How Do I Plot a Thriller?
How do I make a book fit together in the end?
Today’s question: How do you plot your thrillers so everything comes together sensibly?
I love this question — because I get asked this a lot! This will let me set it all down for the future.
Usually when I get asked this I ramble on for THOUSANDS OF WORDS, which I am going to try not to do. Instead I am going to try to boil it down to the succinct points. Then on Thursday, I’ll send out a post for subscribers that shows screenshots of what I’m talking about in action, on my own novel rough drafts (eek).
First, two disclaimers.
Everyone’s writing process is highly individual! What works for me may not work for others. I’m happy to share mine, but always find the thing that works for you.
Writing is damn hard, and even though this sounds a little like a process, when I’m in the middle of it things feel like I’ve taken a car apart on the floor of a garage and lost all the instructions. I wish I could write novels in a more repeatable fashion. I think of this less like a formula and more like a… muddle-through.
How I Start
First of all, I’m what’s known as a “pantser”, not a “plotter.” Which means I find it nearly impossible to write from an outline — my creative process just stops dead. I have to be writing to discover the story.
That said, I’ve found a little bit of an in-between spot where I’m able to envision and aim for a sort of… vague vision?… of how things might go. It nearly always diverges, sometimes drastically, but having that “aim point” helps me move forward in the beginning and soggy middle of the draft.
For me, an idea usually sparks with a few characters, and then a premise. It’s easy for me to bang out a first 10k before I stall (my writing history is littered with a graveyard of quite a lot of 10k novel beginnings dating back to about age 13). That’s usually the stage when I start to feel too far out on the branch, which is cracking behind me and I don’t have any place else to go.
Which is when I need that aim point.
And for me, that means using a structure guide.
Using a Structural Guide to Aim at a Place
My structural guide of choice is the Save the Cat method. The core of Save the Cat is a beat sheet that maps out the emotional arc of the story as a series of “beats”, though it also has other helpful (to me) structural observations.
The Save the Cat method was initially conceived by Blake Snyder for writing screenplays, but it’s also useful for novels, and for some reason it’s been useful for me even though I’ve bounced off literally every other structural guide I’ve tried. I think because the “beats” in the beat sheet feel intuitive to me in a way other structure guides don’t. I reference the books Save the Cat! and Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies quite a lot of times during my writing process. (There’s also a version specifically written for novelists, but I haven’t tried it.)
Save the Cat (STC) gets criticism in some corners — some people say it’s “formulaic” or “uncreative.” I say it depends how you use it! Any structural guide can be either helpful or stultifying, depending on how it’s applied. My books have never been called formulaic or uncreative — in fact, a lot of people praise me for the opposite. But it’s also true that my plots end up veering from the vague STC plan as I go along. I use it as something to aim for and also something to help me clarify weak points in my plot, but I’m not following it in a paint-by-number way. (I couldn’t! See the fact that I fail at following outlines.)
I love STC, but I wouldn’t say I recommend it so much as I recommend finding a structure guide that’s helpful to you. I seriously bounced off every single thing I ever saw suggested until STC. There are tons of different approaches — the Snowflake Method and/or Three Disasters and an Ending, Romancing the Beat, many. many various forms of Three-Act Structures other than STC’s three-act method — and also some other structural guides that use a different number of Acts.
In my personal experience, finding the thing that clicked with the way I think and create — and slotted in with the way I was trying to go anyway rather than causing creative friction — was most important. In my opinion it’s not that one method is better than any other; it’s that different ones will work with different people’s brains.
My Most Important Pieces of the Beat Sheet
I don’t usually have a full STC beat sheet when I’m near the beginning of a novel. I often have the beginning, but most of the rest remains a mushy mess, or ends up changing drastically as I get nearer those points in the draft.
But I’ve found a couple of moments help a lot for me in my vague “aim for” momentum — the “Midpoint” and the “All is Lost” moments.
These sometimes change too! But those two are the big story turns for me that define the way I hold the plot in my head, the big moments where I feel like I need to get them right or the rest won’t hang together the way I want. As long as I’m vaguely ramping up toward the Midpoint and then vaguely barreling down toward the All is Lost, I tend to be riding on the underlying emotional arc I want.
Writing Out of Order
I hate writing out of order. And I almost always do it.
The reason I almost always do it is that, as above, I’m a pantser and I write through things to figure them out. So sometimes I’ll be looking forward to a key character interaction I want to happen and YES! AHAHAHA MUST WRITE. I write it, and it helps me understand where the characters are going a lot better, and who they are.
Or I’m looking ahead at one of those plot beats, and I want to do the same thing. It’s fun. It’s where my inspiration is at the moment. It helps me know what’s going to be happening in this book.
Of course, when I actually get to these scenes? The thing I’ve written never, ever fits.
The characters have evolved differently than I expected. It’s in a different place. The stakes are much higher and the emotion much more tense. There are characters currently appearing in the conversation who are now on the other side of the story world, or dead, or enemies. And on and on.
