Last week, we cooked up a tasty story idea by mixing characters, romance, conflict, setting, and genre. This week we’re going to take those ideas and learn how to plot a novel.
Simmering those components together into a plot takes time. For some writers, it may take weeks or even months of stirring the concoction. Others seem to come up with a plot in mere days or even, it seems, hours.
While it’s possible to start writing too soon after snagging your idea out of thin air (before it has time to mature), it’s also definitely possible to plot and poke and research the thing to death. At some point you’re simply postponing the inevitable and need to begin writing.
In between, however, is plotting time, for however long it takes you. Plotting is basically gathering the components of your earlier planning and combining them into some sort of relatively chronological list: an outline.
Your genre will help dictate what types of plot points need to take place. If you’re writing romance, you need two characters to meet, to fall in love, to have several problems (in ascending order), and finally to overcome them and pledge a HEA (happily ever after) to each other.
If you’re writing a murder mystery, you need to present the dead body and the detective who will solve the mystery, who will need to suspect a bunch of people and come into danger himself as he gets closer to discovering whodunnit. In the end, the identity of the killer is revealed and s/he is taken into custody.
Other genres have their own dictates. Don’t look at these as limiting your options, but guiding your story. There’s plenty of room inside the box for your unique story.
As you think about the ideas that have come to mind about your story, choose one that seems to be the catalyst. The spark incident. Remember, you can change this later. You can revise your starting point before you write, and you can revise it after you’ve written the first draft. For now, take a guess at what will get your story rolling.
What are the natural repercussions of that incident? If a dead body has been found, you may have someone in hysterics. You may have the whole clan called in. If you’ve started with a character falling down a rabbit hole, what happens when she hits the bottom? Jot down the results of that opening scene.
A story is a whole list of cause-and-effect. The longer the story, the more room there is to develop these scenarios. A short story may only have room for one major clash, but a novel’s rhythm usually calls for three major catastrophes. Remember to save the biggest one, the worst one, for last!
Think about how your characters will get from one catastrophe to the next. What are the logistics of each action? As writers, we can foresee many of the plot points but often are surprised to find, in the middle of writing, that something else HAS to take place. In her premium writing course How to Think Sideways, author and teacher Holly Lisle calls this L.U.C.—Law of Unintended Consequences. Still, trying to figure out what those repercussions might be ahead of time will help in your plotting.
Keep in mind your characters: their personalities, their goals, and their history. You have interviewed your characters, haven’t you? How do these specific people react to the circumstances you’ve placed them in? How do they take charge?
Continue to play the cause-and-effect game, either by pouring your thoughts out into a spiral-bound notebook, or creating mind maps of your ideas. Make note of all your ideas of how to make the situation worse for your characters. You may not need all of them, but a list is a handy thing to have.
Finally, how must the story resolve? We’ve mentioned the expected outcomes of romance and mystery genres, but how must your story need to end? A target is a useful thing.
- How to Plot a Novel: a lot of cause-and-effect! click to tweet
- What do you need to keep in mind as you plot a novel? click to tweet
Writing a Synopsis
Now you’ve got a rough path from beginning to end of your story. It’s a great time to write a synopsis. This is a simple telling of the story, using everything you’ve noted above, in the same way you might tell a friend about the movie you just saw or the book you just read. Make it as detailed as you can, but don’t sweat the stuff you don’t know yet.
The synopsis you write at this point is merely a tool. Don’t get too worked up about it. Make it as long or as short as it needs to be. Analyze what you have. Maybe you need to rearrange the major conflicts. Do so. Maybe you need to add a motivation. Do so. Do what you can to make this mini version of your story as solid as you can envision it.
Now that you’ve created a cohesive whole, it’s time to disassemble it again. Novels are written in scenes, so it’s time to pick specific scenes from your synopsis. What are the bits that happen within one setting and timeframe? Bunch them together, apart from the rest, but look to see if they are really several scenes lumped together.
Work your way through the synopsis, separating out scenes and numbering them. How many do you have? Do the major conflicts land at approximately the 1/4, 1/2, and 3/4 marks? If not, what can you rework?
Revising a plot outline is much easier than changing the order of things later, once you’ve written the first draft and discovered it’s poorly paced or that logic has been erased. Take the time to create the best outline you can now, before beginning to write the novel.