Thursday 7 June 2012

Seven Steps for Plotting and Pacing

by Maureen Lynas

WARNING! If you follow these steps you may never enjoy a book or film ever again. You may even experience marital and family discord. Now read on.

Candy's post on the First Page Panel in Singapore reminded of an activity I attempted (and failed) years ago. I'd just bought my very first 'how to' book - James Scott Bell's fabulous and essential Plot and Structure. The activity was:

Read four of your absolutely favourite novels and analyse them, pull them apart, because these books probably reflect the way you want to write and will give you a structure to follow.

I'm paraphrasing because I keep buying this book, lending this book and not getting this book back!

Great, fantastic advice, except – analyse them for what? For me this was a catch 22 situation. I couldn't analyse them until I understood story and I couldn't understand story until I'd analysed the books. So began a long journey to find out what makes a book tick. The other problem was – which four books? Because the books I loved to read for myself were not the books I wanted to write. I read adult books, but I wanted to write children's books, so analysing The Lord of the Rings, The Time Traveller's Wife or The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency was unlikely to help unless I was about to write about a young Orc detective called Sarumantha who can time hop. Gosh, there's an idea everywhere!

So, one thing I had to discover was – which children's books should I analyse. Which children's books did I want to read? And why? This took quite a bit of time but I eventually landed on - 
'I want to write the children's books I would have loved to read to my children (when they were children) and to the kids in my class (when I still had a class).' And 'It's my job to make kids laugh.'
Having these two statements to keep me focused was a huge help. So now I had some idea on what to analyse and once I started I couldn't stop. I became obsessed with getting to the nitty gritty of an author's skills and would jump with excitement when I'd 'cracked' another one. I would bore anyone who would listen, describing the techniques they'd used to make me laugh, cry, think, in minute detail – as if all of my friends, family and acquaintances were actually interested. Thank you for your patience! 

Eventually I had to accept that not everyone was as nuts as I was about writing and so I grabbed the chance to run the North East SCBWI in York, just so that I had the opportunity to share my obsession through chat, workshops and critiquing together. One day I found myself running a workshop on analysing Horrid Henry. I'm now sharing the notes from that workshop with you; they can be used to analyse any book or film, or used as a planning tool.

Analysing Horrid Henry


Identify the goal

  • Henry's attempt to achieve his goal provides the major event of each book.
  • The goal may be achieved during the event and the result will be positive for Henry.
  • The goal may be achieved during he event but the result may be negative for Henry.

Identify Act one, two, three.
  • Look for the inciting incident – the action that triggers the story. Because Horrid Henry is for young children this may be as simple as Mum saying, 'Bath-time!'
  • The doorway in to act two – Henry engages with the story as a reaction to the inciting incident. In adult crime stories it can be as simple as being given a case to solve and the detective starts solving. In other stories there is more of an emotional involvement to the trigger. Do a bit of research – What is it in HH? Is it the same type of incident and doorway in each book? Is HH propelled into the story by outside forces or does he jump in?
  • Look for the doorway out of act two and into act three. Does HH always solve his own problems in order to get into act three?
  • Cut/mark the book into the three acts.
Now for the real fun 

The Seven Steps of Plotting

These are the seven steps to pacing and plotting that I use in my own writing because they do away with the annoying muddle in the middle. Five steps were found in an article in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing by Meg Leader and Jack Heffron (thanks Geoff) and I've broken down the last one to include some steps from Revision and Editing by James Scott Bell.

The Seven Steps are 

Name. Preview. Contrast. The Event. Reflect. Reveal. React.

It's best to analyse in the following order.

Using coloured pens, identify the following (Just put one straight line from the top to the bottom of each section)
  • Highlight the main event of the book (achievement of the goal) in red.
  • Highlight the contrast scene (immediately before the event) in yellow.
    • What makes a contrast scene? A contrast scene is the argument before the kiss, the campfire before the battle, the success before the failure, or the failure before the success depending on the tone and genre of the work.
  • Highlight Henry's reflection (immediately after the event) in dark green.
  • Highlight what has been revealed (immediately after the reflection) in mid green.
  • Highlight Henry's reaction/action (immediately after the revelation) in light green.
  • Now go to earlier in the story and highlight any previewing of the event in blue.
    • Is the main event (achievement of the goal) shown in another way earlier in the story? Does a similar event happen to another person earlier in the story? Does a similar event go wrong for the protagonist earlier in the story. e.g in the book about the visit to the dentist, Moody Margaret goes into the treatment room just before Henry.
  • Highlight any naming that takes place before the previewing. in orange.
    • Naming is very short, e.g. 'Horrid Henry sat in the dentists waiting room' is naming this event will be about HH having a battle with the dentist.
    • Other naming – Mentioning a catapult on the mantelpiece as part of early description means that you can use the catapult later. Or, you can use opposites to name things e.g. 'This won't hurt,' is naming 'This will hurt.' Or in a romantic comedy – 'I'll never kiss him' is naming – 'I will end up kissing him.'