This is SUPER ANNOYING. But I’ve come to see it as part of my process.
What I do when I come to those pre-written scenes is write straight through them, correcting, revising, rewriting until they fit the way the book is now. And sometimes I never come to them at all, and they get thrown out.
I despair sometimes because it often feels like I write every book twice. But I think it’s part of my process. In a way, it’s a little like having a mushy outline where that outline is made up of written story paragraphs rather than bullet points. I move these paragraphs around frequently, trying to figure out where they’ll fit in the book (and using the STC beats as a rough guide).
Sometimes, I end up with so many out of order scenes that finishing the book is figuring out how to connect them all… and rewriting all the ones that are ahead of where I am.
Inserting Hooks, or Using Ones I’ve Inserted Accidentally
I’ve seen other people talk about this, but I don’t know if it has an actual official name. I’ve always called it “hooks” in my head.
What I’m talking about is that as I’m writing, because I’m a pantser, I “throw things in” all the time. Some of these end up being really cool ideas. And then I think, oh, wow, I can use that later about something I originally stuck in as a throwaway.
It’s actually less common that I go back and add foreshadowing — although I certainly do that — as that I put something in near the beginning that sparks what happens later. Such is pantser life! And I only discover those things by writing.
I even do this across books. “Oh, that prior book in the series had this throwaway scene and minor character, how about I bring them back!”
So anything you perceive as genius connectivity probably wasn’t so much planned as conveniently grew out of something I liked and wanted to bring back around.
Coming Back to the Beat Sheet Throughout
Throughout my process of figuring out by writing, I come back to the STC beat sheet periodically and start to flesh it out and refine it. As I progress, it rarely looks very much like how it did in the beginning.
When I’m stuck, I often try to brainstorm off the beat sheet to figure out what future twists and turns I’m still missing.
And as I get to the end, I try to make sure my story arc reflects that underlying emotional resonance that I want it to, both in terms of how plot events tie together and in terms of the emotional arcs of the characters.
When I’m Off the Rails
Sometimes I end up straying off into a boring place, or a dead-end, or writing the characters through actions that don’t seem to be going anywhere.
I consider it one of my strengths as a writer that I can usually tell when this is happening. At least most of the time.
I’ve learned that, for me, the proper response is to STOP IMMEDIATELY, WARNING, RED FLASHING LIGHTS and backtrack to where I last felt like the narrative was right. That is — making sense, pacing correctly, cohesive. Then I lop off the disappointing outgrowth I was working on, re-aim at where I’m going, and write something totally different from there.
Some writers believe in just putting down words, “butt in chair,” and then revising later once they have a novel-length of words. Some writers are great at that! It doesn’t work for me. If I continue down an errant path, the whole book collapses, and either I don’t finish or I end up with an unreadable mess.
This means first drafts take me longer, because sometimes I have to circle back more than once, lop off a chapter or five, and reorient. (It also contributes to that frustrating feeling of writing every book twice.) But I’ve found that this is what works to get me back on the drafting rails the fastest. And on the plus side, people tell me my first drafts are surprisingly cohesive.
Everything Coming Together
You specifically mentioned things “coming together so sensibly” in my books — that tends to come from a couple of things:
I’m a big sucker, emotionally, for conclusion reflecting set up. So I try to use what I’ve pantsed in the beginning to equip my characters for the resolution — though I try for an unexpected way so it doesn’t feel predictable. This sometimes takes some brainstorming.
For the specific purposes of “things coming together,” there’s a STC phrase that I use a lot for this: “A and B stories cross.” I work to find a way for my plot threads to come back together and impact each other as we barrel into the conclusion.
In Act 3 I almost always have a plan that doesn’t work and then an emergency amendment / complication / plan B that does. The key is that both of these have to be reflected in what’s been set up before in order to give things the emotional resonance I want.
Even so, things don’t always come together so sensibly the first time! But as above, my strength here is that when they don’t, I’m fairly good at feeling it. And then I rewrite it.
Finally, because of the way you phrased the question, Reader — I should mention that nothing in this post is something I use only for my thriller writing. It’s effective for thrillers — but it’s also how I plotted the fantasy I have coming out next year. I would say the difference was more the types of stakes I was choosing for my characters, not how I thought about structure.
Someday I might hare off on something different, especially if I decide I want to do something that doesn’t fit neatly into a STC structure (there are tons of different narrative traditions in the world, many of which wouldn’t fit a STC arc). But for now, this method works for me.
All in all, it’s a lot of hard work and a lot of rewriting, and I do wish I had an easier (and faster) method. But I do end up satisfied, most of the time, with what comes out the other end.
On Thursday, I’ll give subscribers some examples of what this particular process looks like in action.
Thanks for reading this article!
It’s part of a regular newsletter on publishing advice. If you subscribe for $5/month, you’ll get newsletters every Monday and Thursday. If you sign up for free you’ll get at least two articles per month. No matter which list you’re on, you can always write in and ask questions of the column!