I'm always looking for better ways to plot my novels. Every time I attend a great workshop on story structure, or see a phenomenal blog post, or read a fantastic book, I incorporate those tips into my process and update my basic plotting template. I just started developing a new novel, and I noticed that I start conceptually and narrow the plot down to specifics.
Thinking about a story conceptually allows me to brainstorm what I want to have happen without worrying about the details. Things like, I know I want a major reveal and surprise at the mid-point. I know I want X to happen in the climax. Whatever the protagonist does at the climax of act one will come back to bite them in the all-is-lost-moment at the end of act two. I can shape the flow of the story even though I don't know exactly how it will go. Conceptually, I know how I want it to turn out.
For examples, let's check in with Bob and the gang.
Imagine I'm starting on book two, and I know after figuring out my one-sentence pitch, that this book is going to be about Bob trying to get the cure for zombification before the love of his life, Jane, succumbs and turns into a zombie. From this I have the inciting event (Jane gets bitten or somehow contracts the zombie virus) and the ending (Bob gets the cure and saves Jane). But there's a whole lot of plot that has to happen between those two points.
After I get the basics down, my first step is to figure out what my major turning points are. How I generally want the book to unfold. A first pass will look like this (for the curious, I'm totally making this zombie book up as I write this post):
Intro and Setup: Bob, Jane, and Sally living in the zombie apocalypse
Inciting Event: Jane gets infected
Act One Climax: ??
Mid-Point Reversal: ??
Act Two Disaster: ??
Climax: Bob gets the cure and saves Jane
Wrap Up: ??
(More on outline formats here)
You'll notice there's a lot missing. That's because I have no clue yet what's going to happen. So I'll brainstorm, take notes, make lists, talk it over with friends, all the usual stuff that goes into figuring out a novel. When I get more pieces, I drop them in. So the next pass will look like this:
Intro and Setup: Bob, Jane, and Sally living in the zombie apocalypse
Inciting Event: Jane gets attacked by a zombie, but it isn't clear if she's infected or not
Act One Climax: Jane is infected and begins to show signs
Mid-Point Reversal: They discover the government lab Sally used to work for is hiding a huge secret that totally changes their view on the zombie virus
Act Two Disaster: Jane turns into a zombie and tries to eat them
Climax: Bob steals the cure from the government bad guy and saves Jane
Wrap Up: Bob exposes the government secret and the gang goes on the run to spread the word
In the past, I've started novels with nothing more than this loose outline. Some books worked and I figured it out as I reached those turning points. Other books didn't, and I slammed into those vague points like a tomato against a brick wall. Setup turning points are typically easier to write as I get there. Knowing Jane will be attacked means the gang will be where zombies are. They'll be doing something that puts Jane in close contact with them.
Then there's the mid-point reversal.
They discover the government lab Sally used to work for is hiding a huge secret that totally changes their view on the zombie virus.Conceptually, I know what I want to have happen here. A big shock, a reveal, a discovery that will send the story sideways and blow readers' minds. I have zero idea of what that will be.
(More on mid-point reversals here)
At this point I'll pull back and figure out the easier bits. How does it start? What is going on when I introduce the characters and the world? Knowing more details here might work to shed light on the ambiguous parts. When I reach a point I'm not sure about, I switch to another area and start thinking about that. I'll end up with an outline that looks like this:
Intro and Setup: Bob, Jane, and Sally are looking for places to restock their supplies. Winter is coming and they need to chose between heading south to a warmer climate or bunking down until spring and waiting it out.
Inciting Event: While searching an abandoned mall, Jane gets attacked by a zombie and falls through a store front window, cutting herself up. She kills the zombie, but with her many injuries, it's not clear if she's been infected or not. The idea of being trapped with a potentially lethal Jane makes Sally vote to keep heading south where they can keep a better eye on her. Bob isn't so sure.
Act One Climax: Bob finds clues about a possible cure in a hidden lab, but going to it will take them north, not south. Jane begins to show signs of infection. It's iffy whether or not they can make it to the cure in time or not.
Mid-Point Reversal: They get to the lab but there's no cure. But they do discover the government company Sally used to work for is hiding a huge secret that totally changes their view on the zombie virus and suggests that Jane might not be lost to them if she does turn.
Act Two Disaster: Jane turns into a zombie and tries to eat them, then vanishes into the ruins of the city. Bob chases after her. Sally wants to leave her, but he won't. As he gets near her, government types appear and snatch her off the street.
Climax: Bob creates an intricate plan to save Jane, steal the cure, and escape from the government bad guys, stopping their nefarious plan.
Wrap Up: Bob cures Jane, exposes the government secret, and the gang goes on the run to spread the word.
More plot, but now there are even more things to figure out. What clues does Bob find? How? Where is the lab and what's it for? What secret do they find? Is that the reason the government types grabbed zombie Jane? Is Sally going to play a role in getting Jane back? Does she know more than she lets on? So many questions to ask and all of them can lead to just the right answer.
The benefits of conceptual thinking, is that I'm not locking onto any one particular detail that might prevent me from coming up with a better idea. It also helps me stay focused on the type of plot event I want, not just a scene that feels cool but might not serve the story I want to tell. By knowing conceptually that I want a major reveal, I'll think about ways to surprise my reader. By knowing that surprise has to tie into why an event happens at the end of act two, I can think about how things might be connected. If X happens, how does that fit with Y?
(More on brainstorming here)
It's usually pretty clear when a piece will only work for one part, not the other. That lets me throw it out or move it to the side while I keep thinking, eliminating all those times when I'd write pages of summary following a plotline that just didn't work. I know right away if it fits into the larger conceptual plan. I'm still free to brainstorm, but now I have a direction. Like looking for the puzzle piece that fits a particular hole.
Next time you're plotting, try looking conceptually at how you want the story to unfold. Think about:
- The types of events you want to happen at key points
- When surprises are revealed
- What plot points you want to connect or build off of
- What events will raise the stakes and where they'll fall
- Where you want the reader to feel certain emotions
Do you outline? How much or how little?