July 14 – 20: “How do you organize plot as a writer?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5We’re back from ThrillerFest IX with ITW Members Terri Anne Stanley, DiAnn Mills, Alan Brenham, Merry Jones, Matthew Quirk, Steve Attridge, Wendy Tyson, Rachel Howzell Hall, Arthur Kerns, Sam Cabot, Kathrin Lange and Amy Lignor answering the question: “As a writer, how do you organize plot?”


The Charlatans Crown_Final Online(1)As the daughter of a career librarian Amy Lignor grew up loving books; ‘Patience & Fortitude’ at the NYPL are still her heroes. Beginning in the genre of historical romance with, “THE HEART OF A LEGEND,” Amy moved into the YA world where her first team from THE ANGEL CHRONICLES became a beloved hit. Moving into the action/adventure world with TALLENT & LOWERY, Amy has created a new, incredibly suspenseful, team that has once again exploded with readers everywhere. Born in Connecticut, Amy is now living in the bright sunshine of Roswell, NM, delving into her next adventure.

The DirectiveMatthew Quirk studied history and literature at Harvard College. After graduation, he spent five years at The Atlantic reporting on crimes, private military contractors, the opium trade, terrorism prosecutions, and international gangs. He lives outside Washington, D.C.



perf5.000x8.000.inddTeri Anne Stanley has been writing since she could hold a crayon–though learning to read was a huge turning point in her growth as a writer. Teri’s first stories involved her favorite Saturday morning cartoon characters, followed by her favorite teen idols. She has also authored a recipe column (The Three Ingredient Gourmet), and scientific articles (Guess which was more interesting!). Now she writes fun, sexy romance filled with chaos and havoc, populated by strong, smart women and hunky heroes.

firewallDiAnn Mills is a bestselling author who believes her readers should expect an adventure. She currently has more than fifty-five books published. Her titles have appeared on the CBA and ECPA bestseller lists and have won placements through the American Christian Fiction Writer’s Carol Awards and Inspirational Reader’s Choice awards. DiAnn won the Christy Award in 2010 and 2011. DiAnn is a founding board member for American Christian Fiction Writers and a member of Inspirational Writers Alive, Romance Writers of America, Faith, Hope & Love, Advanced Writers and Speakers Association, and International Thriller Writers. She speaks to various groups and teaches writing workshops around the country. DiAnn is also a Craftsman mentor for the Jerry B. Jenkins Christian Writers Guild and is the 2014 president of RWA’s Faith, Hope, & Love chapter. She and her husband live in sunny Houston, Texas.

The Natural LawSteve Attridge has won RTS Awards, Writers Guild Awards and BAFTA nominations. His work includes stage and radio plays, TV series, individual TV dramas, and feature films, including the award winning GUY X. He wrote a book about the Boer War, and won an Eric Gregory award for poetry. His latest novel, his 15th book, published in July 2014 is called THE NATURAL LAW, the second about philosopher detective Paul Rook. The first, Philosophical Investigations, reached number 4 in the Amazon Kindle Singles bestsellers. Last year his play, CHAOS CARNAGE AND KULTURE, had a successful run at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

Skin of the WolfSam Cabot is the pseudonym for Carlos Dews and S. J. Rozan. Carlos Dews is an associate professor and chair of the Department of English Language and Literature at John Cabot University, where he directs the Institute for Creative Writing and Literary Translation. He lives in Rome. S. J. Rozan is the author of many critically acclaimed novels and short stories that have won crime fiction’s greatest honors, including the Edgar, Shamus, Anthony, Macavity, and Nero awards. Born and raised in the Bronx, Rozan now lives in lower Manhattan. This is their second novel.

