Write a Novel Without Plotting (A Character Driven Method Perfect for Mysteries and Multi-POVs) | Michelle Schusterman | Skillshare

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Write a Novel Without Plotting (A Character Driven Method Perfect for Mysteries and Multi-POVs)

teacher avatar Michelle Schusterman, Author & Creative Writing Instructor

Watch this class and thousands more

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

    • 1.



    • 2.

      One Sentence Pitch


    • 3.

      Casting Characters


    • 4.

      Developing Character Traits


    • 5.

      Uncovering Secrets


    • 6.

      Writing Scene by Scene


    • 7.

      Now Start Casting!


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About This Class

Maybe you're the kind of author who writes by the seat of your pants. Or maybe you're a plotter who's looking for a new method of planning your next novel. Either way, this character-driven method for planning and writing a novel without plotting is perfect for you!

Author and writing instructor Michelle Schusterman walks through planning a mystery novel by creating a character chart and brainstorming scene ideas in a way that leaves room for plenty of spontaneity during the drafting process. If you're writing a novel with multiple POVs, this method might be especially helpful for you! While this course does focus on the mystery genre, this method can be useful no matter which genre you write. 

When you complete the course, please share your character chart in the student work section so Michelle and your fellow classmates can offer feedback and help you brainstorm even more twists and turns!

Meet Your Teacher

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Michelle Schusterman

Author & Creative Writing Instructor


Michelle Schusterman is the author of over a dozen critically acclaimed novels for middle grade and young adult readers. Her books have received starred reviews from Kirkus, Booklist, and Publisher's Weekly and have received honors including multiple Junior Library Guild selections, the CBCC Best of 2019 List, ALA's Rainbow List and Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers List, and the NC State College of Education Comic Relief Reading List. 

As a creative writing instructor and speaker, Michelle has led over 500 writing workshops and appeared on panels at DragonCon, Leviosa Con, The North Texas Teen Book Festival, The NYC Teen Author Festival, and Kidlit Con.

In 2020, Michelle launched a YouTube channel where she regularly uploads writing craft and traditional publish... See full profile

