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Guest Blogger S. Kyle Davis: J.K. Rowling and Plot Planning


Hey everyone! This fabulous guest post was written by S. Kyle Davis and I'm super excited about it. Why? Because I'm a Harry Potter nerd and this is great stuff. Please visit Kyle's blog and check out the Redline Friday feature he's been doing. If you're interested in having your 250 words critiqued, you can e-mail Kyle at kyle(at)skyledavis(dot)com.

J.K. Rowling and Plot Planning

NOTE: this post is a modified/expanded version of this post from Kyle’s blog.

If you're as much of a Harry Potter geek as I am (or if you've been following YA authors on twitter lately), then you may have already seen this:


Released originally as one of the Easter eggs on her website, this is a glimpse into J.K. Rowling's plot planning methodology. I found this a wonderful tip on how to plan your plot, whether during initial writing or during rewrites (depending on if you're a "planner" or a "pantser").

To save you time deciphering this page, here's what Rowling does:

In the far left column, we have the chapter #. This page is for chapters 13-24. Next to that, she has the time frame. Note that she doesn't go too overboard here with specific dates. She just has the month, which is about all she needs to remind her readers of what time of year it is (I need to get better myself at remembering to include a reference in each chapter). Next to that, we have her tentative titles for the chapters. After that, she has the overall plot of that chapter.

Now, for the really interesting part. After that, she has listed all of her main plots and subplots.

These include:

• The prophesy (the main plot of Voldemort being after the prophesy, Harry's glimpses into Voldy's mind, etc.)

• Cho/Ginny (the main romantic plot/love triangle)

• The DA (also includes Umbridge, etc.)

• Order of the Phoenix

• Snape/Harry & Father (includes both Occlumency lessons and Harry’s concern about whether his father was really a nice guy)

• Hagrid and Grawp

What I find interesting is that, especially for the more important subplots, she tries to work each one in to every chapter (except when the plot is finished or they're away from school, etc.). This not only helps her remember what all is happening in the book, but also reminds her that these subplots need nourishment.

So, how do we apply this to our writing?

1) List every subplot you can think of for your novel. This can actually be a telling exercise. It puts your entire novel into perspective. So how many subplots should you have? That’s a subjective question, but typically it ranges anywhere from 5 – 10. Less than that seems to be too few, and more can quickly make a novel unwieldy. The more subplots you have, the more you have to feed each one (making each one “thinner”). On the other hand, too few can make a novel feel thin, even if the subplots you have are very well developed. Finding the right mix of subplots is a delicate thing, and could be a whole blog post in itself.

2) Order your list according to precedence. Look at Rowling’s list. The prophesy is first, followed by the romantic subplot then the DA/Umbridge subplot. Other subplots go farther down the list. Do the same for your list of plots. First goes the main plot, then the other plots in order of importance. Typically, the romantic plot will be second or third (unless the novel is a straight-up romance where the actual “goal” is for one character to hook up with another, in which case it’s first). Farther down than that seems to result in a “What’s really the point?” sort of romance plot (but that’s just my opinion). The reasoning behind this step is that it forces you to choose between your plots. You can’t feed a hundred pages to every subplot, no matter how much you love them. Prioritizing them results in a clear, unified main plot (yes, you must have exactly ONE main plot!!!), with well-developed subplots.

3) Read each chapter and write out a short description of what happens. This will give you an idea of how your book really progresses. Again, whether you are a planner or a pantser, you need to go through this process during your revisions.

4) Start with the timeline. This is step is key, and one I often fail to do. You must know when everything is happening. If you’re a creative ADHD type like me, then this step will KILL you. I know that. You know that. However, we both know that sometimes you have to bite the bullet and just do it already. This is one of those times.

5) Next, identify what happens relating to your main plot in each chapter. What you may find is that occasionally NOTHING happens relating to your main plot. If that’s so, then ask yourself why. Every chapter should be advancing your main plot in some way. If it doesn’t, then change it or take it out.

6) Continue the process through the rest of your subplots. Go through each plot, identifying what’s happening with that subplot during that point of the novel. With some of the subplots, it’s fine if nothing new happens for the subplot. However, you should know WHAT is happening during that subplot.

