Clare Donoghue - Surely Never a Dullard?

Written by Clare Donoghue

To plot or not to plot,

that is the question

I read an article recently in which Stephen King said plotting was for dullards. I’ll admit I wanted to cry a little because he’s one of my idols but I can’t help it - I’m a plotter. Without a plot I’m not sure I’d be able to write anything. Would I love to be able to write organically where my characters weaved their own storylines almost independently of me? I don’t think I would. I am a self-confessed control freak and in my world, my characters do as their told.

However, when I first started writing I had no idea how to plot or where to begin.

It was after reading Mo Hayder’s latest offering that I decided to have a go at writing myself. I began by embellishing scary incidents that had happened to me or people I knew and before long I had a dozen chapters of action-packed, fear-inducing…exposition. I decided I needed help and so applied for the MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa. The application required a sample of writing plus a synopsis of the novel I was hoping to develop on the course. A quick google search for, ‘how to write a synopsis’ and I was away.

It wasn’t until I arrived on my first day that I realised quite how far out of my depth I was. I had the bare bones of an idea with a few characters that were yet to take shape. We were expected to share our work and give and receive feedback - also known as, criticism. It was a baptism of fire as my characters and story ideas were torn apart and their weaknesses exposed. However, it did force/encourage me to do better.

I spent hours thinking about my characters and their motivations. I realised I had the method of murder, who had done it and how the lead detective was going to solve the case but I was lacking the why. And so I came back to the synopsis. I worked on each paragraph fleshing it out and then editing it back to the bare minimum until I had a detailed, plausible story with all the twists and turns required to make it an exciting read – hopefully. With the story sorted I now needed a structure to follow as turning a five page synopsis into a novel was easier said than done.

During the MA we were shown a whole raft of past students essays in which they detailed how they plotted. It was here that I discovered the excel spreadsheet. As soon as I saw the method being used by a particular student I knew I would be stealing it for my own. Below is an example of how it looks.    



Character 1





Word Count



17th April - Thursday

Maggie Hungerford

Maggie - wakes up in a tomb

man mentioned in dream sequence


Maggie had dinner with man previous evening - who?




22nd April - Tuesday


Jane called by Sue, Mark Leech's wife. He's disappeared but there's blood on-scene

PC Chris, DS Penny - missing persons members - forensics






22nd April - Tuesday


Jane at Sue's house as the investigation into Mark's disappearance gets underway


Uncertainty, fear, dread

Mark's missing. There's evidence of blood in the utility room. No family rows or explanations why




Using the synopsis I broke down the story into chapters, detailing each one with the chapter number, the day/date, the narrating character, a brief description of what happens, secondary characters, the theme of that chapter, some background, the word count and finally, whether it had been edited it or not. Obviously I didn’t do the entire novel all in one go – that would have been amazing. I worked five or so chapters ahead which meant that when I sat down to write I wasn’t faced with a blank page. I knew what chapter I would be writing and what had to happen. It might sound very clinical and uninspiring but having the skeleton in place with my synopsis and the breakdown with the excel spreadsheet, I found that I could enjoy the creative process without worrying about where I was going, or what had to happen in order to keep the story on track. I suppose, it is similar to when I read. I don’t want to see how the writer has put the plot together. I just want to immerse myself and enjoy the story without getting too obsessed with who did it or how the novel is going to end. Of course I want to guess who the bag guy or girl is but I don’t want that desire to distract from the journey and the characters. 

Apart from some minor tweaks I still use the same method today.

I feel very fortunate to be a writer but even more so, I am grateful that along the way I have discovered a method of plotting and planning that works for me. Every writer is different so despite being a ‘dullard’, I’m happy.


Trust No One by Clare Donoghue

published by Pan on 10th March

A paperback original and eBook, priced £7.99

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Clare Donoghue

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