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1. Introduction: I love plotting. I love outlining. But here's my deep dark secret, I have always wanted to be a pantser, writing by the seat of your pants, discovery writing, writing a full draft of a novel with no plot in mind, nothing set in stone, and just discovering who my characters are along the way. Surprising myself with twists and turns that even I didn't see coming. I tried this once, about a decade ago and it did not go well. In fact, it was such a massive failure that I never attempted it again until this year. This time I figured out a way to do it that worked. I'm Michelle Schusterman, Creative Writing Instructor and Author of over a dozen critically acclaimed novels. I also have a YouTube channel where I talk about writing and traditional publishing and vlog about my own writing journey. This course is for writers who either don't enjoy plotting, or like me, just want to try a different approach to planning a novel. While I'm going to focus on mysteries, I believe this approach will work no matter what genre you're writing in. If you're writing a novel with multiple points of view, I think you're going to find this course especially valuable. The drawback of most plotting and outlining methods is that they really work best because they're designed to work if you just have one main point of view, one protagonist. I know personally in the past I have struggled to write outlines for novels that have three, four, five, or even more points of view. This method makes all of that much simpler. We'll start with the one-sentence pitch. If you've watched my other courses, you know how much I value this step. Then I'll share my character chart and we'll plan a mystery novel together. By the end, we'll have a story with not one, not two, but several potential plots that are all character-driven. Think of this as guided discovery writing. You won't have an outline, writing the way scene by scene, all the way to the end. But you won't be driving in the dark either because whenever you feel lost in your draft, like you're not sure where this story is going anymore, this chart is going to help you find your way back to the road so you can keep exploring. If you're ready, let's start planning this novel. 2. One Sentence Pitch: What's the core of your story? What's the heart of it? What's the hook that separates your story from the other epic fantasies or military sci-fis or crime thrillers. I'm going to use the mystery genre as an example. There are a ton of mysteries out there. We have all the books about murders, kidnappings, blackmail, and theft that we could ask for. What makes yours different? It might be the crime itself. It might be the protagonist, it might be the setting. I mean both location but also industry. Cozy mysteries are great example of this. The titles and premises of the series will revolve around the setting and/or the protagonist job, like a bakery, a library, a pet shop. That's their hook. If you can explain what makes your story unique in a brief sentence or two, it's really going to help you stay on track while you write your draft. Let's look at a few examples. This is the pitch for Finley Donovan is killing it. A mystery author with poor sales and financial problems is discussing the plot of her neck spoke with her agent, when a woman overhears mistakes her for a contract killer and offers her 50 grand to murder her husband. I think this is a great example of the hook being the character's job. There are lots of mysteries out there featuring contract killers. But this one's an author. We authors, especially mystery authors, often joke about what our browser search history looks like. How we probably sound like serial killers when we talk about our plots. Automatically, we can imagine just how quickly a situation like the one in this pitch could provide some fun, twisty, and probably hilarious situations. I was honestly jealous when I read this premise because I got scene ideas immediately and I wished I had gotten the idea for this book so I could have written it. But I did read it and it's fantastic. I couldn't have done it better. Here's another great pitch. For septuagenarians with a few tricks up their sleeves. A female cop with her first big case. A brutal murder. Welcome to The Thursday Murder Club. There are plenty of books about murder obviously, and also lots of books where the main character is an amateur sleuth. In this case, the hook is that our sleuths are centenarians. They are in their '70s and they live in a peaceful retirement village. Both the characters' ages and the peaceful tranquil setting are the hook for this murder mystery. Finally, let's look at this pitch for Dial A for Aunties. What happens when you mix one accidental murder with 2,000 wedding guests and then toss in a possible curse on three generations of an immigrant Chinese Indonesian family. You get for meddling Asian aunties coming to the rescue. This is another similar example in that the setting, a lavish Chinese Indonesian wedding set on an island. Also the protagonist themselves, the aunties, are the hook for this mystery. I first heard this book pitched as Crazy Rich Asians, but with murder, and that was all I needed to know. I read it immediately and it totally delivered on that pitch. Are there other books out there within accidental murder? How do we hide the body premise? Of course. But this one was definitely unique and memorable because of the characters and the setting. What's the hook for our mystery novel that we're going to develop together throughout this course. How about this? A literary agent begins receiving death threats and believes one of her crime writing clients is trying to kill her. How many novels have you read where the main character receives threats? Well, if you read a lot in the mystery genre, you can probably think of quite a few. But I think this protagonist job makes her situation unique. Let's brainstorm this story by starting on our character chart. 