7) Begin revisions. Address each plot, keeping the timeline in mind. Try to remind the readers about each subplot in some small way. Sometimes, it can be as simple as adding a single line about the subplot, which remind the readers, “Oh yeah, that’s going on too.” You may also want to add mention of the timeline as you go as well, which will ground the readers on what’s happening when.

8) Marvel at how much clearer your novel has become.

Awesome, right? Please leave a comment and don't forget to stop by S. Kyle's blog!


Jamie Manning said...

Oh this is so great! I saw the J.K. Rowling thing and couldn't understand it, so a big thanks to S. Kyle Davis for breaking it down. This page is getting bookmarked!

Matthew MacNish said...

I remember seeing that on someone's blog. It's incredible. She's brilliant.

This is also great advice. I use an excel spreadsheet for this, but there is no question I need to flesh out some of my sub-plots more.

storyqueen said...

I am in the midst of revising right now....I think this might really help me.

Going to give it a try....

Thank, Kyle!


Michael Di Gesu said...

What a great post and source of information. Thanks, Casey. Thanks, Kyle.

Jk is so incredible and a master of the subplots. I can't wait to pop over to Kyle's blog and read more.


Laura S. said...

I really appreciate this! I saw that picture of Rowling's plotting, but it's so unclear. Thanks for explaining some of Rowling's brilliance. :)

Anonymous said...

Great, great stuff, Kyle! I'm gonna check out Rowling's stuff, too. I don't do the Twittering myself so I like when other people point me to the goods!

Natalie Aguirre said...

Great tips Kyle for keeping the plot and subplot organized and on point. Thanks.

Nora MacFarlane said...

I attended a workshop on plot once with Arthur Levine, Rowling's US editor. He used her in example after example. She not only thinks this way per book, she mapped out the entire series. She truly is brilliant!

Unknown said...

Brilliant post--I have it bookmarked for when I start revisions in the new year. :)

Anonymous said...

This is pretty stinking awesome! Thank you for this post! It will definitely tighten my work.

Carmen Esposito said...

Thanks for this post! I'm a pantser and I didn't know about the typical number of subplots that are used. I have less than 5 so I just learned something new. Also, timeline and pacing are areas I have to work on. I will definitely check out J.K. Rowling's planning methodology. She's awesome!


Shannon said...

Note to Kyle:

Prophesy=the verb, John prophesied.

Prophecy=the noun, John made a prophecy about the end of time.

Prophet=the one who does the prophesying

Profit=what one gets for using the words correctly....

Unknown said...

Thanks everyone for the nice comments! I'm glad you found it useful!

Mn Twins Tickets said...

Thank you for this page. Thats all I can say. You most definitely have made this blog into something speciel. You clearly know what you are doing, youve covered so many corners.thanks

Patricia A. Timms-McGehee said...

I came upon this posting at just the right time. Some of this style I can relate to and some of it is brand new to me. I have gone through and summed up each chapter to see if I've left any subplots hanging but the timeline and listing out the subplots in order of importance as well as many of the other suggestions are great.

Thank you for this. I'm bookmarking it and then passing it on to my writing group.

Happy Holidays!

Sajidah said...

This is great and much appreciated at this point in time for me! :)

Sarah Steele said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you. I've been so frustrated with the way some of my subplots keep disappearing lately...I'm actually excited to do this! THANK YOU!

Lisa Gail Green said...

I am always in awe of JK! Great analysis too, and yeah, it would probably be a helpful step even for a pantser like me!

S.P. Sipal said...

Kyle -- I loved how you analyzed JKR's table! She puts so much pre-planning and research into her stories. I've learned tons from studying her craft. Thanks for laying it all out. I'll link to this from my blog and Twitter!

And Nora, I would have loved to attend an Arthur Levine workshop!

ESE exam said...

Thanks so much for this! I haven't been this moved by a blog for a long time! You’ve got it, whatever that means in blogging. Anyway, You are definitely someone that has something to say that people need to hear. Keep up the good work. Keep on inspiring the people!