When JK Rowling wrote Harry Potter she had the whole thing worked out, across all seven books. For five years, she created the Harry Potter world. She used spreadsheets to keep tabs on the various plot lines.
Agatha Christie wrote down ideas, then started with the murder. Charles Dickens would fold a sheet of paper in half and write down the chapter number and title, main characters and a summary of events on the right hand side. On the left he’d jot down ‘mems’ to remind himself of points that he wanted to include and things that he was thinking through, often in the form of questions to himself – where do I set this scene? Do I bring in this character yet?
Having said that, I have problems with Dickens’ plots because everyone conveniently turns out to be somebody else’s long lost daughter, or heir, or pet spaniel or something. I like Great Expectations, but it has a plot hole like a pot hole towards the end.
The mistress of the art of plotting, for me, is the incomparable Jane Austen. But who knows how she did it?
Tolkien, by the way, had the big back story all worked out, but he sat lightly to plotting. When Strider turned up at the inn and met the hobbits, Tolkien hadn’t a clue who he was. He found out. But Tolkien’s plots do go on long rambling walks, not always to much purpose. I never could work out what Tom Bombadil is there for – he doesn’t earn his keep.
I’m having a problem now with a plot that keeps running away with me. Every time I think it’s sorted I can see a weakness, or a hole, or simply a more exciting way of doing it. I usually do flow charts, but maybe I should do the JKR thing and put everything into boxes. The trouble is that editors like to see a synopsis of a book before commissioning it and this book is going through a plot change a week just now.
Sometimes I say that I get paid for making things up as I go along. If only it were that simple!