To Plot Or Not To Plot? by Helene Young

Wings of FearShattered SkyBurning LiesHalf Moon BayHelene Young, Safe HarbourHelene Young, Northern Heat     Robyn Bavati - Pirouette book cover

Anyone who knows me well knows that I write organically – or by the seat of my pants, if you want the honest truth.

For me the story starts with one or two characters, plus a setting and a theme. I start writing and then hang on for the ride until I reach the end. Plotting, sadly, is not my strong point. I gloss over it when I’m delivering workshops, waving airily at diagrams of Three Act or Five Act stories, and talking loftily of story arc, all the while knowing I don’t plot before I start writing.

So why am I writing a blog post about plotting? Because ultimately I do plot, but not until I’ve written the first draft. Sound a little nutty to you? You may be right… Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t something I’m proud of, nor have I publicly admitted it before, but I thought it was time to come clean. I hope it might bring comfort to those who do struggle to plot the whole story before they start to write. You may judge my process to be lacking in finesse, but I don’t plan to change it any time soon. You can be assured that it works for me and it may just work for you too.

Here is the Plot Backwards Approach, warts and all:

Firstly, I sit and write feverishly until I have a manuscript about 125,000 words, finishing with: The End.

Then I print a monthly calendar for the appropriate time frame, grab a handful of coloured highlighters, a large coffee, and get comfortable. This isn’t a quick process…

I start at the beginning of the manuscript and plot the scenes onto the calendar, using colour to show the different character’s scenes or point of view.

Next I check for alignment with the Hero’s Journey. I’m a devotee of Joseph Campbell’s and Christopher Vogler’s theory on how Myths and Legends have framed modern stories. Have I hit the high and low points? Is Act One about 25,000 to 30,000 words? Does my second act contain the bulk of the action and does it end on the black moment, when all is seemingly lost? The third act should be roughly 25,000 words long to balance Act One. Does it culminate in the blackest moment when lives are truly at stake yet still leave me room for a closing chapter to wrap everything up neatly?

If I’ve ticked those boxes then it’s time to look at the character’s individual arcs. Have their goal, motivation and conflicts been laid out in the first act? Is the conflict growing, changing and deepening in the second act? By the third act it should be inconceivable that those conflicts will be overcome right up until the blackest moment when the truth is rammed home and the light bulbs flash on for my protagonists.

So far so good? Then it’s time to prune the manuscript back to around 105,000 words. If I can manage that without my editor’s help then that’s a bonus but, if I can’t, working through the structural edit will help to achieve the required brutality.

Then it’s time to consider the beat sheet and Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat. I was privileged to see Blake talk at a conference in America and his energy and vitality swept me away. His cinematic philosophy resonated strongly and I thoroughly recommend Save the Cat to all new writers. For me his outline helps to ramp up the rhythm of the story and ensure that the pace is moving along, leaving the reader with no option than to keep turning the page.

Lastly, I check that I have completed all the characters’ stories. If I’m leaving threads for a continuing story then it’s okay to leave unfinished business, but if it’s a stand-alone book then everyone’s arc needs to be wrapped up by the final chapter.

At about this point I usually realise I need to eat, go for a walk, and join the living again. So, you may well ask, wouldn’t it be easier to plot the story in the first place? Probably, but then I’d know the end of the story before I wrote it and where would the fun be in that?

What’s your process? Are you a plotter or an organic writer? Is your story compliant or is it a little rebellious? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

To celebrate the release of my sixth book I have six prize packs to give away. Four of them are duos of Safe Harbour and Northern Heat and one major prize is a complete set of my six books. For international readers there is a duo of e-books to be won.

To enter, leave a comment here, or share the post and/or the trailer on a social media site and I’ll double your chances!

I hope to see you throughout May at the following blogs.

5th May:

7th May:

10th May:

12th May:

14th May:

17th May:

19th May:

21st May:

24th May:

26th May:

 28th May:

31st May:

2nd June: Wrap up and announce the winner on my blog:


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Wings of FearShattered SkyBurning LiesHalf Moon BayHelene Young, Safe HarbourHelene Young, Northern Heat     Robyn Bavati - Pirouette book cover

The Australian Literature Review

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14 Responses to To Plot Or Not To Plot? by Helene Young

  1. Hi Helene, great post. Very honest but as usual you still gave a lot of helpful information. I’m a pantser mainly because I don’t know any other way to be. I do it in life and I do it in my stories. As I write for children and I draw upon my inner child (who is very young) I go with the flow. When we are children at play and encounter a problem we imagine and create the solution. I do that in my writing. It’s only after I’ve got it all out, left it for a few weeks to marinate do I go back to it – with fresh eyes- and do the necessary cull. Strangely in my last novel it wasn’t a cull it was to add flesh. That hasn’t happened before and I rather enjoyed the skeleton first draft followed by fleshing the bones. Very much looking forward to your latest book.

    • Helene Young says:

      Thanks, Diane, I’ve only just discovered there were comments on this post… I think the ‘inner child’ is an excellent place to start for our creativity!

  2. Emily Witt says:

    I literally realised in maybe the last week or so that this is my process as well – first draft before the real plotting begins. I have tried writing full outlines and character sketches and all before I sit down to write but I just can’t do it!

  3. yvonne says:

    whether you write the plot before or after… they are awesome books!! My daughter was saying that just today about her e-portfolio essay…. gosh mum if they saw how I write this, they’d think I was demented…. I replied, it doesn’t matter how you get to the end, just that you get to the end!!

  4. have2have1 says:

    i am full of admiration for your method and achievements. I struggle with plotting too, but am curious as to how much time elapses after you’ve decided you’ve got your one or two characters, your setting and your theme. Are you mulling, consciously or subconsciously, for some time before you leap aboard the fast writing train?

    • Helene Young says:

      I think the stories simmer in my mind for a while – sometimes years. They evolve and grow with that but until I start writing I still don’t know which direction the story is going to head. It does mean I’m quite good friends with my characters before I do start writing, though 🙂

  5. Kellie Pointon says:

    Fascinating insight into how you create your novels Helene. You definitely nail the part about writing enough action to keep the reader turning the page though – I always end up with a ‘book hangover’ because I just can’t stop until I know what is going to happen!

    • Helene Young says:

      Lol, I do appreciate that I give you a ‘book hang over’! Nothing makes my day like an email from someone who didn’t got to bed until 2 am because they were reading 🙂

  6. pamelacook says:

    Great post Helene. You and I have the same non plotting approach to writing. I keep telling myself I should be more of a plotter and try it with each new book but it just doesn’t work for me. I think the first draft tells you what the story is about and gives you something to work with. Good to know there are other pantsers out there, especially one like yourself whose books are proof that it can work, and work so well. Thanks for sharing your process.

    • Helene Young says:

      You’re spot on, Pamela, that first draft tells the story and then we can go about crafting it more carefully and colouring in the fine details. Love to know you write in a similar style:)

  7. Helene Young says:

    Thanks to AusLit for hosting the NORTHERN HEAT Blog Tour and to everyone who shared the post! The winners have been drawn and the details can be found on my blog at:

  8. Helene Young says:

    Thanks to everyone who visited the post and my apologies for not spotting the replies earlier!! No idea why they’ve only just popped up on my screen!! But alway happy to chat.


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