Coming off of last week’s Chat about Character Arcs, this week we’ll be looking at how to plot or outline your novel.
Well, we will be looking at one particular perspective on it: mine. Granted my perspective is based on a bit of research as well as past #JustAddTea chats that we’ve had concerning outlining, but it is still simply my view. I know successful authors who plot every detail to the point that their “outline” is practically a rough draft of their book written in a bullet point format. Meanwhile, there are some authors I know who simply go with the flow, in other words, to use the NaNoWriMo term, they are “pantsers.”
Neither is inherently correct or inherently wrong because writing is a particularly personal endeavor, and other than following some basic grammar and spelling conventions so your audience can actually read your work, there isn’t a definitive answer as to “How” you are supposed to do it.
So, take what you can from what I’m offering and make it your own.
If this quote is to be believed, outlining a story is little more than determining which “lies” to tell, what order to put them in, and what “greater truth” do they tell. But surely it can’t be that simple, can it?
And the short answer is: no, it’s not that simple. If it were that simple, everyone would be a best-selling author and there would never be any rejection letters. Ah, what a dream!
Where to begin?
First, we do have to determine, in part, which lies we want to tell. If you’ll notice, there is a word that pops up a bit: plot. It is both used as a noun (the plot of a story), and as a verb (plotting the story). So what does it mean?
A quick Google search tells me that, as pertains to literature, plot is
the main events of a play, novel, movie, or similar work, devised and presented by the writer as an interrelated sequence.
There are two key elements to look at here: “main events” and “interrelated sequence.”
We can take this to mean that the plot of the story is the series of scenes that somehow relate to one another to tell a story. Furthermore, when we add our quote from earlier, these scenes need to coalesce to tell some sort of great truth to the reader.
The English teacher in me feels obligated to tell you that is what a theme is: a universal Truth (yes, capital “T” Truth) that the reader can learn by reading a story.
But, is that the best place to start?
I doubt it. I know for me, there is little way I could determine a stories theme before I determined some of the actions that were going to happen. However, the lesson or “Truth” we learn is directly related to the protagonist’s or main character’s (MC) goals.
After all, what is a story other than someone wanting something and encountering obstacles before they A) achieve their goal, B) determine their stated goal isn’t their true goal, or C) utterly fail to achieve their goal. The lesson we the reader learn is directly related to how the MC reacts to those obstacles and the goal itself.
Step 1: Determining the MC’s Goal
Whether this is the stated goal or the “real” goal, the one that teaches us the lesson, is up to you, but before you can plot your story, determine who your MC is and what do they want.
If Little Johnny wants to ask Little Suzy out on a date, that is his goal, but it would be a very short story if he simply saw her across the room and walked over to ask her. There has to be some conflict. Maybe she has a boyfriend, or a very scary father who is the town sheriff. Maybe Little Johnny got into trouble, so her father being the sheriff is a major obstacle all by itself. Maybe Little Johnny is shy, or Little Suzy’s boyfriend might be a bully so asking her out becomes a coming of age story.
If we go with the “Dad’s a sheriff” angle, then perhaps this simple quest of asking out a girl he likes becomes really about proving he’s a good guy. The scenes we as authors choose to include determines whether or not Little Johnny actually is a good guy and was simply misjudged by the father, hence a “don’t judge a book by it’s cover” sort of theme. Or does Little Johnny, in his quest to convince everyone he’s a good guy, actually learn how to be a good person?
In both cases, the Why is paramount to determining the Truth our lies will tell in this story. So, begin with:
- Who is the Main Character?
- What do they want?
- What gets in their way?
- What lesson or Truth will be learned?
Step 2: Create a map of key scenes
Once you’ve answered some of the basics from Step 1, now take that information and decide which scenes of your story will be key, big moments in your story. There are a myriad of plot structures and formulas for different genres that people use to determine how many scenes or the order of the scenes, and this post won’t go into all of that.
For one thing, I haven’t done enough of the research for that yet.
But, more importantly, Writing is an inherently personal endeavor, and what you deem to be important/key to your story is your decision!
So what makes the cut as a key scene? If we look at our questions, we need the scenes that show us those two middle questions: What does the MC want and what gets in his/her way?
Make a list of actions/events the MC must deal with on his/her journey and then flush out the most important details.
Using our Little Johnny example (the “don’t judge a book…” example), we know we will need a scene (maybe a flashback) to show what happened in the past. We know we will need a scene establishing his feelings for Suzy. We know we will need a scene where he actually asks her out. But what steps are there in the middle?
This is where knowing what Truth the story tells becomes handy. Since we know that we want to prove that Little Johnny was simply misjudged, we need a few scenes to establish that. Maybe in one scene, the father suspects Little Johnny of something because of the past. If it’s early on in the plot, maybe Johnny just blows the whole thing off because he feels like the whole thing is hopeless, whereas later in the story, maybe Johnny is fed up and confronts the Dad because he (and by now the reader, too) knows that he was misjudged and isn’t deserving of this treatment.
That WHY is super important! So choose a handful of scenes (the exact number depends on the length of the story, which is often determined by the genre) that offer the MC the opportunity to undergo some sort of transformation. We’ll see this transformation through the way he/she responds to the obstacles you choose.
Step 3: The details
Once you have a list of actions/events that the MC must face or do or overcome, now is the time to fill out the details. How specific you get is up to you; this is still your project, but you will need enough information to help us, the readers, to learn the Truth you determined at the beginning.
Keep in mind things like:
- How does this scene help or hinder the MC in his/her quest?
- How does this scene affect the MC’s emotional arc? Is it a win? Is it a loss?
- How does it show the reader the Truth hidden in the lie?
- Is it part of the main plot? Or does it create subplots. (Keep in mind, you might want to plot out each subplot as well, so you don’t leave any of them dangling…unless you’re going for a sequel)
- How does it change the situation/character/goal?
Basically, step one was determining the what’s and the why’s. Step two took the what’s to a deeper level by becoming more specific. Now Step three takes the Why’s to a new level by explaining the How.
In theory, you’ve basically written a skeleton of your story. Of course, as you write the story itself, you might end up making some changes. Maybe, as we write about Little Johnny, we’ll see that it’s not really about the girl at all. Maybe Little Johnny realizes that the girl isn’t as great as she looked from afar, and because he judged her based on her outward appearance, he made a mistake. Who knows?
Just remember to be flexible. If you force your story too much, it tends not to work, or at least that has been my experience. Let the story develop in the way it needs to. That might mean that you get halfway through your story and realize that you’re going with the wrong Truth. Or maybe a character you thought was destined to be with the MC to the end needs to die.
Be flexible, and remember to have fun!
Writing is an inherently personal experience and it should be enjoyed. Many of us began this as a hobby and then pursued it as a career. I don’t know many people who just want to be an author because it makes money right away… it rarely does.
So go forth and plot your novel! I wish you well on your journey.