What if you don’t know how to plot fiction? Is that a skill you’re just born with? Are you doomed if you don’t have it? Or can you learn?
Francisca posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
Hi Randy, thank you for helping aspiring writers. I decided to try to write short stories and I realized I had original ideas and a nice writing style, but my problem is I am not good at telling stories (never have been). So, I can imagine and describe atmosphere, dialogues, characters and all, but I do not know how to develop a plot as a sequence of events, twists, good endings and the like. My question: am I doomed or this is something that can be learned at a creative writing course?
Thank you in advance for your reply!
Randy sez: I’ll keep this short. You’re not doomed, Francisca. You can learn how to plot fiction.
When I started writing fiction, I wasn’t good at any of those things you mentioned—atmosphere, dialogue, characters, or how to plot fiction. But I learned. You can too. All you need is a good book, and I can point you in the right direction. I’ll do that at the bottom of this post.
But first, a short digression.
One Book That Changed My Life
When I was in seventh grade, right near the end of spring semester, I wandered into a bookstore, planning to buy a book on how to be a better debater. But I came out with a book on chess. Don’t ask how that happened. An impulse decision.
That book changed my life.
At the time, I knew the rules of chess, more or less. But I had no idea how to play well.
However, the book I bought was an absolute masterpiece. The title was Winning Chess: How to See Three Moves Ahead, by Irving Chernev and Fred Reinfeld.
I took that book home and worked through it—21 chapters that explained each of the most common tactics in chess—the pin, the knight fork, the double attack, discovered attack, discovered check, etc. And each chapter had a number of example problems to solve.
It took me most of the summer after seventh grade to work through that book. By the time I finished it, I could beat all my friends. When I went back to school in the fall, I could beat everyone I played. Every time.
I had no delusions of being a grandmaster. But that one book made me a much much much stronger player.
The Power of How-To Books
That’s the power of the right book in the right hands at the right time. I still have that book. It’s in the bookcase right above my chair. I still think it’s an amazing book.
But it wasn’t just the book. I’ll bet most people who’ve read that book didn’t get the results I did. Because I put a whole summer into mastering the book. I worked really hard. And in short order, I learned a new skill.
The right book plus some concentrated hard work can do wonders for you. That’s the larger lesson I learned. That’s why I say the book changed my life. It showed me that skill is not something you’re born with.
Skill is something you can learn.
All you need is the right book, and the work ethic to master that book.
How I Learned How to Plot Fiction
When I started writing fiction, I knew the rules of spelling and grammar and punctuation. But I had no idea how to write fiction well.
Then I met a new friend at a writing conference, and he told me about a book he’d been studying, Techniques of the Selling Writer, by Dwight Swain.
So I bought the book and spent months mastering it.
That book changed my life.
From that book, I learned how to write action, dialogue, and interior monologue, and how to put them together. I learned about scenes and sequels. I learned about beginning, and middle, and end. I learned how to plot fiction and write a compelling story.
There’s more to fiction than just those things. But action and dialogue and interior monologue are core. Scenes and sequels are core. Beginning, middle, and end are core. Once you know how to do those things, you have a really solid foundation. And there are other books to learn the other aspects of fiction writing.
Why I Teach Fiction
Not long after I published my first novel, I was asked to teach at a local writing conference. I decided to teach on the core things I learned from Dwight Swain.
I’ve been teaching those core things ever since. And every time I teach, I learn something new. Or I relearn something I’d forgotten. Teaching fiction makes me a better writer. And it’s fun to teach. So that’s why I do it.
I’ve often said that most of what I teach is stuff I first learned from Dwight Swain. That’s a bit of an exaggeration. I also teach stuff I learned from other writers—James Scott Bell, Larry Brooks, Orson Scott Card, and plenty of others. And I’ve certainly invented a few things along the way.
But it’s just a fact that nobody has made a bigger impact on me than Dwight Swain. Because Swain taught me the fundamentals of plotting fiction, which is essential. And that’s the very thing Francisca asked about above.
So in my recommendations of books below, Professor Swain comes first, followed by three of my own books that in various ways interpret and expand on Swain’s work.
Four Recommended Books
Here now are four books that will help you in various ways to learn how to plot your fiction:
Dwight Swain’s classic book, Techniques of the Selling Writer. Chapters 3 and 4 will teach you how to write scenes.
Also my 2009 book, Writing Fiction for Dummies. This is a broad overview of everything I knew about fiction writing when I published the book ten years ago.
And my 2014 book, How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method. This covers my wildly popular Snowflake Method of designing a novel. If your issues are getting the big picture right for your story, this book will teach you how it’s done.
And my 2018 book, How to Write a Dynamite Scene Using the Snowflake Method. This focuses on Step 9 of the Snowflake Method, in which you design the structure of your scene. If your problem is that your scenes aren’t working, this is the book for you.
There are of course many books on plotting, but these are the ones I’m most familiar with, so I’m sticking with these.
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