Notes from Winchester Writers’ Conference 2010 – Plotting: Literature’s Problem Child by Robert Goddard

Robert Goddard has published over 21 densely plotted thrillers, and I was eager to hear his tips on a subject I struggle with. The following bullet points are notes I took down while he was speaking which I hope may be useful to anyone else who wants to find out more about his plotting techniques. The main point I took away is that you have the find the method that suits you most; earlier Terry Pratchett said that in terms of plots he had an idea of where he wanted to go and let the writing take him; he shied away from analysing the process in case in doing so he destroyed it somehow! This in contrast to Robert Goddard who methodically plots each book – the hard part – and then simply fills in the details. Whether this is due to character, talents, personal preference or simply genre I don’t know – what I do know is that when it comes to plotting I need all the help I can get, and I got plenty at the Winchester Conference!

  • Plot is life – the world is full of plots.  However varied and bizarre your plots are, you will never be able to rival the variety and baroquery of real life!
  • It is easy to start a novel with an intriguing beginning, but not so easy to come up with a satisfying ending
  • Keep a chronological record – don’t lose track of the days of the week!  What season is it?  What time of day?  The atmosphere will feed into the story.
  • Murder is the most common crime to write about as it is one most people can understand, and also the one an ordinary person is more likely to get involved in.
  • The mobile phone has been a huge boon to writers as material for plots is literally shouted at you in the street!
  • So how do you turn it all into stories?  Where do you want to begin and end?  Choose an entry point (not the beginning) and a character (for thrillers, usually an innocent party who doesn’t understand what’s going on).
  • The person who solves the crime should be someone who has a personal stake in the outcome, not just a detective who comes and goes.
  • Spend time structuring the story.  Plot out biographies of characters, even minor ones.  Minor characters should have as much potential to surprise and affect events as majors.  Be consistent with their actions.
  • Don’t be afraid of not writing – you may spend months planning and jotting things down.
  • When you finally come to write you do not need to make anything else up – just watch your characters react to the events you have given them.
  • You really have to enjoy the process of plotting.  It’s like writing a bus timetable.  (NB I can’t remember what Robert Goddard meant when he said this, but hopefully it will mean something to someone!  Perhaps he meant it could be dull to put together but ultimately it gets you where you want to go!)
  • Masters of plot include Wilkie Collins, John Fowles, Donna Tartt and Michael Dibdin.
  • Writing should be fun!  Otherwise it’s just hard work.

Robert Goddard obviously really enjoys writing and it was great to hear him speak so passionately and demystify what, for some, can be a difficult process.