Plot is one of the hardest parts about writing a book (for me at least). You might have a great character and an awesome world, but it’s going to be really hard to sell if they read all day.
Depending on who you ask, there are anywhere from 2 to 21 different plots (from “happy or sad ending” to “man vs. man,” “man vs. self,” and so on). This means a lot of the heavy lifting has already been done for you, with regard to overall structure of plot. This doesn’t mean you have an excuse to plagiarize, but at least you can easily look up simple things like pacing and progress.
Along with plotting a novel, there’s the idea of outlining it. Some people balk at this idea, being true “pantsers” – those who go into a novel blind, just a general idea of genre and a character or two and then let them run around doing things. In contrast, you have your “planners” who outline everything down to the very scene. Most of my life, however, I have been a combination of the two: a “planster.”
How I used to do it
I used to think of a vague backstory for why everyone is where they are and who they are, and then think about something that could happen to them. This usually means writing a chapter or two to get an idea for everything.
As I write the characters, I would close my eyes and imagine actually being them, and trying to think of how they would react to anything thrown their way. Each character got their chance to react as required, and then their reactions (or proactivity) would trigger something new to happen and so on until I reached the end.
If I had certain scenes I think of during this process, I might skip ahead to write it in a vacuum, or I’d skip over parts that weren’t as interesting. But this ended with me without a real ending, or, if I had an ending, I had a squishy, terrible middle. Side plots might become important but didn’t actually line up chronologically with the rest of the story without adding a bunch of fluff. When it came time to edit, my story was a mess and none of it would be salvageable without a complete rewrite.
Enter in the research
In doing research on plotting, I’ve found quite a few great resources I am officially stealing from:
The inside outline from Author Accelerator, is a concept that includes the advice I already applied naturally, but inconsistently. The way you should be able to tell your story is not, “This happens and THEN this happens” – it is “this happens, and BECAUSE of this, that happens.” They have a LOT more information about plotting, and I recommend you check them out. They will occasionally have free webinars available teaching the basics of this process.
Lisa Cron’s Story Genius (as I’m sure some of you are sick of hearing me reference), is all about finding your character’s emotional third rail and making sure everything happening in your story pertains to it – whether that’s helping to resolve it or aggravating it. This helps keep you focused on the plot that truly matters and you don’t accidentally end up with a bunch of stuff happening to people with no reason for any reader to care.
I recently began watching Brandon Sanderson’s BYU lectures on Youtube and in his episodes on plot, he mentions another somewhat intuitive-but-also-entirely-not-at-all concept: progress. What keeps people turning the pages of your novel is being able to track your characters as they make headway into whatever it is they are doing. This might be collecting all the magic artifacts to defeat the evil sorcerer or checking each town to see if the princess is hiding there, or even just obviously having incremental progress in overcoming their fear of other people. It’s anything concrete you can check off a list and see the story is, in fact, going somewhere.
My new, experimental method of plotting
Step one: Decide what kind of progress I want my characters to make based off of the goals I gave the characters already.
Step two: Connect that progress with the emotional third rail of my characters/story.
Step three: Write down the barest of outlines. The beginning, each progress step, a climax somewhere, and the end.
Step four: Start connecting those bits of progress with scenes that happen with the idea of “because this happens, this happens” as with the inside outline concept.
Step five: Repeat step four until I have every progress point, the beginning, and the end connected.
Step six: Begin to outline all the chapters and scenes and figure out exactly what will be told by whom (since I currently have two points of view to deal with).
…this is working pretty okay. I fell back to outlining the first chapter or so to get an idea of where it’s starting and to build a sort of momentum. It’s also difficult to jump so far ahead in determining when and where the progress points will happen. I have this fear that by the time I get to where one was supposed to be, the story will be dramatically different and it won’t make sense where/how I put it.
But that’s the beauty of the frist draft: I can change anything I want in any way I want. If I really get going with writing the scenes and realize it’s not working, I am allowed to completely abandon the prep work I did and see where it goes.
My goal is to finish the damn book. I have left far too many novels unfinished in my time, and I have vowed never to do it again. In fact, the plan is to finish this one and then go back to the others, even if I need to gut them entirely. Wish me luck!
How about you? What have you been plotting? How have you been plotting? How’s it going for you?