‘It pays to put a roof on your house…’


I’m writing my  next DCI Matt Proctor crime novel, (a series) and I’d like to share my approach to “PLANNING A NOVEL”.

How do you put your novel together? Please let me know.

I’ll set out my approach in separate blogs – this is the THIRD. There are SEVEN in all.  

(A recap – if you read my first two posts on 1. CORE, 2.OUTLINE, skip down to 3. PLOT/STRUCTURE– if you missed the earlier posts see archives).

From the outset let me say I’m more a ‘planner’ than a ‘pantser’- but please, you ‘pantsers’ out there, don’t tune out – we can all learn from each other. (I wonder if there really are out-and-out ‘pantsers’ or ‘planners’ – or are most of us somewhere in between on a spectrum?).

PLANNERS                            IN-BETWEENERS                                              PANTSERS

I may be a planner but one who leaves space for the story to breathe, to bend and flex, change direction at times. Yet the CORE story line remains.

PLAN because I think it makes me write my book faster and better. I’ll tell you why later.


I need to know my story plot(s) in detail, understand the motivations, secrets and fears of my main characters before I can progress to writing my first draft. From my outline, I develop scenes and flesh out characters. The process is very much iterative, synergistic. I hop from one to another; adding to my character profiles, summarising a scene in a brief heading, modifying and reordering the outline chronology using a ‘scene order’ grid, to get a visual overview of the book.

The tabs across the top – like file labels – show the seven components, Core, Outline,Scenes, Characters, etc. Clicking the ‘Scene’ tab opens a list of the scenes down the right hand side. In the grid, the different colours show main plot, sub-plots, viewpoint character for any one scene. Clicking a scene on the right opens that scene’s pages – your writing.

Clicking the character tab lists all the characters down the right hand side. Clicking on a character name opens your detailed profile of that character.

(By the way this is a pic of an Acer notebook 10.1″ screen – not an Imax image!)


A great tool for doing this is Microsoft OneNote (as above). Some swear by Scrivener, Ywriter; another good tool is Hiveword. There are others. I think writers need to experiment to find out what suits them best. Two factors influencing my choice are a) the ability to write the book content within the planning tool, and b) to work offline sometimes – I may be on holiday and want an hour or so of ‘writing therapy’ but might not want to go on-line, or have available on-line access.

By giving me an overview and instant access to the components of my story on a single screen, I get control of the project and so I find the process of drilling down into the detail of my story easier, more efficient and fulfilling. Certainly much less frustrating than switching from one screen to another, hunting down folders and files, hopping back and forth from page to page on websites and between different websites.   ARRRGH…

  • In planning my novel I use seven COMPONENTS.  They are not written in a strict chronology – that’s important. They have synergy, they feed off each other. Maybe it’s like bringing up a family – you don’t focus all your energy on one child and when that job’s done, move on to the next. Oh, no, – you don’t bring kids up like that. You juggle, you compromise, negotiate, discipline, encourage, motivate, and so on. You spread your attention, your focus, your love. (OK, OK, we didn’t have seven children but you get the picture!). Now – please let me show you in specific terms how all this works (and for me it definitely does) in practice


  • CORE – Who is the Main Character, what’s their goal, problem, obstacles, what are the stakes for failure? In 50 words; yes, I keep this to 50 words. Concentrates the mind!
  • OUTLINE – Two pages max. Written in present tense, with a start, middle and end. Split into key scenes with short headings. Leave room for the story to evolve.
  • PLOT/STRUCTURE – Spine of the story, the heart of the MC’s journey. Sub-plots add complexity and richness. The main plot (and sub-plots) summaries need only be a sentence or two.
  • SCENES – Scenes are the building blocks of the novel. These are where the action is. As you write scenes you are writing your book.
  • CHARACTERS – Absolutely critical. The reader must care about these people.
  • SETTINGS – Give ‘colour’, atmosphere, they complement characterisation, add credibility and context whether real or fictional places.
  • SYNOPSIS – Comes at the end because a synopsis is a ‘selling’ tool; your book summary. You write a synopsis when you’ve finished your book. (I include it as part of planning because you’ll need it for submissions).

In this third blog in the series, I’ll focus on my third COMPONENT in PLANNING A NOVEL, namely the PLOT/STRUCTURE of my story. 


Plot and structure are very much inter-related. In fact as I’ve repeated already several times ALL seven components feed off each other and should not be seen in isolation or as chronological. What kicks off a novel might be a core idea, a character, a place, a scene, a line of dialogue – a memory. As the story grows so the components can be fleshed out. When the actual writing starts is an individual matter – some pitch in and write from that first kick-starter, others hold back until as much preparation as possible is completed. Sooo…when I talk about plot/structure, remember this component influences and is influenced by all others (except perhaps the synopsis which I’ll talk about at the end). However, I urge that as the writing flows do return and fill out the component parts. Doing so, in my view, makes for better and more efficient writing.

So – is plot/structure one and the same? I think not – but I have integrated them into a single component because I feel they are more than cousins, more even than siblings – I see them as twins, and joined at the hip!  Plotting is about cause and effect, action and reaction, if this – then that. Structure is the ordering of these. Think architecture, your building plan; how do you sequence the events in your plot to create a coherent, well-paced and satisfying story. Let’s take an example.

In my novel ‘In it for the Money’  my core idea is:cropped-cover-money-fuzzy-6.jpg

‘DCI Matt Proctor fights to break an  international ‘match-fixing’ gambling syndicate and becomes their kill target when he gets too close. Serbian Mafia boss Petrovic hunts him – yet real power lies in sports boardrooms, directors’ boxes and wheeler-dealer agents. Matt Proctor is a marked man.’

For plotting purpose I use this core as my main plot. Remember?  Who is the Main Character, what’s their goal, problem, obstacles, what are the stakes for failure?

Sub-plots add richness and layering to the story – they amplify and contextualise the main plot. Put simply, sub-plots add to the main plot to  make for a better, more satisfying read overall.

Here are three sub-plots for ‘in it for the Money’:

  • DCI Matt Proctor’s ongoing relationship issues with police colleague DI Azzra Mukherjee,
  • Proctor’s internal tussle between loyalty to an old friend and sense of guilt/betrayal versus upholding the law,
  • Ali (Azzra’s brother) getting involved with jihadists.

The ordering of scenes gives the structure of the novel.

Make sure the end scenes work as well as the openers – putting a roof on your house keeps out the rain! Check that the main character’s wants, objectives have been answered –  might not always get what was wanted. Loose ends tied up.

A useful way of getting an overview of your story plot/structure is to use a ‘grid’ in which each scene heading is entered. A table or spreadsheet will enable scenes to be shuffled around to get the balance in rising  tension, pace, action, reflection, etc. If you prefer low tech to high tech, post-it notes or cards can be used instead.

Colours and/or ‘tags’ within the grid can help identify viewpoints and plot/sub-plot scenes. Here’s an extract from my current novel’s grid – about 70 boxes in all, one for each scene. (Numbers unique to each scene – shows how much shuffling goes on!)

/19 Celia spies on Adele, C tells G, argue, leaves Adele w/G. /19a MP visits Handsworth sees Daz, Red Den at racist rally. /55 Bahar challenges Omoto – Red Den hears

/15 Gabriel seduces Adele

5 *Attempt to kill Adele 53 Adele put in witness protection 6  V2 – MP called to gruesome canal murder 2-MONICA 7 MP/Az get close – mirror young couple 9 Azzra and MP row _ Azzra pours water over MP 10 *MP made SIO -sceptical about motives

Coming up NEXT. What’s the future gig? THE BIGGIE!



© tombryson2015