Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The Ebb and Flow of Plotting a Novel

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Over the last few weeks I’ve been revising one of my works in progress. Before I change any text, I like to rework my synopsis and summarize every scene and capture what happens, why, how the scene unfolds, where it goes, what’s driving it, and add a myriad of notes and reminders for me to keep track of when and where things happen. It’s messy, but effective for my process.

One thing I’ve noticed this time around (though it’s something I’ve always done), is that I plot forward until things get a little fuzzy and I’m not sure what happens, then I go back a few scenes and flesh out the plot until I’m able to move past that fuzzy scene. The story develops with a gentle ebb and flow, moving back and forth as needed.

While I’m currently using this technique to revise, it’s also how I plot my novels, and can work for brainstorming or developing ideas as well.

Let’s talk specifics so you get a better sense of how this works, and can see if it’s something that might also work well for your process.

Step One: Map Out the Major Turning Points

This gives me a general framework to aim for, and provides structure for my story. It’s not uncommon for these points to change as the story develops, and I go back and update them when they do. It also follows the ebb and flow as I work out the details of the novel’s plot.

For example, what I think is the act disaster might not be right when I finally get to that scene. Or it might need a little adjusting to fit with how the story actually developed.

Sometimes a turning point needs to stay the same, and it’s up to me to figure out how to hit that mark and get the plot there. When this happens, I’ll make a lot of [why does he do this?] and [how can she change her mind?] type notes in my scene summaries. I’ll know a shift or a change needs to happen there, but I haven’t quite figured out how yet.

(Here’s more on the Three Act Structure and other structure methods)

Step Two: Summarize the Scenes

I start with the opening scene and describe what happens. I add snippets of conversation, stage direction, world building notes, things I know but the characters don’t, etc. This summary is for me only, because no one else would be able to make sense of it.

For example (this is from my current WIP, with names and details changed):
Joe asks them to come with him. Why? Because people need to talk to you. Your Makers Council? Joe starts (he gets the wrong meaning for maker) and looks scared. My what? Katie scoffs. Joan of Arcadia? Isn't that how you guys work? Oh, right. Exactly. Hope and Katie exchange looks, knowing he's full of it. Hope still balks. What's going on? The truth this time. He sighs. Come with me and we'll discuss it. There's more going on here than you know. They follow.

This is a very small scene so there’s little here, but I doubt anyone is able to follow this. It’s a weird mix of notes and dialogue, but I know what it means and it’ll help me write this conversation when I get to it. If I discover more about this scene at a later date, I’ll come back and add more to it.

(Here’s more on layering your scenes)

Step Three: Go Back and Develop as Needed

I keep summarizing scene by scene until I hit one I’m unsure about. Sometimes I’m not sure what the goal is, or how the characters need to resolve the problem, other times I’m not sure where the story goes next or how to get from this scene to what I know needs to happen next. Usually, I just don’t have enough figured out yet to move forward, even if I know generally where I need to go to hit my next major turning point of the plot.

When this happens, I go back a scene and look for ways to add whatever I need to move forward. If it’s not there, I go back one more scene, and keep rewinding until I find it. I’ve had scenes that required going all the way back to the opening scene to add a detail so things unfold the right way to get the story to my sticking point scene—and then it worked just fine and I moved onward.

For some scenes, inspiration strikes and something cool and unexpected happens that changes the plot or story a little (or a lot). I’ll go back the same way and add this new detail and rework the summaries until I’m caught up. It’s far easier to see how this new idea works in the synopsis than the manuscript, saving me time if it turns out to be a bad idea or it just didn’t work as well as I first thought.

It’s also common for me to suddenly figure out why or how a character is acting. I frequently know what a character has to do, but not always why at first (especially in a first draft). So I go back a few scenes yet again and flesh things out.

Back and forth, over and over until I’m satisfied.

On a first synopsis pass, I might write only a few words to describe a scene or major turning point, because I haven’t yet figured it all out. But as I go back and forth through the story and plot, I see how all the pieces fit and can flesh them out with solid information. Single sentences grow to paragraphs, and for the critical, information-heavy scenes, several paragraphs.

Why This is Helpful for Plotting

This back and forth technique means I don’t get stuck as often. When I hit a spot that stops me, I know it’s because I haven’t figured out the next step yet, so I just go back and find it without stressing over it. I’m not staring at a scene and driving myself nuts because I can’t get past it. It doesn’t keep me from writing.

It also allows me to figure out what needs to happen in the story when, so I can go back and add the groundwork and setup for it. I don’t worry about how or why something is at first if I’m not sure, because I know it’ll come to me eventually. It’s common for me to make a note such as: Joe lies to Hope about the locket. [figure out why Joe is lying to Hope]. As the author, I know he has to lie to her for the story to work, because I need to keep that information from the reader until a major reveal later when it will have the best impact. But at that moment, I don’t know why he lies.

(Here's more on being flexible in your plotting)

Pantsers probably won’t care for this technique, but I suspect they do this naturally as they write (pantsers chime in here!). What I develop through summaries and a synopsis, they might do in the actual first draft. It’s a very organic process that’s scalable to work with any writer’s process.

As writers, sometimes we get caught up on always moving forward and thinking the first words we put down can’t be changed. But writing is rewriting, and we shouldn’t be afraid to change our plans if it makes for a better story.

Sometimes we just need to go back before we can move forward.

How do you develop your plots? Charge ahead or flow between scenes? Or do you take a totally different approach?

Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my Skill Builders Series (and Amazon bestseller), Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, 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, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, the Amazon bestseller, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  
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  1. This makes so much sense! My process thus far in writing my first novel (I'm at about the 45% completion mark) has been randomly utilizing some of the techniques you describe. I'm happy to know that I'm not alone in a 'three steps forward - two steps back' process. Your tips - especially those on summarizing scenes hit an Aha moment for me and I'm anxious to tackle this aspect. I also appreciate your candid honesty on sometimes not always knowing or understanding the why to a character's actions. Makes me feel a whole lot better about the many conundrums as I develop the plot. Thanks Janice for another great post.

  2. Pantser here. I like the back and forth. Lots of times I'll skip over a scene that isn't finished or right, so I can get to the next scenes and where the story goes. I'll leave lots of notes behind that I'll come back to. I think you have to be really clear about when you're writing and you want to keep the words flowing, and when you're editing to make sure the details are all just right. Doing both at once is madness, at least for me. Yes, sometimes that means chopping out a lot of words, but that's ok. I need to write them to find out what happens, then I can figure out a better way to present it to the reader.

  3. I use a very similar technique. It's great to see others use this type of semi-planning, leaving plenty of room for creativity. I use 9 turning points. I include the first chapter and the last or landing chapter with the normal four part structure, then revise as I write. Scrivener is my software of choice so I can lay out the number of chapters I need in each of the four parts placing the turning points where they belong. Then I can outline the characters, locations, and other research. For me, this is an easy way to develop the story. It makes sure that I hit all the right high points and hopefully keeps the story interesting. Then as I write the turning points I can go back and forth, revising, adding and subtracting. It's fun.

    1. I love scrivener, best money I ever spent!

  4. I find this process works for me too. I go back and figure what I need to do/change to get started again. Sometimes it's a simple fix, other times, more complex.

  5. I have found I need a plot outline with scene summaries, but finding discoveries as I write is lots of fun too!

  6. This is exactly how I write! Glad to hear someone else does this too. So many writers have told me just to "push through until the first draft is done", but I don't see the point of that when I know something is wrong and needs to be reworked. After all, that revision will reverberate throughout the whole story! Thanks for a great post!

  7. Cool so many of us do this.