Friday, 9 November 2018

Plotting Your Novel

This scrappy graph is explained in detail below

Writers are the best villains, since we spend so much time plotting, and talking about plotting. Here are some of my recent thoughts on the topic, which may be useful to people taking part in this year's NaNoWriMo - an excellent pursuit, which led to three of my books. Hopefully this post is also useful to my editing clients.

Although I was thinking about novels when I wrote this, it also applies to plotting a short story, or a novella.

Story Structure

Stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Much of the talk about plotting is related to the middle, and how it connects the beginning to the end.

The beginning is not all the boring stuff that leads up to the story. Cut that shit out. No-one wants to read it. The beginning is the crisis situation, the "inciting incident", the thing that triggers the story. It's the bulldozer turning up to demolish a woman's home. It's the demon crawling out of the wardrobe into the child's bedroom. It's the moment when the man locks eyes with the person he falls in love with. It's the point when everything changes, and it can never be the same again. (Though it is fine to have a bit before this, to establish the scene and create a bit of empathy with the character, to create context; just don't drag the back story on and on - you can always fill in a bit of it later. Use your skills to keep it interesting and lively ... and brief.)

The middle is where momentum builds. I'll mention that again below, under the section on structuring.

The end is when things get resolved, for good or ill - the point everything up to that point has been leading to. If you do your job well then the reader will not be able to stop before they reach this point.

To give a practical example from my novel Lost Solace. We have an inciting incident: "Woman discovers a scary spaceship full of horrors; she overcomes her fears and boards it". Her life will never be the same again. Then there are a series of challenges of increasing tension and risk as she fights to survive and make her way to the bridge (with a goal that is hidden from the reader until the end - which breaks a key rule, but see the final section of this article, "Rules"). Then there is an ending, when we find out if she survives, and if she succeeds in attaining what she sought.

What Is Plotting?

Plotting is deciding on the main points of the story - what happens and when, what actions the characters take as a result, and what happens next. Ideally the plot points should tell a satisfying story, lead to some change in the world or characters, and probably tell a secondary story backed up by themes which make the tale more universal. When an author has an idea for a story, they may start to write down the main plot points.

Plot Or Pants?

Some authors plot every point in minute detail, so that when they come to write the story they have a good idea of what will happen in each scene. This prevents dead ends, and helps authors to get words written, because they always know what they are going to write. This system is known as "plotting". (Note that, if you have a good plot plan, you don't have to write the scenes in order - you can write them in reverse if you prefer. Some authors like to write the ending, then the beginning, tying them together with language and motifs, then fill in the middle bits later.)

Other authors prefer to let if flow and make it up as they go along, asking "what if?" and creating new scenes out of how the characters react to events. This is known as "pantsing" - "flying by the seat of their pants" (idiom), or "playing it by ear". The characters drive the story. It can lead to exciting and unexpected twists for the author and reader, or it can lead to wasted time and dead ends and more need for rewriting. Note that for pantsing to work, you have to already visualise strong and believable characters and interesting situations for them to exist in.

The reality is that many authors mix the two systems, they are not mutually incompatible. I plan out most major parts of my novels, but not in massive detail - as I write it leaves the characters with freedom to surprise me. It also means I have structure, but still feel excitement as I write.

Top tip: if you are new to writing then err on the side of plotting, with breakdowns of your scenes and chapters. This lets you spot problems, or areas to cut, before you waste time writing them. Ask the question about every sub-plot and twist and event: "Does this contribute to the overall story, or is it just words?" Usually only very experienced authors can use full-blown pantsing and still achieve good novels.

Structuring The Novel

Stories can be plotted onto graphs. The story's plot becomes a visual thing. Stories have shapes. Before I go any further, it's worth thinking about this, and the best way is to watch this short and entertaining video where Kurt Vonnegut talks about the Shapes of Stories. I never tire of that. Then look at the section on Freytag's pyramid in this piece about dramatic structure. Okay, now you're an expert at visualising your story on a 2D graph. Well done.

Now let's take a step back and begin to write down what happens in your story. There are many different ways of getting started with thinking about the plot points and shape. Some people follow a fairly traditional structure such as the Eight-Point Arc. Other use systems such as The Snowflake Method. I have also heard of authors who think of it as “The Pee Pee rule": "Plot Pendulum. Keep it swinging back and forth, further and further, so that the highs and lows for the main characters get more extreme as the story moves along.”

The point is to come up with a structure that has increasing tension as the characters try to overcome obstacles in order to achieve their goals (survival, or a love interest, or a successful heist), but the world responds to their actions and new, greater, challenges and threats are introduced. They make decisions, they perform actions, and the stakes get bigger. As an author, we can't make things easy for our characters if we want a compelling story. Pile on the challenge and see how the characters cope.

In simple terms this scale increases until the main peak where they succeed or fail.

So at this stage you may well map out your plot points on a graph, with the X axis as time/advancement through the novel, and the Y axis as tension or challenge. This is a tool you can go back to at any point in a rewrite to help you restructure effectively or check that things are going well (here's one practical example where I did that).

The opening image is how I visualise the graph for most stories - a bit like Freytag's Pyramid (mentioned earlier) but with the peak pushed towards the end point. We want more build-up and action than we do denouement. Also, the upward climb isn't a straight line - it is a zigzag or wavering line of emotional highs and lows as the characters have ups and downs. There will be twists, reveals, and moments of calm.

The end result should be momentum - a build up of tension and an increase in the stakes - that keeps the reader glued to the page, then a grand finale where they get their fix, then a bit of tidying up as the pressure is released ... and then you're done. Although this sounds like I'm describing a thriller, it works for love stories, for growing up tales, for all genres. We always need characters we care about, and there always needs to be something getting in the way of what they want (otherwise it is not a story).

Rules

As I say to my editing clients - any writing rule can be broken, as long as the end result works. Hopefully some of the stuff here is helpful, and it covers 95% of the stories out there, but there will always be exceptions.

Where next? You might want to follow me and my work, or even buy my books. Many thanks!
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