Monday, January 11, 2010
I Love it When a Plan Comes Together, Plotting a Novel: Part One
My plotting process has been pieced together from a bunch of different sources over many years. Most notably, the books Plot, by Ansen Dibble, Scene and Structure, by Jack Bickham, and the structure musings of Alexandra Sokoloff. Other bits and pieces have found their way in from various blogs, conferences and simple trial and error. I found that following any of these verbatim never worked for me, but when I found gems that fit with my style, it made the whole process easier. And that process is definitely evolutionary.
My first step is to create a general outline. I'm a structure gal, so I like to know the major events that make up my story before I write it. I don't always know the specifics at this point, but certain things need to happen at certain times. Those steps are:
Act One End
Act Two End
Act Three End
I also use a basic size template, so I know roughly how many words my first draft will be, and where these events will fall. This changes by the final draft (usually another 10K words and a chapter or two), but it gives me guidelines to work with and helps me stay on track. My YA/MG template aims for 60K words, 24 chapters, and 2500 words per chapter. (This word count breakdown is especially helpful if you have a tendency to write long. You can easily and immediately see when you've gone over and are getting off on a tangent.)
So this puts these events around here:
Opening - Chapter One
Act One End - Chapter Six
Mid-Point Reversal - Chapter Twelve
Act Two End - Chapter Eighteen
Act Three Starts- Chapter Nineteen
Climax Starts - Chapter Twenty-Two
If I find I need more or fewer chapters, I just adjust. If one of these events happens sooner or later, no problem. The goal isn't to follow this exactly and make it fit, it's to guide me so the story unfolds at the pace I've found gives me the best story for my style.
My first pass at outlining will look something like this (but with the details of the actual story of course):
Opening - Intro of protag getting into trouble
Act One End - First major problem that throws a wrench into protag's plans and forces them to act outside of their comfort zone.
Mid-Point Reversal - Unexpected event that sends the entire story sideways.
Act Two End - Protagonist's actions have led them to a point where they can't back down, but they'll need to sacrifice something to continue.
Act Three Starts - Protagonist has acted in ways to bring them in direct conflict with the antagonist, it's do or die, all or nothing time.
Climax Starts - Showdown with the antagonist.
Now, some of you might be thinking, "but that's so formulaic!" But I don't find it restrictive because anything can happen at these moments in any way. It can be quiet, loud, action-packed, subtle. It can be emotional or external, personal or grand scale. Most stories have a basic formula and yet every one turns out differently. This breakdown helps me think up scenes that escalate my stakes and keeps the story moving, because it gives me general parameters.
Once I have this basic frame, I start thinking up how each chapter will go. I write a loose paragraph (sometimes more) per chapter, keeping the next event signpost in mind to guide me. It's mostly a goal-action-result set up, where I list what my protag is after, what she does to get it, what happens, and where the results of that action send her.
Chapters One - Five
I like to start off my books with a traditional "show the protagonist living their daily life" scene. Let the reader see what's normal for them, so when I start tearing their lives to shreds, the reader can understand what those changes mean and what the protagonist loses. But this doesn't mean just show any old day in their life. You still need to do all the things a good opening does to hook the reader. Give them a character they can identify with (or be fascinated by), make them care about this character, and give them a problem they want to see solved so they keep reading. It also needs to introduce the reader to the world and give them a general sense of what they're about to get themselves into.
I like to use opening scenes that show a common problem my protagonist has. Ideally, this problem will somehow transition them into whatever the story problem for the novel is. It shows off the best traits of my protagonist so readers can get to know them a little and like them. It also shows some of their faults so the reader can see how they might screw up their own lives in the near future. Basically capture the essence of the character for good and bad.
Then, I let the story unfold as the protagonist makes her decisions and gets herself into trouble. I free write at this point, using any notes I've taken and thinking of things that might get in the way of this opening moment, and how Act One ends. Typically, this is when the protagonist starts discovering there's a big problem and what that means, and she acts in ways to fix it. Those actions make things worse (or they uncover things to show that things are worse than she thought) and eventually, something happens that turns it into a whole new ballgame. This is around Chapter Five. Often, this is the inciting event you hear people talk about all the time, though that can happen earlier (a lot of mine happen in Chapter One). Stakes are raised here in a significant way, but no too high so you can't go higher later. It's a delicate balance.
Act One End (and Act Two Starts)
Chapters Six through Eleven
This is where the protagonist is trying to solve her problems, the antagonist keeps getting in her way, the stakes keep escalating and everything leads to the Mid-Point Reversal. At the end of Act One, the protagonist has just learned something major, did something that ended badly, or is put in an impossible situation and forced to act outside her comfort zone, and this propels the action forward. Events are often the consequences of whatever was done or learned in the opening chapters.
I like to use my middles to ramp up the emotional punch of a story, so the things I choose to do here will often make my protagonist examine aspects of her life or beliefs. Conflict is your ally here, so think about things that will make your protagonist's life harder and cause her to really struggle to get whatever goal you created for her at the end of Act One. One trap you can find yourself in is crafting scenes that are exciting, but don't actually go anywhere. Middles are notorious for sagging and loss of focus is a common reason why. Action that doesn't advance a story is just as bad as boring scenes that don't advance the story, but they're just sneakier so you don't always notice them.
I like to keep my story moving by having something important happen every chapter. To avoid being repetitive, I mix the type of event up. One chapter might reveal a major weakness that will come into play later, another might reveal a secret or important piece of information, one might show key steps that upset or advance inner character growth, or end with cliffhangers that advance plot. Some of these things will be subtle and mixed in with other aspects, like a major plot point that results not only in the next goal, but in a character revelation or step of growth. Layers are great ways to add depth and keep the story from becoming a "this chapter does this, that chapter does that" and making it feel like a series of steps. You want a sense of unfolding story, not a series of things to wade through to find out how it ends.
This is like my mini-climax. I like it to be something unexpected that really surprises the reader and hopefully not something they saw coming. Often it gives the protagonist an opportunity to demonstrate what she's willing to do to win (mirroring the climax in some way, literal or thematic), or what's important to her at the most basic level. It can also challenge everything she thought she knew and force her to change her world view. Or do both at the same time. After this moment, things usually can't continue as always, because too much has changed, either internally, externally or both.
One of the things I like about the Mid-Point Reversal, is that it helps combat the boggy middle syndrome. It gives you something major to work toward the first half of the book, so the story always feels like it's building toward something. Then, it shakes things up enough so that you have new things to advance the story with for the back half. And of course, it'll up the stakes again in a pretty big way. It's like that old movie trailer joke: "This time it's personal!"
Be wary of shoving the story too far, though. Unexpected is good, but don't turn it into a whole different story. The surprise is a great way to deepen the meaning of the story and create a much more personal sense of stakes and conflict.
(Here's part two)