Thursday, July 1, 2010

How I plot a novel

I have the honor of kicking off this second year of blogging here at Novel Spaces. It's been a fabulous first year, with many fascinating post from this eclectic mix of authors we have here. Today, I've decided to blog about something that is at the very core of every story, whether it's romance, horror, sci-fi, fantasy or mystery.


Every story has to have one, even if it is the most character-driven piece of writing in the world. That character has to actually do something, and/or have something done to him. To me, this is the plot.

I am constantly adding to my repertoire of plotting techniques. I've tried using computer-based methods, but I've always been a more hands-on person, and for me a simple poster board and sticky notes works best.

My plotting usually starts with some loose brainstorming of both characters' current lives and backstories. Somewhere in that expedition I usually find some common thread that will tie these characters together. After a bit more brainstorming, it's time to get to the nitty gritty.

The first step is to think about "What Has to Happen" and "Possible Scenes".

It's simple. In a story, certain things will have to happen. In a romance, the characters have to meet and have a first kiss. There also has to be a catalyst that propels the action forward, emotional cues that enhance the romance, and a huge event that makes the reader think that there is no way these two characters will ever end up together on the final page. I pick out specific things from that earlier character sketch that will help fuel the plot, then I try to match it up with possible scenes where those specific plot points can take place.

Here's and example of what about an hour of plotting yields for me:

Since I'm pretty linear in my writing, my next step is to create some type of timeline. For my last book I used the "W" plot, where the peaks and valleys correspond to significant plot points in the story:

1. Inciting Incident
2. Plot Point One
3. Midpoint
4. Plot Point Two
5. Black Moment

I find that when I start with those key points, I can populate the rest using my "Possible Scenes" from above.

This sounds pretty straightforward, but even as I write it I can't help but think about all the other stuff that takes place. I call that "the magic." It's that thing that happens with every story where I surprise even myself with the ideas that pop up. I don't try to understand it, I just pray that it continues to happen.

For anyone who wants to try plotting, I will always recommend Carolyn Greene's Prescription for Plotting system. Even though I've incorporated some of my own methods, along with ideas I've gleaned from dozens of plotting workshops over the years, Carolyn's system remains the foundation of my plotting method.

For the writers out there, please share some of your plotting techniques. As I mentioned before, I am always looking for different methods to try.


Liane Spicer said...

I'm an outliner, but I've always wanted to try the storyboard method. Also been a linear writer up until my current WIP which is non linear and gives me the freedom to jump around in time and write scenes in no particular order.

Haven't gotten to the part where I figure out how it's all going to hang together yet...

Anonymous said...

Storyboards, mind-maps, sticky notes, pen & paper, spreadsheets, maps (real and fictional), music and/or prompt-driven ideas, coffee...

I've tried all sorts of tools and tricks to help me plot. I'm still not sure which I prefer, so I think I'll keep the whole toolbox for now.