40hoursKathrin Lange was born in 1969 and lives in Northern Germany. After passing the Abitur and training to be a publishing bookseller, she spent some time working at a theological bookshop. When her children were born, she founded her own media design company. From 2002 to 2004, she published the author’s magazine FEDERWELT, and since 2005 she has been writing novels. Her exciting thrillers are published by Blanvalet and Arena. Kathrin Lange is deeply committed to the promotion of reading. She also works as a novel writers’ coach, and in addition to the International Thriller Writers, she also is a member of the leading German crime-authors organisation SYNDIKAT.

landofshadowsRachel Howzell Hall is the author of LAND OF SHADOWS (Forge), the first in the Detective Elouise Norton series, A QUIET STORM (Scribner), The View from Here and No One Knows You’re Here. Rachel is also a writer/assistant development director at City of Hope, a national leader in cancer research and treatment. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and daughter.


Front Cover (3)Alan Brenham is the pseudonym of Alan Behr, an American author and attorney. He served as a law enforcement officer before earning a law degree from Baylor University, and worked as a prosecutor and criminal defense attorney for twenty-seven years. His personal and official travels took him to several European and Middle Eastern countries, Alaska, and almost every island in the Caribbean. While contracted to U.S. military forces, he resided in Berlin, Germany, for two years. Alan and his wife, Lillian, currently live in the Austin, Texas area.

epMerry Jones is the author of the Elle Harrison suspense novels (ELECTIVE PROCEDURES, THE TROUBLE WTH CHARLIE), the Harper Jennings thrillers (OUTSIDE EDEN, WINTER BREAK, BEHIND THE WALLS, SUMMER SESSSION), the Zoe Hayes mysteries (including THE NANNY MURDERS). She has also written humor (including I LOVE HIM, BUT…) and non-fiction (including BIRTHMOTHERS: Women who relinquished babies for adoption tell their stories.)

DEADLY ASSETS front under 2 mbWendy Tyson’s background in law and psychology has provided inspiration for her mysteries and thrillers. Originally from the Philadelphia area, Wendy has returned to her roots and lives there again with her husband, three kids and two muses, dogs Molly and Driggs. Wendy’s short fiction has appeared in literary journals, including KARAMU, ECLIPSE, A LITERARY JOURNAL and CONCHO RIVER REVIEW. Wendy has authored KILLER IMAGE (Henery Press), the first in the Allison Campbell mystery series, and THE SEDUCTION OF MIRIAM CROSS (E-Lit Books). DEADLY ASSETS, the second novel in the Campbell series, will be released July 22, 2014.

AfricanContract_coverArthur Kerns is a retired FBI supervisory special agent and past president of the Arizona chapter of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers (AFIO). His award-winning short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies. He is a book reviewer for the Washington Independent Review of Books. In March 2013 Diversion Books, Inc. published his espionage thriller, The Riviera Contract and in May 2014 the sequel, The African Contract.



  1. I do a lot of planning, putting the plot together only after I’ve done most of the research and gotten to know my characters. Then I make a detailed synopsis with all the plot points, especially the beginning and ending. Just about every significant event is in this synopsis, so that, in theory, the actual writing is just a matter of filling in the dialogue and details.

    In reality, though, the process isn’t as smooth as I’ve described. Characters rebel, They refuse to commit crimes or commit them when I don’t intend for them to. They deny guilt, blaming others. They unexpectedly seduce or rebuff each other.
    They suggest alternate routes to the ending, or alternate endings.

    Sometimes I insist that they follow my plan, realizing that this one just wants more lines and attention, or that one is shirking responsibility. But other times, I realize that their ideas are better than mine, and I go in their direction, realizing that, if I get stuck at a dead end or tangled in a mess, I always have the synopsis to fall back on.

  2. The first step for me is to brainstorm an overall idea of the story. What it’s going to be all about. What main goal or crucial problem, external and/or internal, does the protagonist have to solve or fix? What are the main character’s external conflicts and flaws he/she must work through? I have to get at least a basic outline answering those questions before I move on to setting.

    Where is the story going to take place is next on my agenda. A setting, using a place I’m intimately familiar with, such as in Cornered, the story is set in the same city where I worked as a detective.

