How We Write Wednesdays: Susan Meier Shares Plotting Secrets!

Susan Meier talking plotting is like Christmas in August for writers. She’s the author of over 45 novels and is in high demand across the country as a workshop speaker and columnist for publications like Writer’s Digest and Short Story Markets. Susan knows plot. She writes it brilliantly and teaches it well. Everyone, plug in because Susan’s in the HoWW house!

Susan Meier


And next Wednesday, come back to learn “How to Write When You Don’t Want To” with Candace Havens.


A thousand words about plotting…well, maybe fifteen hundred.

I love to plot. Seriously. Some of us are just born with analytical minds. I love the details. I love being tricky. I love knowing that when someone reads a certain scene they’re going to gasp. Maybe I’m analytical AND devious? LOL!

I have to admit I was born with the ability to analyze, but even people who aren’t born wondering about every darned step in life, or born wondering how everything works or why people do things, can learn to plot. And easily. Because there is a magic formula.

But before we get to that, let’s make some distinctions.

First, it takes three very different abilities to be able to write a book. You must be able to COME UP WITH A STORY. You must be able to CREATE SCENES that manifest that story. You must be able to use WORDS to create those scenes.

Pause for a second and think that through. Lots of you probably began writing because a teacher told you, “You have a way with words.” But when you tried to write a book you might not have been able to think of a “story” for which to use those pretty words. Or maybe you could think of a story but didn’t know how to come up with scenes. Or maybe you’re one of those people who can create scenes but isn’t quite sure how to line them up into a story.

When you accept that you need three distinct skills, you can separate them out, go to workshops designed to teach you each skill and then practice putting them together.

Okay…so in Susan Meier World…plotting isn’t coming up with a story. A story is more like a sentence or a paragraph. i.e. A hero and heroine must catch a killer but she’s already been arrested for the murder and he’s the DA prosecuting her.

That’s your story. Plotting is figuring out how you’re going to tell that story. And how do you tell a story? With scenes.

And here we are…at the part of the blog you’ve been waiting for. The magic formula for plotting.

Your book should begin with an inciting incident (sometimes called Terrible Trouble) – an action that sets off a chain of events. In a category romance the hero and heroine would also meet at that point. i.e. The hero hires the heroine to be the nanny for his daughter. Inciting incident is the hiring. That will set off a chain of events. But…the hero and heroine are also meeting. AND as the author you’re being given a chance to introduce these two people to your readers.

Why is that important?

Because a novel is a journey of growth for your characters. So readers need to know who they are in order for them to understand how and why they need to grow.

Okay…so what if you’re writing a single-title length book? Romantic Suspense. Single Title Contemporary. Paranormal. Single Title Historical. Thriller.

Then the beginning of your book can be a little different. Number 1, your world building will be uber important. Number 2, your inciting incident can sometimes happen away from the Hero and Heroine. Which means you wouldn’t be introducing them in the first scene.

Now, as a caveat here, yes, yes, yes, there is world building in a category romance, but it has to blend better. You don’t get pages to do nothing but world build. It must blend. And, yes, sometimes the inciting incident for a category romance does happen away from the hero and heroine. But in a category romance the most important beginning to readers is the meeting of the hero and heroine. THAT should be your first scene.

Okay, so in a single title, your first scene, your inciting incident, might not include the H&H. Or it may include either the hero or heroine and not the other. You have more pages than category romance and your story’s focus is different.

You must have a bigger, broader story. Something that is (usually) equal to the romance. That story has to impact the romance and the romance has to impact that story.

So your first scene can be different. But it must still be an inciting incident.


Because an inciting incident is action and action breeds a reaction (or consequence) and a reaction will breed a decision which will breed an action…which will breed a reaction, which will breed a decision.

And that’s the magic formula for plotting. Start your book with action…something that sets off a chain of events, and before you know it your book will be on its way.

Like this:

There’s a fire in the hero’s barn.
As a result of that fire, the horses die.
As a result of the horses dying, the hero decides he’s had enough.
As a result of his frustration, he leaves town.

That’s action, reaction, decision, action. Congratulations. We’ve just plotted four journey steps. Potentially four scenes. Now, as a sidebar here, note that I said potentially four scenes. Why? Because though every scene must have a journey step, not every journey step needs to be a scene.


