Writing “50 Shades of Plot”

Want to learn how to plot your book “Fifty Shades of Grey” style?

I’m not talking erotic mysteries, mind you (let’s save that for a slightly different forum, hmm?), but there is a secret hidden in this title that writers can use for developing plots. This book title can be not only an eyebrow-raising or giggle-inducing trigger for general discussions but a catalyst for the creative process. And it doesn’t hurt to know that E. L. James’ first novel won huge fanfare and her resultant trilogy was snatched up by the motion picture industry. That, too, inflames writers to want to replicate at least the success, if not the story line!


If you’ve ever tried to plot a book, with its clues and characters, motives and actions, you know there is a vast potential for paths the plot can travel. There are two particular paths that seem to plague writers:

The Cliché Freeway

Dead-End Alley

In the one instance, once you head down a plot’s roadway, the trail broadens to a thoroughfare and whisks you on its route, which you soon realize is trite and clichéd (well, no wonder it whisks you away—lots of other books have traveled that same freeway). However, at other times your plot’s path narrows to a smaller and smaller walkway until you face a dead-end alley.

Whether writers come to me for editing after their book is just underway or when it is finished, many groan that they realize they’ve arrived on the Clichéd Freeway or hit the “there’s no way out of here” signage. I’m sure there are many writers who face these two problems and who simply give up, frustrated at the journey of writing.

I say hit the “Fifty Shades of Grey” approach. Let me explain.

You start with writing the simplest possible “color” of your plot, what anyone would roll their eyes at, it is so obvious. We’ll call it white. And then you write the most absurd and unlikely possible plot end—the black side. Now, if you were forced to create 48 in-between endings it would seem daunting, right? But wait!  All you really need to do is take slight deviations from the previous color, just slight grey versions, something that isn’t so hard at all.

Here’s what I mean:

  • Let’s say you are writing a murder mystery in which Detective Jones realizes that the Lydia, the woman with the smoking gun in her hand and who is standing over John’s dead body is the murderer. Well, that’s as simple a plot as possible! And the reader can save reading—or buying—the rest of the book. Jot that down at the top of your list. Is there another obvious one? Maybe that John killed himself and she just picked up the gun. Case closed—very white. Jot that down too.
  • Skip down many lines, whether on your yellow-lined pad (does anyone besides me still use them anymore?) or hit “return” a number of times on your computer list.
  • Look for the most unlikely black color in this shading of plots. There are many possibilities. Like the detective is the murderer. Or that John isn’t really dead at all. Or Lydia is the one who’s dead and is only a ghost. Jot down those three possibilities. You now have five plot shades listed, from the least complicated to the most.
  • At this point, with only three characters mentioned on your list so far, you have a limited number of variations. It is time to drop in more of the characters you have planned for this book.
  • So after that original white concept that the woman is the murderer, jot a plot possibility including the next character you’d planned for this book, let’s say David, the dead man’s business partner. Make it simple: David shot John. It is pretty easy to figure that he then just left the gun and clueless Lydia picked it up (don’t characters ever learn to leave dropped guns alone?). A very pale shade of grey creeps in, but it is a start.
  • Now head to the black side and consider David, John’s business partner, again but in some complicated way. Start with one of your notes already on the black side, like the detective is the murderer. What is highly unlikely but includes David? Maybe that David is also the detective’s father and they planned this together? Add that just above the previous entries.

Already we have seven shades of our plot out of our total 50 and we’ve only started on our character list! Keep going with this concept, adding characters or situations, letting there be no real order to it, no linear plotting actually involved, just lines of possibilities. This is brainstorming, nothing in solid form, just ideas. Go from the most obvious (white) side to the most complicated or unlikely (black) until you have all the characters somewhere on this chart of greys. Don’t worry about which is the most or least likely—just include them in the list somewhere and let your creative juices flow. You may end up with more than 50 lines!

MAJOR TIP: The plot possibilities are endless–play with them! 


(A few of the books published by my clients)

Most will be clichéd. Many just too weird. A few laughable and others stimulating. But interesting possibilities will trigger your creative flow and offer you some fresh and doable plots that are neither too obvious nor dead-ended. By the time you’ve reached your 50 shades of plot, you’ll see a pattern of something that is stimulating, possible and exciting both for you as the writer and for your reader.

New to “Sandra’s Tips”? Click here to see an archive of previous newsletters.

See my websites at Bristol Services Intl.  or  SandraHaven.com  for information on my editing services. Let’s discuss YOUR plot possibilities!

1 Comment

  1. Tori

    That’s a great idea! I’ll definitely try it in the future.


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