    After I know what it’s about and where it’s happening, it’s time to figure out who the cast of characters will be. Everything about them is put down on paper: names, life experiences, emotional and historical baggage, goals, physical appearance, likes and dislikes, and family.

    What I like to do next is draft mini-stories of major scenes — the disasters and pitfalls facing my protagonist, what he/she is striving for, and the successes for my antagonist. The last step is crafting an ending so I know where it’s all going.

  3. I’m an organic writer, so the idea of outlining and planning plot sends me running. My first thought is always a what-if. That essential launching point comes from a variety of places, but usually a media report.

    What-if a serial murder is someone his friends and family trusted?
    What-if the local bakery is a front for a terrorist plot?
    What if a grandmother unknowingly transports a deadly virus onto US soil?

    The idea wiggles through my mind, adding details until I’m passionate about the story.
    My next concern is characters. Who are my hero or heroine or both? What motivates them to claw their way through danger to achieve a goal or solve a problem? What nuggets are in their backstory that makes the character who he/she is in chapter one, line one. Can I establish conflict that is internal, physical, and interpersonal. What type of death is my POV character facing? (James Scott Bell: Each character faces a type of death, psychological, physical, professional. Sometimes more than one, but one will be dominant.) How many will be on stage with a unique voice who can effectively show my story? How many distinct roles can each character play so I can muddy the story?

    Once I discover what kind of character would suit my plot, I dip that character into scalding water and watch him/her swim. What about you? How do you organize plot? Is it systematic or is each empty page a challenge for you to consider your character’s best move?

  4. I am a train wreck of a plotter, but by God I do try.

    Since I write romantic suspense, I usually get the romance sketched out first. It goes something like this:

    Choose a hot guy with some kind of terrible, tragic issue in his past, and some reason why this hot guy is still single. Then find the absolute worst woman in the world for him–or at least the most different than him, and throw them together due to some sort of criminal circumstance. (In DEADLY CHEMISTRY, there was a traffic accident involving some displaced possums, but then there were human bad guys later).

    I try to make the crime something that’s going to drag the hero and heroine through the muck of their deepest, darkest fears.
    I fill up a lot of composition books while brainstorming, and a lot of note-cards and Save The Cat beat sheets.

    Then I finally give up and just start writing. Most of the time I get to the midpoint of the story, have NO idea where the heck I’m going, and stop, go back and repeat all of the plotting steps again (such as they were) and THEN I know what’s supposed to happen, and how we’ll not only catch the bad guy, but how H and H are going to get their Happily Ever After.

    It’s not the most efficient method, but it’s what seems to be (sort of) working right now. Hopefully this will evolve into a magical, tidy method someday–but don’t hold your breath!

  5. As a writing team (S.J. Rozan and I co-author as Sam Cabot) we have to spend a great deal of time at the beginning of a book to make sure we are in agreement about where were are going and how we want to get there—that is on the macro or meta level, we don’t at the beginning make all the decisions about every aspect of the plot. We do, however, fairly early in the process, know all the essential moments in the plot.

    I didn’t realize at first just how important (or enjoyable) this aspect of our collaboration was going to be. I think the fact that we have to hash everything out, as a team, in advance, is a great help. I could use the old skeleton/meat on the bones metaphor here. Before S.J. actually begins to write chapters we have at least a skeletal structure for the book overall. We add the meat to the bones as we work through the book, chapter by chapter, hoping not to create a Frankensteinian monster.

    For our first book as Sam Cabot, BLOOD OF THE LAMB (from July 2013), I had already worked out much of what became the plot of the novel even before S.J. and I became collaborators. I essentially already had most of what would become the major plot points in my head. But when we began our collaboration, in the process of explaining to her what I had already in mind, we made some significant changes (since S.J. is so wise and much more experienced in the genre/thriller business than I am!). But our second book, SKIN OF THE WOLF (July 2014) was more purely a collaboration from the start, at least as far as plot was concerned. We worked out the plot together, during some marathon in-person and Skype sessions (working out the plot details of a novel is an interesting trans-Atlantic exercise, as I live in Rome and S.J. lives in New York).