Really. Trust me.

If you take the example above. . .There’s a fire in the barn, the horses die, the hero decides he’s had enough, he leaves town . . . Each of those four journey steps could be a scene. But depending on the type of book you are writing, some of them could be pages, paragraphs or even sentences.

i.e. If the book opens with a long dramatic scene wherein the hero fights the fire trying to save the horses, if he doesn’t get the barn door open before the roof collapses, does he really have to take a head count to know the horses died?

Nope. And as a writer you don’t need to say much more than “When the roof collapsed, Jake knew his dreams had also collapsed. There was no way even one of his prized dancing show horses had survived and no way he was getting into the circus.” Paragragh.

Or after a long, dramatic scene, you could simply say, “Watching the roof collapse, Jake knew his horses were dead.” Sentence.

We get in the information that the horses died. But we don’t need to belabor the point. We most certainly don’t want to bore readers. And we don’t want to lose the “tight” feel of our story. So, we use a paragraph or a sentence and the information is in without losing momentum.

But what if you wanted the reader to feel the hero’s despair? What if his despair over losing the horses was as important to the story as the loss itself?

Well, if it was germane to the story to have the readers take a walk through the charred ruins with our distraught hero, then go for it!

My point is that each journey step needs to be illustrated in the best way for your particular story. Not my story. Not even because writing sad scenes is your strong suit. Each journey step should be illustrated in the way that best suits its place and purpose in the story.

You want to use action/reaction/decision in a way that doesn’t just manifest your story, but does it in a tight, interesting, compelling fashion!

That’s the basics of plot in a nutshell. Know that plot/scenes are different than story. Story is the overall overview. The thing you can say in one line. Words aren’t plot. They are the tools you use to create scenes. Plot is the series of steps you use to get your character from who he is at the inciting incident to who he is at the satisfactory conclusion.

Start thinking of your plot as those steps and soon you won’t have any trouble figuring out what comes next!


Susan Meier is the author of 45 books for Harlequin and Silhouette and one of Guideposts’ Grace Chapel Inn series books, The Kindness of Strangers. Her books have been finalists for Reviewers Choice Awards, National Reader’s Choice Awards and Reviewer’s Choice Awards and nominated for Romantic Times awards. They have been published in over twenty countries, touching the hearts of readers of many cultures and ethnicities.

Susan loves to teach as much as she loves to write. Can This Manuscript Be Saved? and Journey Steps, Taking the Train to Somewhere! are her most requested workshops. Her article “How to Write a Category Romance” appeared in 2003 Writer’s Digest Novel and Short Story Markets. Susan also gives online workshops for various groups and her articles regularly appear in RWA chapter newsletters.

As the mother of three children, sister to ten siblings, aunt of over thirty nieces and nephews, daughter, friend and wife, Susan knows that the best things in life frequently involve struggle. Her intimate knowledge of the anguish of life’s trials and troubles and the joy of overcoming shines through in her emotionally gripping stories. Her five bestselling miniseries explore the impact of family dynamics and small town life on romantic relationships.

Her latest releases include The Baby Project, Second Chance Baby and Baby on the Ranch. Coming n November, look for Kisses on her Christmas List.


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18 Responses to “How We Write Wednesdays: Susan Meier Shares Plotting Secrets!”

  1. Great advice! It was hard for me as a new writer to understand how to do this and how to learn what to keep to move the story along in an interesting way and what to lose. Thanks for making the explanation so clear and sharing it with us.

  2. susan meier says:

    Thanks! It took me ten books before I realized I couldn’t always fly by the seat of my pants! LOL

    That’s why I have all sorts of tricks and tips, not just for coming up with an idea but also ways to make it the best it can be.


  3. Jen Talty says:

    I LOVE LOVE LOVE this post. Susan–You have put into words what I have been trying to say for years…thank you! You made it so simple and it really clicked with me.

    I’m a plotter too. I have to know all the major parts of my story–the narrative structure, but telling the story–coming up with the characters, their deep dark secrets, desires, wants, etc and how that all fits in my plot is actually where I struggle the most as a writer. I know my plot inside and out, but the story that wraps around that plot is what I have to dig and flush out during draft and rewriting. I think that is why draft is so hard for me, but the rewriting is spectacular.

