Monday, November 10, 2008

"How I Plot" by Sharon Page

Sharon Page
Hot Silk
Publisher: Kensington Aphrodisia
Pub date: October 2008
Agent: Jessica Faust

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Author Web site:

My RWA chapter held a conference at the end of September, and while heading out to a local pub to meet one of our editor guests, I passed a bookstore with outdoor displays of books on sale. Of course, I couldn’t resist, and I picked up Janet Evanovich’s How I Write. That sparked the idea for my blog entry, “How I Plot.”

For the conference, I was asked to give a workshop on plotting. When I sat down to figure out what I did, I discovered a surprising fact. I’ve written nine books—eight erotic romances for Ellora’s Cave and Kensington Publishing, and one sensual historical for Dell (The Club—my February 2009 market debut). But I had not plotted any two books the same way.

Everyone wants to know the “secrets” of writing, so here are my 3 secrets of plotting:

1) Ask questions and answer them. Be like a three-year-old, who keeps asking “why?” The answer can never be “because,” and the answer should be from your character’s perspective, never the author’s.

2) Plots should be entertaining. There are supposed to be only a handful of basic plots. What makes a book an enthralling read is how the author tells the story. Example: the animated movie Ratatouille. Remy, the hero rat, must follow his dream to be a top chef in Paris, defying his father’s demands that Remy stay with the family and keep away from humans. A hero learning to defy family expectations and follow his dreams is a common plot, but it’s never been told through the eyes of a rat with a gift for cooking.

3) Plotting needs a “quiver of arrows” approach.

What does point 3 mean? When I was unpublished, I thought I would learn the “right way” to plot, and that would be it—that is, I’d plot each book the same way. I took ski lessons from an instructor who described acquiring skiing skills as having a quiver of arrows. You draw out the appropriate arrow for the situation you encounter—powder snow, ice, etc. I realized I used a “quiver of arrows” approach to plotting. So what’s in my quiver?

I start with the Concept—that is, I define what the book is about. I’m writing romance, so I think of concept in terms of hero, heroine, and the narrative drive. Here is an example of a WIP of mine: a proud, embittered duke and a feisty, flamboyant Vauxhall performer battle over an orphaned baby. With your characters, think of their internal conflicts and what is holding them back from finding love or happiness in life. Narrative drive is the external event that propels the story. For suspense it is “hero and heroine must catch the killer before the killer gets them.” In a paranormal romance, it could be “hero and heroine must destroy the demon before the demon destroys the world.”

Then I write the last line first. From a workshop by the Harlequin author Molly O’Keefe, I got the concept that the entire book hurtles toward the last line. By writing the last line first, I would get the “theme” or message for my book. Here’s an example: “But happiness waited for them both here. Here—where they had found home.” This story will be about a couple not only falling in love, but also finding out where they belong in the world.

This is the point where I write a synopsis, which is a summary of the book. A synopsis introduces your characters, their goals, motivations, and conflicts, and shows the progression of the book to the end. If you really hate writing a synopsis, here is where you can use other techniques. You can post plot points on a board or make outlines based on different plotting methods, such as the turning-point method (a book is divided into 3 or 4 "acts," each separated by a plot turning point), or the Hero’s Journey. The key for me at this point is to lay out the plot from beginning to end. I like the synopsis because it allows me to show the emotional impact on the characters of each point in the plot.

Now that I’ve done the beginning steps, I go to my second phase, which I call “The Layers of the Ogre—Refining the Plot.” (This is from the line in the movie Shrek, where Shrek points out that ogres are like onions, they’ve got layers—a reminder that inventive plots come from character.) For me this is a four-step process.

I make a list of all the narrative drives to the story. I look at the drives for the external plot, the internal plot, and the subplots. At this stage, I write down as many necessary points to take each plot from beginning to end as I can think of. For a paranormal romance, these narratives drives could include: “Heroine discovers what she really is,” “The hero overcomes grief/guilt to find the freedom to reject science,” “Defeating the demon.”

At some point I need to divide my plot, which now consists of an overall snapshot of the story (the synopsis) and a list of narrative drives, into chapters. Here I do a brief chapter by chapter outline.

Since I am writing romance and have mysteries in my stories, I also have two special extra steps. I found I needed mystery techniques to shortcut the information I required for a “who-dunnit” mystery. These include making “Suspect” and “Victim” spreadsheets. On these I have the headings “Character Name and Archetype,” “Relationship to Victim,” “Apparent Motive,” “Hidden Motive,” “Clues.” I like to put character archetypes for my suspects to quickly define them in my head. For Sin, a National Readers’ Choice Award winner, these included Arrogant Duke, Brooding Poet, Dandy, Tortured Lord.

I like to develop the sexual plot of my books. Whether I am writing erotic or more mainstream romance, I need to plan why the sex scenes are there and how they move the external plot and the growth of the characters. The sexual plot is a journey of itself—a journey of intimacy and emotion.

As I said, I haven’t plotted any two books the same way. For Hot Silk, my latest book and the last in the Rodesson’s Daughters trilogy, I used only a long synopsis. For Sin, the first book, I used a long synopsis, a short selling synopsis, mystery spreadsheets, and much on-the-fly outlining. So, while I always thought there was only one approach to plotting that would work for me, I learned that I need to use different techniques. Different stories will demand that you plot different ways.

For more information on Hot Silk (published by Kensington Aphrodisia) and my other books, please check out my Web site at