    Since I’ve never worked a thriller except in collaboration, I’m not sure I can say what it would be like if I were writing one on my own. What I can say is that, for me, working out the plot of the novel, in collaboration with S.J. anyway, is the most pleasurable part of the entire process of writing and is the part of the process that I now feel most skilled in doing.

  6. I know there are very organized writers out there who have the outline set and in place as to where things are going, as well as when and how their characters will eventually get there. But for me, plot has always been about the ‘feel’ of the story – the very first ‘look’ I get at the big picture, and the story I want to write.

    Plot, up until this point for me, has been an idea that comes out of the blue and I have to wake up and write it down ASAP. (I’m getting old, you see, so having that notebook and pen next to me at all times helps with this step. LOL). The scenes or ‘steps’ of the plot are skeletal. The bones are there, the structure and foundation of what I want to eventually produce is already in place, but as I write the twists and turns that come change my path, so that what I originally thought would happen at the beginning is not usually the end product.

    Research is a must for the ‘Tallent & Lowery’ series, and that part definitely needs to be organized, with each detail of the location checked and re-checked so I get it as close to correct as possible. But when the research is done, it is up to the characters and that unknown ‘muse’ to help me create the package. Not to sound a little Hannibal-‘esque’, but the skeleton remains the same while the muscles, sinew, tissue, etc., transform. That way I’m as excited by the book as, hopefully, the readers are.

  7. Hi all. Great to be part of this roundtable!

    I do pretty extensive plotting and outlining. It usually takes a month or two. The outline itself can be rough, just a word document with notes on what I think will happen where. And then I’ll have a separate document with all my characters and their arcs. It’s a lifesaver to have a skeleton of the book where you can jot those random ideas that come to you as you fall asleep and then find them later when you go to write a scene.

    I usually figure out all the main plot points of the book as well as the main characters’ stakes and arcs before I start writing. The parts I don’t worry about outlining are those that don’t affect how other parts of the book will play out. For instance, I can just know that my good guy will escape in scene X, but I don’t need to know how. It’s fun to surprise myself with how it turns out while writing.

    Recently, I find myself outlining less. It’s easy to go overboard in an outline and end up with a story that would require 900 pages to tell. I get antsy when I’m not actually writing pages, so I as soon as I have most of the story down, I get restless and dive into what I’ve heard some writers call “The Terrible First Draft.” Just get the story down, fast. I think the speed really helps in thrillers. If I write pages quickly, the reader will turn pages quickly. If I don’t want to figure out a setting description, or a perfect name for a character, or even a tough scene, I can skip it, and get on with the plot. I’ll come back and clean it up and fill it in later. The habit I picked up in journalism of using TKs (“To Come”; they’re essentially brackets to fill in later) is great for this. It also helps me write without getting sucked into looking up details on the internet and going down the world wide web rabbit hole.

    It’s a huge relief when I have a draft done, no matter how terrible. I can see what works and what doesn’t in a way I can’t with an outline. It helps save time by not polishing material I might cut or change drastically later, and also makes it easier to make changes and cuts later because I haven’t slaved over a passage for hours and grown overly attached.

  8. “How do you organize plot as a writer?” – What a good question.
    I am a the perfect slob – in real life and also in writing my novels. Which means: I start with an idea, often it is an idea for a character or a single scene. For instance I think: It would be great if my hero in the middle of the novel is forced to betray the woman he loves to the enemy. This I write down on a file card (I love file cards!) and put it in the middle of my really very big kitchentable. Then I ask myself: What has to happen before, so that my beloved scene can take place? For instance the hero learns, that he only can save the womans life, if he get’s her in a special prison, so he can get her out of there. Write this on a file card.
    Next question: Why is this so?
    Becaus he … next file card.
    And so on.
    In the end my whole table is full of file cards. Everybody in my family has to have dinner with the plate on his knees for days and days. And on the window there is a note: Who opens this, is dead! But I have my plot right in front of my eyes.
    See photos of this: https://www.facebook.com/kathrin.lange.35