3. Casting Characters: Who's this story about? Well, we know from our premise that we have a literary agent. So let's start with her and let's call her Liz. Now, if you're writing a mystery, your main character is usually the sleuth, whether they want to be or not. Maybe they're a detective, maybe they're a Harvard symbologist to get sucked into wild conspiracy theories and saves the world. Maybe your main character is secretly the villain who doesn't love a good, unreliable narrator. I decided that because I know my premise, but I have no idea how the crime was done or who did it that I'm going to treat every single character like a suspect. After all, if I don't know who did it, surely that'll keep the reader guessing, right? It'll keep me guessing too. To brainstorm the rest of my cast, I considered the premise and what kinds of people would be in this character's orbit. Well, obviously we know she has clients, so let's start with them. To keep this list short, I'll only list three, but obviously, you're probably going to have a much bigger cast. We have Jack, the legal thriller client; Mel, the cozy mystery client; and CJ, the psychological suspense client. As an agent, Liz would know lots of editors. Again, for the sake of keeping this chart manageable, we'll go with one, Jane, the editor. Agents often deal with threats and harassment from hopeful clients they've rejected. Let's include one of those, mark through rejected writer. Agents also work with books scouts and film agents and that could be fun. Let's add a film agent who maybe they're interested in the movie rights to one of her client's books. Dan, the film agent. Obviously, Liz has a lot more people in her orbit and this is just her professional orbit. She probably has a family, maybe she's married or dating someone. She has friends, we hope. If I were really working on this book, I would brainstorm those as well. But for the sake of keeping this presentation a reasonable length, we're going to stop here. I just want to point out that your character chart will likely have a lot more characters. You might also notice that these aren't really characters yet. They're just names with professional statuses attached. That's what the next step is for. 4. Developing Character Traits: This column on your chart is for character traits, and it could get really long as you develop your characters. I found myself adding more to this column as I worked on this chart, but there are three categories I think are the most crucial and those are the ones I started with, want, need, and secret. The want and need is nothing new, I'm sure you've heard this advice before and I've certainly talked about it in my previous courses. Your characters, including your villains and your side characters, will be more well-developed if they have an external want or goal, as well as a more internal abstract need, something they might not even be aware of. Remember how I said I treated all of my characters as suspects, that's where the secret came in. I wanted them all to have something they didn't want anyone else to know. In some cases, it might be a huge secret and others maybe it's just a little embarrassing thing. But the point is, when someone feels as if their secret might get exposed, it affects their behavior. That change in behavior will make the other characters and the reader have good reason to suspect them. Maybe the character's secret really is dangerous, or maybe it just makes them a really excellent red herring. I'm going to add two more items to this column. Personality, which I tried to sum up in one word for each of my characters, I asked myself, okay, if a stranger were to meet this person on a normal day in their life, how would they describe them? What's their personality default? Obviously, people are more complicated than this, but I wanted to get to know them better as I actually wrote the scenes. Then reaction, by which, I mean, how do they react not just to the crime, but specifically to being accused of doing the crime. In this case, sending with death threats. That includes Liz herself. Keep in mind that I don't mean necessarily that every single one of these characters is going to be accused at some point, but I found that imagining their reactions to being under suspicion really helped me understand them better. It was at this point that I realized my list was missing one really crucial element, motive. Liz will likely learn over the course of the story that more than one person in her life has motivation to send her death threats. Now, at this point, you'll probably start seeing some redundancy in your chart. A character's want might be their motive, their secret might be their motive. That's totally okay. Let's start filling these out and see what we come up with. 5. Uncovering Secrets: Liz wants a big book deal. I mean, who doesn't? But her agency is struggling. The pandemic really slow down the whole publishing industry and all of her author's sales are down. Deals are getting more few and far between and she is desperate for one big deal that will help her keep the lights on. Liz needs to slow down. Her health is at risk. She doesn't sleep, she doesn't take care of herself. She's always been a workaholic and she feels responsible for her client's careers. For years, things were going great, but the last year has been really hard on her and both her mental and physical health have been sliding without her really noticing. Liz's secret is that she's considering quitting her job. She's had a job offer with a steady paycheck. The kind of job she could just leave at the office and go home and relax. She's not particularly passionate about this job, not the way she is about agenting, but she's burning out fast. She hasn't told her clients yet because she isn't sure whether or not she's actually going to take the job. If a stranger met Liz on a random day in her life, they would describe her as frazzled. If someone accused Liz of sending herself death threats, her reaction would be confused and maybe a little self-doubt. She's exhausted. She's practically delirious from overwork and lack of sleep. She didn't write those threats, did she? Her motive could be that receiving death threats is a pretty good excuse to quit her job. Maybe it'll even elicit a little sympathy from her clients. Onto Jack, the legal thriller client. He wants a film deal. Again, who doesn't? But Jack has long thought himself to be the next James Patterson and he doesn't understand why none of his books have been optioned by Hollywood. He's constantly pressuring Liz about this. He needs a reality check. Jack suffers delusions of grandeur in every aspect of his life. He's a bit of a narcissist and no one seems to be willing to put him in his place. Jack's secret is that he has a gambling addiction. It got