    Thank you so much for sharing this with all of us. There is so much to learn from those in the trenches, doing this. There is no one way to write and book and this is exactly what Anna and I have been hoping for…to learn from others the way they do it THEIR way so we can hone our craft. Thanks again!

  4. I’m plot challenged, which makes writing a cohesive story incredibly difficult, so I’m always looking for new explanations on how to plot. Susan’s online class Journey Steps, Taking The Train To Somewhere! expands on this post’s info and I can highly recommend it to anyone who needs more help with plot.

    Susan, thanks for sharing your plotting secrets. After taking your Journey Steps class last year, this is a terrific refresher. :)

  5. susan meier says:

    I think as we all develop as writers, we find things that resonate with us. And pretty soon we have our own tricks of the trade! LOL

    You said that you have trouble with the deep dark secrets, etc, that wrap around the story…I usually consider those as part of the story and use them to propel the plot forward.

    But still…There are times when a character surprises me. I just finished a book with an alcoholic hero (in AA for 7 years) and in the black moment, it was the heroine’s dad who told her SHE was the enabler. I was shocked. I had not known that! LOL

    Anyway, if you begin to think of characterization as story …since a novel is the journey the character takes to get from who he is at the beginning of the story to who he is at the satisfying conclusion…then the actions that happen in the story become more intimate with character. That’s when you write stories that are unique to your characters. The plot you devise could only happen with this character because of his secrets, his past, his sins, his wounds. Give him different wounds or serets or past or sins…and you’d have a different story!


    • Anna says:

      I love it when characters surprise me. It’s the best part of plotting. I do a great deal of character research and planning before I start writing, then work out basic plot points to hold everything together, THEN get to be creative and draft something out of all that nothing. It’s the BEST part of this job for me, see a story develop from so many little parts.

      Thanks for leading such an awesome discussion today. We’ve got lots of writers linking in. You’re an inspiration!

      • susan meier says:

        It was like heaven when the dad made that observatioin about the heroine in my last book.

        My friend calls that the power of the subconscious. All along it’s working…even when we think we’re going in another direction.

        And it’s my pleasure to be here! I love to talk about writing!


  6. susan meier says:

    Thanks, Sheila! I’m teaching that class right now!

    I’m refreshing myself too. It never hurts to be reminded of things. Because you never know when one little piece of information will make a huge difference!


  7. Hi Anna and Susan! Very interesting and informative post … I don’t plot, but I always like to hear how others do it. (And yes, I don’t plot, really, unless you count my 80,000 word first drafts that I then rewrite into 100,000 word books.)

  8. Kristen Lamb says:

    Thanks for taking the time to share about plot vs. story and some of the nuts and bolts part of writing. I think really great fiction authors do their jobs so well that we readers forget the mechanics behind the scenes. Sort of like we can watch Cirque de Soleil and be so mesmerized that we are oblivious to the light people and the backdrop but all of it comes together and creates magic.

    We appreciate the “peek behind the curtain” to see how we might create some magic of our own. Thanks for your time, and thank you, Anna for having Susan as a guest.

  9. Susan – wow! Thanks so much for the informative post. As said above, it was great to have this “refresher course” from your workshop.

    Febulous to have the insider insights, too. Along with the magic formula, it was interesting to read one of the secrets to your success: you’re a born analyst.

    I, unfortunately, am not. LOL So I work at it. Thanks for giving us non-analysts some extra tools for the toolbox.

    It’s nice to know that people who analyze and plot extensively can still find some surprises along the way, too. As Anna said, I love when characters surprise me. IMHO, that’s a big part of the fun of writing!

    Anna, thanks for having Susan here today.


  10. Amy Pfaff says:


    Thank you so much for the post. This simplifies plotting for me.


  11. M.E. Anders says:

    Susan, thank you for sharing your insights on this topic. I am in the fledgling days of my writing career, and I have been struggling with plot. Excellent and practical advice.

  12. Joya Fields says:

    Wow, thanks for putting plot out there in such simple, clear terms. I’m printing this out and posting it next to my computer. I’m reading “Baby on the Ranch” right now and loving it. Thanks for the great information. :)

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