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 When I was unpublished, I thought I would learn the “right way” to plot, and that would be it—that is, I’d plot each book the same way.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


Anonymous said...

I really enjoy these posts. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for the great ideas and insights, Sharon! I had never heard about writing the last sentence first, but what a great concept for keeping your mind set on the ending so the story doesn't lumber too far off the mark.

You're so throurough in your plotting. It's very impressive! No wonder you've been able to whip out so many successful books.

Congrats on your upcoming debut! Oh, and I checked out your website and it's gorgeous. Thanks again for taking the time to give us your writing "secrets". :-)

Anonymous said...

How cool of a title is Hot Silk? Love that. Congrats to you.

I also really like the idea of writing the last line first and how that can reflect and guide the theme. I'm going to try that one out.

Heidi Willis said...

This is a great post! I like the idea of a "quiver" too. I've found each book I read requires a little different something from me... the fact that I (and you) approach them differently helps them from feeling like cookie-cutter books following some predictable template.

The last book I wrote I wrote one of the last chapters first. It turned out not to be the very last, but it was the resolution of the conflict and during the rough parts of writing I loved knowing where I was going, and during the sad parts of the characters' experiences I liked knowing it would turn out okay.

Very informative post!

Spy Scribbler said...

I love the layers bit! (I also love the scene in the movie. And that movie!)

I plot every book differently, too; I enjoy that the process changes. I'm on Book 18 or so, and I'm still puzzled at how my books come together. When I go back and read them, I can't believe I wrote them. In fact, I once wrote a reader and told her she got the wrong author. (In my defense, it was a short story and not a story I'd lived with a long time!)

I work really hard, I swear I do, but at the end of the day, it's just surreal.

Anonymous said...

I can appreciate the way Sharon plots out her books. I've never been able to be that formatted. I do know how the book will end. And have also written the 'last line'--or even last chapter. I have a general idea of the plot, etc. But my writing is more organic. I put my characters in motion, set the direction, introduce the McGuffin then take the journey alongside my characters... It works for me.

lisekimhorton said...

Sharon, this is the most concise and helpful set of instructions that I have ever seen on the subject of plotting. I will be saving your tips for my future efforts because I, too, have discovered that I plot differently for different books - they seem to require it. So your guidance will be invaluable. And your examples were terrific, particularly Ratatouille. Very clearly explains the concept of how the "universal plots" can be adapted to be so individual and unique. Good luck w/ your latest!

Kate Douglas said...

Sharon, love this! I can also tell you're writing with little kids (note movies: Shrek and Ratatouille) and I wondered how you managed, but obviously you're a lot more organized in thought and action than I'll ever be! Of all the points you give, I think the most important is to ask questions. I always start my stories with "What if...?" And while I'm a definite panster, not a plotter, that one question is the one that keeps me moving from page to page. And for anyone who hasn't read Sharon's books, they're absolutely wonderful stories that will grab you from the very first page. Read Sharon's post and then read one of her books and all of her points will make perfect sense. (Plus, you'll have enjoyed a terrific book!)

About Me said...

Great post, Sharon. I especially like the idea of writing the last line of the novel early on. Brilliant! Also the outlining of the chapters or a brief synopsis are also really good ideas. Thanks for sharing!

Plot Whisperer said...

Great ideas.
Many writers and, now, bloggers don't truly appreciate how much planning goes into writing a pleasing story. Many seem to fear that the muse is hampered by structure rather understand it is instead enhanced.
Thanks for sharing your process(es)...

green_knight said...

Thanks for sharing this, Sharon.

It's a method that is completely and totally alien to me, but it's always interesting to learn how the other half writes.

Briane said...

This was very helpful; I always like to hear how others write and try to incorporate their tips into mine. Writing the last line first is a great way to keep the focus, I bet.

I recently read "Save The Cat!," a screenplay writing book, and I found it very helpful in thinking about how to write ANY story, not just a screenplay.

Francesca Hawley said...

Thanks SO much for these plotting tips. I'm going to save these for future reference. With the mystery sheets you mentioned, did you devise these yourself or did you find them somewhere?

Sharon Page said...

Hi Anita,
I'm delighted you found it useful. The 'last sentence first' was a big help for me, because, as you say, it keeps me on track. And it makes me think about the 'theme' of the book upfront.

Sharon Page said...

Thanks Carrie,

Sorry I'm late in posting--I suddenly realized it was the 10th already and I'd checked in too early this morning.

Sharon Page said...

Hi Heidi,
I think it's very true that each book requires something different. It may come from a different place in our head or heart, or maybe it is just that a particular story needs a different part of our brain (or stimulates a different part).

As you say, it does help keep the stories fresh.

Sharon Page said...

Hi Anonymous,
Thanks for the compliment on the title!

Sharon Page said...

Honestly, I've reread my books and thought the same thing: Wow, did I write that?

My husband always believed that the first half-dozen books are like an apprenticeship, but I've learned there is still learning to do, and that the way you tackle a book changes. It does keep it interesting.

Sharon Page said...

Hi anonymous--
Interestingly, I do veer from the plot. The final version of Blood Rose, and the plot outline have some big differences. Sometimes a plot outline seems more like a path you chose, but when you are actually writing, you end up selecting a better path. I think the outlining works a lot like letting an idea percolate. A better direction can come out of the journey of writing. But many authors really like the exploration of the story through the writing.

Sharon Page said...

Thanks, Lisekimhorton. I am very pleased to hear you've found the tips useful!

Sharon Page said...

Hi Kate,
Thanks. It's true--I am writing with two little kids around. That's why I'm late posting. My son had swimming lessons in the a.m., then I wrote, then it was brownies for my daughter (a tour of the firestation, though, so a bonus.)

I remember reading that was how Mary Higgins Clark would come up with story ideas. She'd read a news story, and think: "What if" One of my favorite "What ifs": What if you are in the house alone, at night, and the toilet flushes?

Sharon Page said...

Hi Crimogenic,
I know I was completely blown away by the "the last line" idea, when I learned it from Molly O'Keefe. She also does an amazing workshop on putting conflict on every page.

I also like the last line idea because, for me, it gives a sense of momentum. Keeps me from getting bogged down!

Sharon Page said...

Plot Whisperer,
I relate a lot to your comment about the muse being enhanced by structure. I studied product design in university, and learned there that it is easy to design without constraints, but brilliant design is when you can give the right/beautiful solution with constraints.

I find structure takes the "fear" out of the blank page, and actually lets me have more freedom.

And as part of my outlining, I write snippets of scenes, which lets the muse flow. I think you've captured well the idea that muse and structure can work together!

Sharon Page said...

Hi Green Knight,
I'm glad you found it interesting!

Sharon Page said...

Hi Briane,
"Save the Cat" sounds very interesting. Thanks for mentioning it.

Sharon Page said...

Hi Francesca,
Thank you. These are ones I made up myself, to give me the info I found I needed to know. I'd be happy to email you one. Just email me at

Anonymous said...

I found this post extremely useful and practical. Honestly, sometimes I get a bit bored with author posts, because it's all so subjective. But the information you provided in this is very valuable and intelligent. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

I was there for the September conference (thanks again, Sharon!) and although I'm late posting here, I have to say I've used a little bit of everything you gave us in your talk. The "last line first" thing is terrific, and has helped me through a bit of 'block'.
I think it's the first/only plot thing I've used 6 weeks after I learned it.

Tess said...

Oooh - great post :) Definitely lots to work with here. Thanks so much!!