particularly out of hand during the pandemic when he got sucked into online poker and maxed out a ton of credit cards. As a narcissist, Jack can't acknowledge when he's lost at anything. In his mind, his ever-expanding debt is just temporary, because obviously he's going to win big sooner or later. We already know this one, Jack is a narcissist. If someone accused Jack of sending Liz death threats, he'd laugh in their faces, him, please. That's absurd. His motive, Jack knows about Liz's job offer and he knows she hasn't turned it down yet. This would definitely make him suspicious. Although as I'm thinking about this, it doesn't quite track that his reaction would be decentered death threats. Right now, I feel like Jack is a solid red herring character, but probably not the villain. Mel has been earning a modest but steady living as a cozy mystery series author. But her publisher is severely late on her last royalty payment and she's been nudging Liz about it. Her need is to confess a sin, something she did a long time ago that maybe she's repressed, but sometimes it's surfaces, which brings us to her secret. Years ago, Mel was involved in a hit and run. She was the driver, she panicked and she left the victim lying in the road. She was never caught, but the secret is slowly eating her alive. Mel might write cozies, but her real life is much darker. Mel is sweet and kind, but occasionally a little of her inner darkness surfaces. A stranger would describe her as quickie. If someone accused Mel of sending death threats to her agent, she would have a panic attack. The greatest mistake of her past would blend with the present. Her guilt would rise to the surface and cause a breakdown. Mel might discover that Liz, her agent, is actually to blame for the late payment from her publisher. Liz has been extra stress lately after all and she's struggling financially. It was probably just an oversight. But from Mel's point of view, it might seem as though Liz's shoddy bookkeeping is intentional. From another character's perspective, that combined with the fact that Mel is guilty of manslaughter in the past, could be enough to make her a convincing suspect. CJ is Liz's most successful big-name client with multiple bestselling psychological suspense novels. But CJ has been working on her passion project. A dystopian about the rise of demon mermaids and she wants that to be the next book to go on submission. She wants a genre change. CJ is the survivor of an abusive relationship and is still in hiding from her ex. She needs privacy and safety. CJ writes under a pseudonym, only her agent and her editor Jane know her real identity. She doesn't do book tours or public events, she's completely anonymous. Her entire life is her secret. A stranger meeting CJ might describe her as quiet. An accusation of sending death threats to her agent would trigger CJ, reminding her of the abuse she once suffered. Her reaction would likely be fear. CJ processed her traumatic past by writing fantastic psychological thrillers. But she's ready for a change and she really wants to sell this mermaid dystopian. But Liz and Jane are not onboard. CJ has enough bestsellers under her belt that her next novel in the thriller genre is guaranteed to be a hit. Remember, her agent Liz wants that big book deal and her editor Jane, isn't interested in the mermaid dystopian genre. Would CJ send death threats to her agent to push her into submitting her passion project to other editors? That's a stretch for a motive, but it might be enough to make her look like a viable suspect for a little while. I want to point out here that while obviously I prepared this presentation ahead of time, I put this chart together exactly like I'm reading it to you now, making it up as I go. What you're doing at this stage is definitely not set in stone. You can always go back and change or make additions as you learn more about your characters. Let's go on to Jane. Jane, the editor wants CJ's next novel. Not the mermaid thing, she wants another big, best-selling suspense novel. Jane is a workaholic. She and Liz have this in common, although they're motivated by different reasons, Liz is increasingly desperate for money while Jane is simply extremely competitive. It's cost her relationships and friendships. Jane's secret is that she's receiving threats too, but not death threats. Someone has compromising photos of Jane with Jack, the legal thriller author and she's been quietly making payments to stop this person from making the photos public. Really, Jane has two secrets; the blackmail and this affair she's having with Jack. Jane doesn't waste words and she doesn't go out of her way to be sweet or friendly. A stranger would describe her as blunt. If Jane were accused of sending death threats to Liz, she'd brush it off, be very dismissive. She doesn't have time for this nonsense. Jane has good reason to believe Liz is the person blackmailing her with photos of her and Jack. Maybe she's right and one of the twists is that Liz hasn't been entirely truthful with the reader. She was desperate for money and Jane was paying up. Or maybe Liz isn't her blackmailer. The twist is that Liz solves the mystery of who is sending her threats, but the new mystery of who is blackmailing Jane still needs to be solved. Either way could work. Mark the rejected writer is 100 percent positive that if someone gave him the chance, he'd be the next Dan Brown. He wants to be a famous author. Mark needs to actually write a book. Because Mark is an ideas man, he has ideas for books that are guaranteed bestsellers and he writes summaries of them and sometimes even a chapter or so, but he's never written a complete draft. He wants the book deal first you see. Mark's secret is that he's been stocking Liz for months. He's manufactured a few accidental run-ins with her at cafes and at the grocery and he always pitches his ideas. Liz who, remember, is kind overall but also very frazzled, repeatedly told him to finish a manuscript and send it to her. But one day she lost her patients and just told him off. Mark has done his digging and he knows about Liz's financial problems. He's more determined than ever to convince Liz that she could sell one of his great ideas to a publisher and then they could both become millionaires. There's no nice way to put this. Mark's personality is car salesmen. If someone accused Mark of sending Liz death threats, his reaction