  9. Ah, this topic begs the universal novelist question: to outline or not to outline? I don’t outline during the first draft. I usually have a vague idea for a story, and before I start writing the novel, I jot down ideas and associations about characters, plot, setting, etc., in notebooks. Sometimes I’ll fill several spiral-bounds over the course of weeks or months before I begin writing the book, but I rarely refer back to these notebooks later. Instead, I use this process to generate and solidify my ideas. I agree with Natalie Goldberg (whom I love—if you haven’t read Goldberg’s WRITING DOWN THE BONES or other books, check them out) when she says “[w]riting is an act of discovery” and talks about the importance of keeping your hand moving. Free writing is visceral. The act of writing free-hand helps quiet my inner critic and connect with the story I want to tell.

    Once I feel like I have solid ideas and characters who have taken on life (at least in my own mind), I start writing the novel on a computer, allowing the story to unfold as the first draft progresses. It’s only after the first draft is finished that I sketch a basic outline, going chapter-by-chapter to make sure all the pieces come together in a logical and coherent fashion.

    If I get stuck anywhere along the way, I’ll go back to free writing for a bit. While I may write for hours and have nothing that is directly usable, the mere act of free writing stretches the mind and helps me to see connections and possibilities that I may have missed before. Usually that’s enough to pull me out of a writing rut.

    1. Wendy, your approach sounds a lot like mine. I have a vague idea and some scenes. I write them, string them together. And once I have a complete first draft, I’ll go back and say, “Okay, this stays, I need something here, this has to go.” It’s like the first draft just cuts a huge block of stone away from the quarry, and revision shapes the story that’s hidden inside.

      1. Mary — I love your analogy! You’re so right; writing a novel is akin to sculpting. And I do the same thing. While I’m editing, I make all of these notes about things I need to change or address, and with each revision I address finer and finer points within the story. I know it’s finally ready when I can read the whole thing and forget it’s mine.

    2. I’m a big believer in free-hand writing, too. I can go all “Artist’s Way” on you anytime. When I don’t know what’s supposed to happen, of worse, WHY I need a heroine to, for instance, refuse to speak to the hero for the next three scenes so he can go all Clark Gable and kiss the crap out of her to get her to talk, I get out a composition book (or receipt, or paper towel) and just start scrawling…”And then she went to the grocery store and saw that the brand of orange juice that the hero said was his favorite was really just the kind that was on sale, so…”

      1. Yes! I know it doesn’t work for everyone, but that kind of free-hand writing does it for me every time. It’s amazing what you come up with when you trade keyboard for a pen and just let the mind go…

  10. Good morning, all! Great to be a part of this week’s Roundtable. After reading all the comments above, I see myself and my writing habits reflected.

    I am a chronic organizer, so I don’t traipse into the beginnings of a story without my shield and life-line of index cards, scribbled upon legal pads, crumpled-up sticky notes and Evernote (oh how I love, thee, Evernote). And as I’m trying to figure out my plot, I do a lot of reading – other thrillers and mysteries, nonfiction books, newspapers, websites like ITW and Criminal Element and any relevant ideas stay with me.

    Once I reach critical mass, I organize every scrap of idea in order, before me. If I had a cork board, I’d pin it all. But I don’t. So I sit on my living room floor and place everything down until it starts to make a little sense. If it does, and I can fill in spaces with new scraps, then I write a long synopsis.

    At the start of every chapter, I ask myself six questions to keep the plot moving (and I write them and the answers on big sticky notes at each chapter’s start:

    1. What does the heroine want?
    2. How does she plan to get it?
    3. What’s stopping her from getting it?
    4. What does the villain want?
    5. How does he plan to get it?
    6. What’s stopping him from getting it?

    Needs and plans are the initial plot for me. Questions 3 and 6 are the plot twists, the carrots for the characters, the readers and for me.

