Friday, August 27, 2010
Parts is Parts: Plotting Your Novel
Every story starts with an idea. It can be a premise, a character, a line of dialog, something that makes you stop and think, "Hey, that would make a cool story." Sometimes you get a developed plot in your head right away, other times it takes some work to figure out how to illustrate that great idea.
There are usually a half dozen or so major moments in your story called set pieces. The events the reader waits for and the turning points of the story.Those fall out like this:
Act one crisis
Act two revelation
Act three disaster
To start plotting, jot down some ideas about each of these major events. They can be as detailed or as vague as you want at this point. Just get your brain thinking about them.
The opening scene is, of course, the way the book opens. It introduces the protagonist and the world and gives the reader a taste why this person is different or special enough to ask someone to read about them. An opening scene needs to grab the reader, and to do that, something needs to be going on. In many cases, the plot hasn't officially started yet because you need some set up before the protagonist is set on the path of the main story.
The trick here is to find an event or problem that leads to, or connects with, and plot point later in the story. You'll need a interesting goal, stakes, and some intriguing story question to keep readers turning the page.
The Inciting Event
The inciting event is the trigger that sets the rest of the story in motion. It's usually the thing the query hook is based on, and what you'd find in the back cover copy. Sometimes this is the opening scene, other times it's in the first 30-50 pages of the book. But wherever it occurs, it's the one thing that if it didn't happen, the rest of the novel wouldn't have happened either.
Act One Crisis
This is when things go horribly, horribly wrong. Your protagonist has just discovered she has a big problem and needs to solve it or else. Typically, this is what happened when she tried to deal with whatever she encountered in the inciting event.
Act Two Revelation
The protagonist has done some digging and found out things are not what they seem. A secret is revealed that makes it clear she's a bit in over her head, but she has no choice but to go on. Or else. (Never forget the or else.) This can also lead to or be a crisis like act one, but plots that dangle secrets to be revealed in the quieter (action-wise) moments usually hook the reader better, so it's helpful to plan a few from the start.
I like to send the story sideways in the middle and give readers something they weren't expecting. The reader thinks they know where the story is going, but wait! Suddenly it all changes. A word of caution here: Don't sent it sideways just for the sake of sending it sideways. The twist needs to be something that works with your story and fits the overall plot.
Act Three Disaster
This is the race to the climax, so things are usually pretty bad by now. The protagonist has a big plan to save the day, and of course, she fails miserably. It was one of those all or nothing plans, so she's way worse off now than she's been the entire story. This is often referred to as the "all is lost" or "dark night of the soul" moment.
The final showdown with the big bad guy. The protagonist has to face off with whomever or whatever has been making their lives miserable for 300 pages, and because they've learned XYZ over the course of the book, they win by a truly stunning and surprising ploy.
The happily ever after. Or the burning apocalypse if that's your thing. What the protagonist is going to do now that they've saved the day.
I've found that taking some time to figure out even a few of these helps create structural guidelines for the story, and that makes it easier to plot the entire book. Like street signs to follow so you know how to craft scenes to get readers where you want them to go.