Caroline Leavitt: How and why I changed the way I map my novels

I know, I know, we’ve all heard the whole plotter/pantser debate. I’ve been there, done that for both. Now, suddenly, twelve novels later, I’m test-driving my third new way of structure.

In the beginning, in my twenties, I believed only in the Muse. I only ever had a vague idea of what my novel would be about, and I was sure I could write my way through it. Instead, because I had no idea where I was going, or how to build tension, I wound up with 800-page novels and I would have to start from scratch again. “Do an outline at least!” my then agent nudged me, but I resisted because if I knew where I was going, where would the surprises be? Plus, though this free-write method of mine resulted in near hysteria from me, I was certain that for me, there was no other way to finally dig out my novels, and when I had, they all sold and did well (except for my third novel, which we won’t talk about). So, with that proof, why would I want to change my method?

I was teaching writing—or at least what I thought I knew about writing—at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program online when one of the writers in my class asked me if I had heard of John Truby story structure. I scoffed and said, “Not for me.” But she sent me a tape of his first class, nagging me to listen to it. “It’ll change everything,” she insisted.

So I listened. And everything I thought I knew about writing novels changed.

Truby knows scripts, but a lot of his dictums apply to novels, too. He talks about deepening the characters by giving them moral blind spots, by pitting them between two different choices, each with a huge cost, and what they decide will show us the deeper person they are. And he gave a list of seven psychological steps to follow to arc the characters in a whole novel.

Hey. Why not try, I thought.

I used those steps to write my ninth novel, Pictures of You, which was not only my first novel to clock in under 300 pages, but also the first to get on the New York Times bestseller list.

I became a convert. I wouldn’t even start to write a novel without somehow mapping out the steps. What did a character want and why? What were the stakes? What was the character’s misbelief about what they wanted?

I began to formulate my own method, which I called The Rolling Stones Basic Method of Plot. You, the character, can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes (struggle and struggle hard against odds, and not just sometimes, but ALL the time), you can get what you need, which is totally different.

Want an example? A boy grows up dirt poor and has a wealthy and happy friend, so he believes that money is the answer. And this character has a plan to get rich (the plan’s important.) He works hard, gets scholarships to an Ivy League school, and becomes a banker, something he really doesn’t want to be, but hey, the money, the money, the money. And he gets a trophy partner. And guess what? He’s not happy. He’s miserable. Everything falls apart. (I begin to call this the We’re All Doomed Moment.) His trophy partner ditches him because he’s no fun anymore with all his soul searching. He loses his job. He’s hit the ninth circle of hell. How could this have happened? He begins to calm himself with painting, something he always liked. And that is when he realizes that what he wanted—money—was not what he needed. Time was. And doing something he loved. And once he realizes that, he meets someone he actually does love, a person rather than a trophy.

I mapped out four other novels this way, but suddenly, right now, this method hasn’t been enough for me as a mapping tool. I had no idea how to get deeper in my next novel, how to see what wasn’t working, and I felt my usual writer’s hysteria rising. But then while Zooming with another writer, Gina Sorell (The Wise Women), I noticed all these colorful index cards spread across her whole wall. “My novel map,” she said. She breaks her novel up into beats, one per card, then she rearranges them into possibilities, moving the pieces around to see what might give rise to new ideas or be more powerful. I have to do this, I decided.

It felt so new to me, which made it also feel exciting. I ended up with 80 cards, different colors for different characters, so I could visually map them across the space of my wall. Once I had things mapped the way I thought made sense, I turned them into a 20-page written synopsis.

But I wasn’t done yet. I wanted to go deeper. So, because I feel that everything comes from characters, I began to have my characters write letters to me, telling me how they feel, why they’re furious, why they want to jump off the roof of their homes. Most of the letters are about emotion, not plot, but I found they really deepen a character for me, so much so that I can feel them breathing behind me.

I began writing. But to my surprise, since I had done all the hard structure work, I wasn’t thinking of it anymore. That skeleton was built by a different part of my brain than the one I use to write. I began writing for hours, skipping around the synopsis, giving my attention to one section at a time, and the more I wrote, the deeper I got into my story world. I felt as if I were in the zone of a whole other world, where everything and every character was absolutely real. And it felt like magic.

I would never tell anyone that there is one system or way to write. Just as I would never tell anyone what they should write about. Because a story and the way you write it are built into your own unique subconscious. Just as writers are obsessed or haunted into writing certain novels, they’re probably equally drawn to ways of writing.  And isn’t that what creativity is all about?

Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times bestselling author of 12 novels and the co-founder of A Mighty Blaze. Visit her at And she’d be thrilled to hear how you write your novels.

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