How not to plot – dissecting my first attempt at a novel

How not to plot - dissecting my first attempt at a novel

From 2013 to 2015 I wrote a science fiction / fantasy novel called Tempting in Shade. I sent it to Beta Readers who were very kind. Then I sat back and reread it. In doing so I came to several conclusions, the dominant one being that the novel was unpublishable. This post examines my decision from the perspective of four years later. It focuses upon how I mangled the plot.

So why was Tempting in Shade unpublishable?

I get the impression from my Beta Readers that writing style was good. One said that I wrote really great fight scenes. Another said she kept forgetting that she wasn’t reading a professional writer’s book. However it was the plot and structure that let it down.

This lay in the history of my writing the book. I started off with a simple premise: “Separate community of witches and wizards much like the Amish who send their children to have a time in the outside world before deciding how they want to live their lives. Main character is a female.” I did not want it to be a Harry Potter derivative so I set it in a subterranean world where technology has evolved and merged so completely with humanity that magic seems to exist. The witches and wizards are merely a more technologically enhanced community (albeit they don’t realise this). The plot was simply going to be that a slightly older girl had gone on her time in the outside world and vanished and that Pari – the principal character – would find and rescue her during her time out there.

About five chapters in I became bored with my earnest, caring, way-too-clever main character. So I introduced a second character who was a warrior. He was also an outsider. I must admit that I felt more comfortable writing him because he was a simple fighter without any complex aspects. I gave him his own chapters and let him explore the world of Shade (the subterranean world that I had created).

But how did he fit in?

I decided to make him a runaway slave who had been trained to be an assassin (obviously what you do with slaves). He had come to Shade to start a new life. Little did he realise that he was being hunted. I then introduced the concept of a stolen magical gem. The gem had belonged to Pari’s father before it was stolen. The fighter character was then be recruited by local authorities to help find it and in doing so he would end up meeting Pari and helping her to rescue her friend.

So where was this missing friend?

I already had the idea that the friend had been kidnapped by some sort of evil scientist who wanted to dissect magic-users in order to understand how the magic works. So I wrote a preface where the friend runs and is caught by the scientist’s massive troll-like accomplice. I also wrote a scene where the scientist tells the friend his intentions with her, so as to put some urgency into the story.

Damn I enjoyed writing that scientist. Really, really enjoyed him. I decided then and there that I wanted to write more chapters involving him. But doing what? How about if the friend escaped herself and then the scientist has to find her before she is found by Pari? I could send her into the sewers where he can hunt her but she cannot escape. How does she escape? What about if she is helped by a demon who also has ulterior motives? But what motives? How about that he wants to use her to gain entry into the fortress of the magic users so he can steal their magic?

Well, the more I wrote the more creative “what ifs” I came up with until the original concept vanished into a convoluted mess. It did not help that with every what-if I went back and just threw in a few poorly thought out paragraphs intended to suggest that these new characters were always part of the story. I eventually ended with a couple of big fight scenes (which I actually enjoyed writing), but the novel really felt stitched together rather than cohesive.

I think that the major lesson learned was that I am not a “pantser” (someone who writes well as they go along). I need to stick to a structure. Hence I am currently working on the outline of a new novel that is also set in the subterranean world of Shade and which will have a few guest appearances by minor characters from Tempting in Shade. I am at about 3000 words with my outline but suspect that the end product will be about double that. Already I can pick out knots in my story and either remove them or smooth them. Yes, this is the correct way for me to go. I feel really positive.

So that is that. 

Thanks for reading my internal meanderings.




  1. As it turns out, I have a blog post on a very similar topic coming in about twelve hours inspired by the fact that I wrote a 1000-word outline for a 6000-word story that had an ending I didn’t see coming! The short form is that I recommend using a detailed outline for the plot’s macro elements, but leave room to “pants” the details. It allows for some spontaneity within the structure. Of course, sometimes you have to alter your outline or put aside elements that don’t tie up nicely within the plot. I suggest putting items aside rather than tossing them out. You never know when you can revisit ideas in a sequel or a similarly themed book with different characters!


    1. Thanks David. :) The other day/week when you posted on Facebook about your outline it made me think that I should really have a go at something approaching a decent outline. Most of my outlines to date have barely been a hundred words. I’ll follow your advice and see how it turns out. I listened to a podcast where one author said his outlines were 10,000 words!!! Man!


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