would be aggressive denial. Same goes for the stocking. In his own point of view, Mark has done nothing wrong, he's just misunderstood. One could argue that his motive for sending Liz threats is his seeming obsession with her, evident via the stocking. Dan the film agent, wants to poach CJ from Liz. Yes, he's not a literary agent, he's a film agent, but whatever, he figures he'll sell the manuscript to a studio first. Then obviously, it'll go to auction with all the big publishing houses. He is stunned that Liz hasn't managed to get CJ a film deal yet for her previous books and he thinks CJ will be pretty easy to poach. The only problem is she's a recluse and he can't find any contact information about her. Dan has severe trust issues. He doesn't take anyone at their word and as a result, he frequently lies as well. Dan isn't who he says he is, maybe CJ isn't the only one with a pseudonym. A stranger would describe Dan as friendly, maybe even overtly. The kind of guy who greets everyone like their old friends. If someone accused Dan of sending Liz death threats, he'd calmly and politely explain to them why they were wrong and he would do it with a smile on his face. Dan's motive is to find out CJ's real identity and only Liz and Jane know this information. Maybe not coincidentally, Liz and Jane are also the only two characters receiving threats. I think a plot is starting to form here, or really several plots. While I was brainstorming these traits, I could see a bunch of different potential twists and that's the next step. Finding connections and imagining scenes. 6. Writing Scene by Scene: Once you have this chart filled out, start writing your scenes. The first few scenes will probably come the quickest because you know your premise and you know the setup that needs to happen. For our example, my first scene would set up Liz's situation, introduce one of the other characters, in this case, I chose CJ and include the first death threat. Liz is stressed at work, looking at a bank statement. She has a phone call with CJ who pitches the dystopian mermaid book. Liz is shocked, she's counting on CJ for that big book deal she wants and this mermaid book ain't it. She begs CJ to write another suspense novel. After the phone call, which doesn't go well, Liz checks her inbox and finds the first death threat. I'm really drawn to this Mel character. I'm picturing a sweet lady a decade or two older than Liz who occasionally says some surprisingly dark stuff. I probably write the next scene from her point of view. Mel takes a batch of cookies from the oven, a new recipe she might use in her Bakery Street Cozy Mystery series. She checks her bank account, then considers calling her agent again, but she doesn't want to be a pest. Fortunately, Mel has her agent's password. It's not her fault. Liz came over for dinner, check her email on Mel's computer, and never logged out. Mel takes a peek just to see if there's news about her royalty statement. This scene sets up her royalty statement issue, but there's more crucial info. We learn that Mel and Liz are close as Liz comes over for dinner sometimes. We also learn that Liz once never logged out of her email on Mel's computer and Mel occasionally sneaks a peek, justifying it to herself. Is she just a quirky, slightly snoopy woman? Or is Liz making a fatal mistake by trusting her? Next, I might write a Mark scene. Mark is at the cafe across the street from Liz's agency working on his laptop. When the barista brings him his fourth coffee, he asks what Mark is working on. Mark proudly says a thriller novel. But the document is blank. He tells the barista he's waiting for his agent. When Liz comes in for her post-work latte, he joins her without waiting for an invitation. When we meet Mark, we see him call Liz his agent, even though we know she's not, and he tells the barista he's working on a thriller novel, but the document on his laptop is blank. Mark is all about aggressive denial. If he believes it, it'll come true. This would be a great introduction to his character. I'll just keep going with this writing scene by scene and adding as much detail and dialogue and all that as I can. Then I write a summary just like the ones you see here on the screen on an index card and I'll stick them up on my cork board. That way when I get ideas later for changes or additions I want to make, instead of flipping around in my notebook or scrolling up and down an increasingly longer document, I can easily find the scene on my cork board and make a note on the right index card. I write my drafts linearly, but obviously, scene ideas might come to me out of order. Now if you're the person who can write a draft out of order, more power to you. But I can't. My solution, when I get a scene idea but I'm not at that point in the draft yet, I write down the scene idea on an index card and I stick it to the bottom of the cork board to wait its turn. In this case, I know Liz needs to find out at some point that Mel has access to her email account. I wrote down a scene idea for how that might go. Liz has dinner at Mel's house and they go over all the evidence they've compiled so far and discuss their suspects. Mel is cleaning up in the kitchen and Liz goes to check her email and sees Mel is already logged into her account. Now Liz wonders if maybe Mel is the one behind the threats. If I'm feeling stuck at some point while I'm writing the draft, I will go to these cards, these out-of-order cards to see if I can find a good spot to include one of those scenes. That's just what I do. Work my way through the draft of a book, scene by scene. Every time I get stuck, I go back to my character chart. That thing is a scene idea generator with infinite possibilities. Whenever I get a scene idea that I know will come later, I write it down. Those are my lamp lights in the dark. That's what I mean by guided discovery writing. Some authors can get an idea, open a document and write a first draft, drive in the dark. That's awesome. I can't do it. But with those scenes in the distance vaguely lighting the way I can figure out how to get where I want to go. 7. Now Start Casting!: I hope you're already motivated and working on your character chart. I would love to check them out, so when you're finished, please feel free to share them in the student project section below. Thanks so much for taking this course. I can't wait to hear more about your story.