Still living out of boxes after the move this past week, so here's an updated look at plotting from the archives. I ought to be back to my normal schedule by next week. Enjoy!
I was updating an outline of my WIP one day when something interesting hit me. I had a line of what was going to happen in a chapter, but it was written as if this was an inevitable event.
I realized this was a common phrasing for my outlines, because I know roughly what’s going to happen. But by stating it so clearly, in a “done deal” kind of way, I was robbing the story of the mystery of wondering what would happen. To remind myself to put the mystery back in, I changed the line to:Protagonist defies her superiors.
Protagonist has to choose between superiors and friend.A simple fix, but this edit made it a choice my protagonist had to make to achieve that outcome, which made the scene more unpredictable. Sure, the outcome was going to be the same, but when I wrote it, I had that struggle to choose firmly in my mind. I didn't write it as if it was a done deal--and that made a world of difference.
When plotting, we often know what happens, so we might write it without the necessary suspense. But if we look at it as a choice, we can shift the focus to a more plot-advancing and suspenseful goal--a choice to defy vs. defiance. It’s one of those subtle things I love, because it really works to put us in the right mindset to add the tension and keep the scene interesting.
After this revelation, I looked at all my scenes again and asked:
How many choices did I offer my protagonist?
Obviously not every actions is going to have options, but I wanted to see how many times I gave my protagonist a choice that could either raise the stakes, the tension, add unpredictability, or take the story in an unexpected direction. The scenes in which I did offer choices were far more compelling scenes.
(Here's more on revising your outline for better plotting)
How many clear outcomes were there?
The scenes where it was obvious I was working toward something happening, an “action without a choice,” were less compelling. They were still good scenes, but they didn’t have the same drive as the ones where it wasn’t as clear what was going to happen. The scene was about getting the protagonist from point A to point B, not if they were going to get from point A to point B.
(Here's more on avoiding predictable plots)
Where could I add more choices?
Some scenes had to let the action drive them. The whole point of that scene was to get from A to B (and that’s okay since this will happen from time to time). But other scenes could be strengthened if I included what choice my protagonist had to make either at the end of it, or during it. Sometimes those choices were related to the plot, other times to the internal conflict, and sometimes it was just a choice that allowed for some world building or setting.
(Here's more on character choices)
Events are going to unfold as you want them to, but approaching those events in a slightly different way can help you think about the details that can create mystery and tension. It's the difference between watching a re-run of your favorite movie and seeing it for the first time.
Do you think about choices or do you write what you know happens?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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