      1. It really does help, Alan. Plot is probably my weakest area, but if I can have guideposts like those questions, I feel safer. And plus, I get to use giant PostIts (I’m a writer — I love any excuse to use office supplies!)

  11. Does anybody keep a notebook next to their pillow for plot adjustments that come in the middle of the night? Or a pen and pad of paper near the shower? In the car? I find that the tangles or holes or snafus in a plot often become resolved not by my conscious mind, but by whatever takes over during sleeping, shampooing,and/or shifting (I have a stick).

    1. Yes, Merry! Beside the bed. In my car – both driver’s and passenger’s side. On the kitchen’s bay window counter. How many in my purse? Lost count.

      You never know when a random idea will knock you over the head, or when the muse will scream, ‘Plot twist!” I want to be ready since it sucks being caught unprepared.

      I tried using Siri to capture notes but takes too much effort – the doggone thing will misunderstand me and write weird things and I end up going back to proof it since that’s my nature and then, what’s the POINT?

    2. Thank God for unconscious breakthroughs. I like to bang my head against a plot problem, looking over my notes or outline and thinking about how hard it will be to resolve until I’m totally frustrated. Then I take a shower or a run. Usually the breakthrough hits me. In fact, I spend most of my “writing” time brainstorming away from the computer or talking through scenes or plot points with friends and family. Only when I actually know what I’m going to say do I sit down to write. I’ve found the screenwriter John August’s method for writing scenes to be very helpful, too, letting them loop in your mind until you can “see” the whole scene, and then jotting down a quick outline:

    3. Not only do I keep a pad and pen by the bed but my wife has per-positioned pads and pens at strategic locations around our home for those “Aha” moments.

    4. I keep my phone with me all the time (I may or may not be guilty of waking up with it snuggled next to me like my old teddy bear!), and the notepad function is FULL of odd little middle of the night notes. My favorite one says, “You’re not really Samoan. You’re an over-grown, over-tattooed guy who spends too much time in the sun.”
      WTF? I have NO idea what that was about.
      But I’m saving it. Whoever that is, and whoever said that, definitely deserves to wind up together in some form or another.

  12. I start by distinguishing plot from story. I write a list of plot turning points and developments and twists. This then becomes organic as things grow, change, develop, refuse to fit. Next to this I write a big hook line which is what I think the story is really about and probably put this on a post-it by my computer, so what whatever I’m writing has to connect with that, however obliquely. Also, if readers like the character(s) they will read on, so plot should, for me, always emanate from, express or challenge character.

    1. I love your idea regarding the hook line, Steve. It is so important to remember what the story is ultimately about (and that story and plot are not the same)–and it’s easy to lose that thread when you’re navigating plot and managing characters who seem to take on lives of their own.

  13. I’m glad Steve brought up the difference between plot and story. Not everything–even pieces that are dramatic or entertaining–is necessarily part of the plot. And, as Wendy said, it’s easy to get involved in the “non-plot” incidents of characters’ lives and lose momentum in moving the novel forward. These incidents are essential in filling out the characters and “world” of the book. But as writers, we need to keep ourselves focused on the plot and not go too far off course.

  14. With a short story I begin with the central theme or hook. For instance the short story I wrote for the Award Winning Tales I began with the idea of a man torn between family demands for money and the questionable sale of antiquities. From there I started putting scenes together keeping in mind two different endings.

    Novels are a whole different ball of wax. After deciding on a locale, which for me greatly affects the story, I keep an ending in mind, and then go linear. I choose two main characters: the protagonist and the villain. Then I begin introducing supporting characters and walk them through the story. For the novel I’m working on now, I’m using a running synopsis. It’s really an outline for each chapter, that I plan the night before writing the real draft the next morning. Starting the first chapter is crucial. By the time I’m on page 25, I stop and story board chapter by chapter where the story may be headed. The plot changes over time, but at least there’s some semblance of structure.

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