 Of course you will have more than one event in a longer book so the steps can be intertwined. 

You should also analyse for

Cause and effect.
  • What triggers movement between the steps. How does the story move on logically.
  • What is expected? What would be obvious? What actually happens?
Each scene's emotional dynamic for each character.
  • Up – down (happy to sad, excited to boring)
  • Down – up (confusion to clarity, failure to success)
And there you have it. For now. Have you noticed - None of the above deals with the words, the language. I'll delve deeper into Horrid Henry horrendous world in my next blog on:
  • Conflict
  • Tone
  • Escalation
  • Rhetoric
  • Opinion
Back to the apology mentioned at the beginning. If you do this properly – you will irritate people. They don't seem to like it if you watch a film pointing out the seven steps. I have no idea why. After all, what's wrong with a running commentary of , 'Ayup, it's a contrast scene.', 'Nice bit of naming there.', 'Did you see that gun on the mantlepiece? You know what that means, don't you? Don't you, eh?', 'Where was the preview! I can't believe there was no preview! How rubbish is that!' or 'Yay! I know what the event's going to be!'

Good luck.


Maureen Lynas blogs intermittently on her own blog which she creatively named - Maureen Lynas
Maureen is the author of
The Action Words Reading Scheme
Florence and the Meanies
The Funeverse poetry site.


  1. Wow! This is brilliant, Maureen! And yeah, sadly, once you're into analyzing plot and story, reading will never be the same again. That said, when I find myself lost in a book, as in totally forgetting about plot ... then I know it's a really good book.

  2. Exactly! It's the mark of a quality book if that happens. I'm reading The Room by Emma Donoghue at the moment and I am in that room with the characters. If you haven't read it I highly recommend it and so does my book group.

    1. Ooh, that's next on my pile! Great post, Maureen!

    2. I'd like to know who the irritated people are watching films with you.

    3. Family folk. They're not as irritated now, I've trained them to spot the steps too so they can join in! I'm also more restrained now.

  3. Maureen this is brilliant. You managed to make it sound so easy to do. I always plan to analyse books but, as Candy said, I often find myself so involved I forget what I am supposed to be doing. Thank you for posting it. I am definitely going to give it a go

    1. It can get very complicated when you start analysing longer books. And when you start planning your own using the steps. Have fun!

  4. Great information! Thanks for sharing such a detailed, informative, post.

  5. Great post, really thorough example of how to breakdown a book. Thank yo for posting this.

  6. This was fasntastically helpful, thank you! Another good tool is screenwriter Blake Synder's 'beats'. I, finding them quite useful at the moment.
    Here's a link if anyone wants to know more

    1. I've learned loads about structure from screenwriting books and courses. Save the Cat is brilliant. Thanks for the link :)

  7. Gosh, sorry about the millions of typos there!

  8. Soooo very helpful - thanks, Maureen! Get the structure embedded and then the story just sails out of it or at least that's what I'm hoping! x

  9. Using Horrid Henry as an example really helps to explain the steps - this is an extremely helpful post Maureen! Off to buy some highlighter pens now, I imagine that marking up books is also a very effective way to annoy your family.

    1. My daughter shocked some children the other day when she cut up a book to use with the group. There were gasps of horror.
      Go for it! Make the lines thick and fluorescent :)

  10. Fantastic post, thank you. Another to be printed and kept lovingly on my desk. My husband regards this kind of analysis as akin to original sin - all the more pleasurable for it.

    1. It's great that you're printing it out! Now I feel very useful :)

  11. Brilliantly helpful Maureen! Once you start to notice these things you can't stop yourself ...

    I'm reading a Famous Five book at the moment – most of the seven steps so far have been shouted through a fog horn as loud as possible.

    (It still makes me chuckle to think of the giant hourglass in the Wizard of OZ ...)


    1. I'm sure that's why she could churn out so many! Enid just got her characters and made them walk the steps. See you tomorrow :)

  12. Sorry only just caught up with this. I've been busy writing reports, do you think using the steps would improve them ;-)

    1. Yes!
      With the event being the parents getting the report! Oh I remember the reveal, the reflection and the reactions so well :(

  13. Oh, I remember trying to grasp this concept! Took an age for the penny to drop...but boy, does it make my writing so much better...thank you for introducing me to such delights. I have even got my hubby mentioning when he notices, naming, previewing, Great post, as always...look forward to the next instalment...:)

    1. They have to join in to shut us up! Thanks :)

  14. What'd Apocalypto for the first time on Friday night. During the hunting scene at the start,

    "Ah, the preview. This is obviously foreshadowing the final events of the film."

    Everyone else watching tried to cut my heart out.

  15. I love James Scott Bell's books. They're so easy to read and have such good advice. Thanks for such a helpful post.


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