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Criminal Minds: Creating a Foolproof Plot by Sam Blake

Writing.ie | Resources | Better Fiction Guides | Plotting and Planning

Sam Blake

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This past week I’ve been doing all sorts of events – from How to Get Away with Murder in Cork with Catherine Ryan Howard to hosting the Insider’s Guide to Getting Published for the International Literature Festival Dublin. The subject of plotting and planning came up several times with some interesting tips from fellow crime writer Catherine Ryan Howard who uses a system that is different but similar to mine.

When I write, I use a grid system that I stole from Alex Barclay to plan out each chapter – learning how to write is all about borrowing the bits that work for you from those who have gone before. I’ve run a huge number of workshops for writers over the years and attended a lot of talks, and I learn something new at every single one.

When I write, I need to have the framework of the story in place, even if I decide to change what actually happens or the characters lead me down a different path. I create a table in Word across the page like this, in sets of six chapters, running from chapter one to around chapter thirty, and fill them up with what happens at each point. I aim to write around 3000 words per chapter (some are longer, some shorter in the final cut). This overview means I can see the turning points in the story and who comes in where –  I use different colours for different characters to make that easier.



Lauren heading to park in the dark, worrying about video of her that has been filmed in her room

Ch 2

Cat hasn’t got profiler job, furious. Job comes in – hit and run in Dalkey. Tom Quinn has been killed

Ch 3

Cat to Orla and Conor Quinn (Tom’s parents) to ask about his movements the night of the accident.  Get first impressions both characs



Ch 4

Anna Lockharte in her office in Trinity, gets news of Tom’s death, remembers her sister’s death in Paris. PTSD from terrorist attack

Ch 5

Cat called to a scene in Dillon’s Park.

A girl has apparently committed suicide. O’Rourke and Thirsty at scene


Ch 6

Watcher accessing Dark Net, thinking about the web cams he can/has hacked & the women he’s watched.


Starting the story with a bang, I want to get the reader straight in as fast as possible. No Turning Back is a story with quite complex multiple strands that inter-relate, and is told from several points of view which, for me, makes it much more interesting to write than a single narrative, but also complicated to plot. I adore one particular new character in No Turning Back – Anna Lockharte – and I’m hoping to do more with her in another book, so in each of her chapters I’m seeding her story.

These early chapters are crucial to hook the reader and get them into the story, but you can see that I’m introducing three different points of view in the first six chapters. Using this table system ensures I can juggle them so the reader doesn’t forget what’s going or lose the forward momentum of the core story.

Catherine Ryan Howard uses a similar system with post-it notes. She explains how she plotted The Liars Girl: “I’m a big plotter, so the first thing I have to do in order to write a book is sort mine out. I don’t plan everything out in advance, but I like to have some signposts along the way. I open a Word document and create a simple outline using numbering. It’ll be a longer version of this (the notes in square brackets pertain to my specific plot):

Then I’ll take my ideas for scenes, plot developments, etc. and fill as much of this in as I can. The problem was that when I sat down to do this for The Liar’s Girl, I ended up with mostly blank space….But because I was contracted to write this book, I had to sit down and write it anyway, which is when I realised/remembered: 

The ideas come while you’re writing.

You can sit in all the cafes you want with your notebook, chewing on a pen, dreaming up plot lines and characters and killer twists. But – at least in my writing life – I will never come up with stuff that way that’s half as good as what I come up with while I’m actually in the midst of writing the book.”

This is Catherine’s version of my table – and much more colourful!

(Catherine Ryan Howard writes: This is what the plot of Distress Signals looked like by the third and final draft (the one with my editor at Corvus). But this is the end game. It’s okay to start with mostly blank space on your plot charts. You probably should.)

Despite my tables, I found writing No Turning Back that the plot changed radically between edits. But that’s all good. The first draft was really just a way to find the story, to get to know the main players and what happened, when. In the second draft I tied up loose ends (ahem), cut superfluous characters and totally changed the ending. When I got to the third draft I went back to my table planning page and redrafted it to check to see that the sub plot characters were being brought in regularly enough – I realised I needed some extra chapters from Anna Lockharte’s point of view, so I added those. For crime writing, some sort of structure is vital, even a vague one, so that you know where to leave the breadcrumb trail that will be revealed when your reader gets to the end. I love a big ending with a real twist, but it’s vital that the reader can find the clues that get us there or they will feel cheated. I want the reader to end my books with a wow, with a surprise. I hope that’s delivered in No Turning Back.

c) Sam Blake

Check out Sam Blake’s new online writing courses here. She has created a modular course that will guide you through the process of writing your book – just choose the units you need. Find out more about her latest book at www.samblakebooks.com

Sam Blake is a pseudonym for Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin, the founder of The Inkwell Group publishing consultancy and the hugely popular national writing resources website Writing.ie. She is Ireland’s leading literary scout who has assisted many award winning and bestselling authors to publication. Vanessa has been writing fiction since her husband set sail across the Atlantic for eight weeks and she had an idea for a book.

About No Turning Back:

Even perfect families have secrets . . .

Orla and Conor Quinn are the perfect power couple: smart, successful and glamorous. But then the unthinkable happens. Their only son, Tom, is the victim of a deliberate hit-and-run.

Detective Garda Cathy Connolly has just left Tom’s parents when she is called to the discovery of another body, this time in Dillon’s Park, not far from where Tom Quinn was found. What led shy student Lauren O’Reilly to apparently take her own life? She was a friend of Tom’s and they both died on the same night – are their deaths connected and if so, how?

As Cathy delves deeper, she uncovers links to the Dark Web and a catalogue of cold cases, realising that those involved each have their own reasons for hiding things from the police. But events are about to get a lot more frightening . . .

Pick up your copy online here!

For a limited period Little Bones and In Deep Water are on special offer, click here to check them out.


About Catherine Ryan Howard’s The Liar’s Girl:

Her first love confessed to five murders. But the truth was so much worse. Dublin’s notorious Canal Killer, Will Hurley, is ten years into his life sentence when the body of a young woman is fished out of the Grand Canal. Though detectives suspect they are dealing with a copycat, they turn to Will for help. He claims he has the information the police need, but will only give it to one person – the girl he was dating when he committed his horrific crimes. Alison Smith has spent the last decade abroad, putting her shattered life in Ireland far behind her. But when she gets a request from Dublin imploring her to help prevent another senseless murder, she is pulled back to face the past – and the man – she’s worked so hard to forget.

Order your copy online here.


Check out more articles from Sam Blake here:

Creating a Hook: Little Bones by Sam Blake

The Importance of Title: How The Dressmaker Became Little Bones

Creating a Foolproof Plot

In Deep Water by Sam Blake

Finding Your Sound Track: In Deep Water by Sam Blake

Creating Tension in Crime Fiction

Sam Blake’s Top 10 Tips for Editing Your Second Draft

Just Keep Writing: No Turning Back by Sam Blake

About the author

Sam Blake is a pseudonym for Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin, the founder of The Inkwell Group publishing consultancy and the hugely popular national writing resources website Writing.ie. She is Ireland’s leading literary scout who has assisted many award winning and bestselling authors to publication. Vanessa has been writing fiction since her husband set sail across the Atlantic for eight weeks and she had an idea for a book.

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