for the hero and heroine, but for their community. Love it!

    I’ve tried not to read other people’s suggestions before posting mine, so apologies if this is redundant:

    How could the hero’s stakes get amped higher? Maybe his fear of taking risks comes from a parent who was ill during his childhood…maybe the illness recurs, and the medical bills are high, so it becomes even scarier to consider dumping his CPA job to start a risky restaurant biz (and maybe his accounting firm gets a big, lucrative new client at the same time, making staying with the same ol’ same ol’ even more “sensible.”) And maybe the sick parent is someone whom a lot of people in the community really rely on (runs a business that employs lots of people, or is a big moral supporter / mentor for many people, so it would be hard on many people if he or she died…making CPA feel even guiltier for imagining quitting the job.)

    Of course, there’s built in conflict for the heroine if she starts hanging out with a guy who really just wants to feed people….and if they were spending time together while he was thinking the restaurant biz was too risky, he might REDOUBLE his efforts to cook for her…

    This is fun, Hope!!! I’m sooo not a contemp writer, but all sorts of ideas are flying.

    Great technique!!! Must try it!

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    • Hope Ramsay says:

      I love playing this game with authors, because everyone comes up with something different. I think we’ve got the beginnings of at least three different stories started here, just by getting people to direct their brainstorming in a particular direction. I love the tension created in your suggestion of a family guy who wants to go out on his own but feels he’s “responsible” for the people he loves. Gee, what a terrific hero you have sketched out.

      And, BTW, this technique could work just find for a historical or any kind of genre. You just have to know the setting and the social and world rules that apply.

      Since I write small town romances, the step of thinking about the “public stakes” is always fun. It gives me all sorts of ideas for community stuff that works so well in the stories I write. And if you’ve read my stories, you will recognize that there is always a moment, way toward the end of each book, where there is something that happens that puts someone’s life in jeopardy. And, no, I don’t write romantic suspense. I just always make sure the stakes get way high at the end of each book.

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  14. Oh, Hope, you know I’m a fan of yours and I’m always willing to look at the dark side of a plotter’s mind. Maybe one day something will click in me and I’ll be a plotter myself. Until then, thanks for sharing your insight because I will give this a true try.

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    • Okay, a quick thought came to mind. Maybe Rick wants to open a Italian Vegan restaurant in Beef Capital USA next to the stock yards because his mother died of heart disease and wants the town’s people to have healthy choices.

      Sally, who works for the stock yards as a secretary, has started a all protein diet. Sally also sits on the town’s planning board and chairs the committee to promote the town’s main income, beef.

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    • Hope Ramsay says:

      Well, even if you don’t want to do this exercise before you start a story, it sometimes comes in handy when you’ve pantsed yourself into a corner and don’t know how to get out. 🙂

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  15. I’m just sick I missed this Hope because you know that I would have been here….Sad:(

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  16. Hope honestly I don’t see how you do this or any writer, so much thought & detail.
    I see Rick being pulled in two directions, his family saying stay with the sure thing your job as a CPA but his heart telling him to open that desired restaurant and he wants this so badly because he’s just not motivated by his job any longer he needs more something he can pour his heart and soul into and this is where Suzy comes in, she’s a realtor trying to handle the sale of an old building that needs a good bit of work and love put into it. Suzy also dabbles into a little remodeling with flipping houses on the side. She’s not a happy person tho she has weight issues and she thinks that’s keeping any sort of attention from the opposite sex away from her even if she is a very pretty woman. She meets Rick when he wants to see what the market has to offer just in case he does go with his heart. He thinks Suzy is a very smart and pretty business woman with a lot to offer even tho she’s some what over weight. She sells him on the building and gives him tips on what it would take to fix it up. After having many meeting to work the sell out and enlisting her her with the remodeling she starts to have feelings for Rick and she’s noticed too with staying so very busy and being with Rick that weight slowing starts going down and Rick notices this also but he has also started realizing something else he has feeling for Suzy also. Now they need to see just where this relationship is going to take them with his family not happy with his decision about his job and Suzy, problems do follow.
    Ok that’s my input for what it’s worth and I’m not a writer by any means and I guess it shows….lol
    Thanks Hope I appreciate your books even more now!

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  17. Hope, this one is getting printed and put into my notebook right next to my print out of the seven paragraph synopsis. This is a fabulous idea! I’ve been working on beefing up the conflict in my current WIP in order to make certain it sustains the entire novel. I have been a pantser from the beginning, but every time I get to the middle I bog down and it take dynamite to get me out of the bog. This system could very well keep my butt out of the mud!

    What if Suzy’s family (or her best friend) runs the premiere Italian restaurant in town. Part of Suzy’s weight problem is a bunch of heavy handed Italian relatives / friends who unknowingly sabotage her weight loss efforts with their wonderful food. Perhaps they are even doing it deliberately to keep her career from taking off so she will stay in town and marry the guy they have picked for her.

    There is an annual tri-county contest for the title of Best Italian Restaurant and Rick knows winning the contest will be a great start for his restaurant. AND he has been working on creating pasta dishes that are DELICIOUS and more heart healthy / lean and mean. Perhaps he enlists Suzy’s aid as a taster (room for lots of sexy food scenes here) but she doesn’t know he intends to open a restaurant.

    Add to this his family owns a ranch / farm that promotes beef and grows non-organic veggies. He buys his veggies from a new farm cooperative that raises free range chickens and organic veggies and grounds the flour for pasta from organic wheat.

    That’s all I have off the top of my head. Thanks again for another great post, Hope!

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    • Hope Ramsay says:

      Hi Louisa,

      You know the thing about this brainstorming technique is that it doesn’t have to be used right at the start. I happen to do it that way because I’m an outliner, but a pantser can use this to get a story back on track, to help define a slippery character that just isn’t gelling, or to figure out what happens next.

      Even though I outline, I get stuck all the time. And when I get really stuck, I always go back to the characters and their goals and needs and start thinking of things that make those goals and needs more important or harder to achieve and that almost always gives me a bunch of ideas. It’s also fun to do this with a CP or a Critique Group. Just look at all the ideas we’ve generated just by brainstorming in a directed way.

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    • Hope Ramsay says:

      CONGRATULATIONS

      You are the winner of the autographed copy of INN AT LAST CHANCE. I’ll contact you off loop for mailing instructions.

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      • WOOOT !!! I don’t have this one yet and I am so looking forward to reading it. Thanks so much, Hope, and thanks for the great post, one that can be helpful to plotters, pantsers and plantsers.

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  18. Hope, I missed stopping by the blog this week, but wanted to come by and say how much I always enjoy your plotting advice!

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