I’ve had a couple aspiring writers ask me how to go about crafting a plot for the novels I work on. I realize I’m not exactly Stephen King, but for writers just starting out, it can be encouraging to hear the perspective of someone who’s been in the trenches for some time.
So I thought about how I have been working through my most recent Nanowrimo prep sessions. I do some vague outlining of the events I want to occur, but I don’t have a ‘formula’ for creating a plot.
Or so I thought.
I dug a little deeper and recalled the writing advice I’ve collected from the years – these are the things to keep in mind when working on a plot. When taken together, this advice might sound formulaic, but these steps do not have to be taken in any particular order. You might have more fun if they aren’t.
And if you’ve got a few manuscripts under your belt, this will probably sound all too familiar.
The first thing to remember when plotting out a story is that the first draft is going to suck no matter what you come up with. This morsel should not be distressing: it should actually be freeing. No idea you have is going to be so terrible it will ruin your book.
Imagine you have five shiny ideas: if you believe that your entire book will succeed or fail based on the idea you start with, you’ll feel a lot of unnecessary pressure. Just relax: the editing process will save you. You’ll be able to turn this kernel of an idea into something much greater once you have it all down on paper.
The first draft is the hardest part.
Just start with an idea you’re passionate about. Maybe it’s a scene or a whim or a character you want to explore. The Core Idea. That’s the first thing.
The second thing to address is to determine the wants and desires of your characters (assuming you have an idea who your characters are). Someone desires something. Bella wants Edward. Frodo wants to get rid of this silly ring. Tom Cruise wants to be taken seriously again.
Even if you don’t have characters set in stone, you might still have a pretty good idea of what these desires will be based on your Core Idea.
Whatever the rest of the plot, this is the driving force. This is why we end up rooting for the characters. Many novels end up having multiple characters whose aims end up at cross-purposes, but this doesn’t explicitly have to be the case. Maybe your character is stranded on an island and wants to escape to freedom. One character, one desire.
Just be sure the hopes, wants, and desires are strong: strong enough to act upon. That’s the second thing.
The third thing to prepare are the roadblocks. Your poor darling character is going to get hit by a train. Figuratively. Or literally – I don’t care. The point is, something bad happens. Things get tough somehow. Maybe your character has made a mortal enemy that now endeavors eternal revenge. Whatever.
Your character stranded on the island tries to build a raft and has it utterly destroyed by a storm at the last minute. Or he finds a treasure on the island and is now loathe to leave these vast riches, knowing it will be impossible to come back for them.
Coming up with roadblocks can be challenging, but unless they’re present in the narrative, it’s going to be a boring ride. Nobody wants to read about a character who’s got it made in the shade. We humans are drawn to stories about conflict and triumph, not the tales of people who’ve had everything handed to them on a silver platter. Make sense?
Roadblocks. Conflict. That’s the third thing.
The fourth thing to keep in mind is the Choice. At some point, your character needs to make a decision (or multiple decisions) relating to the roadblocks that appear in your story. Maybe they make the wrong decision. Maybe they pick right. Maybe it’s morally ambiguous. The lead-in to The Choice and the consequences thereof should have a lasting impact on the world around your character.
Maybe rescue comes and your character must decide to stay with the treasure or leave the island forever. Maybe your character resolves to keep trying in spite of adversity: it might seem like a small choice, but it’s still a Choice.
Aside from the conflict, the Choice is what we’re reading for. We want to know how the character fixes everything – or fails to fix everything. The whole book is riding on this. Don’t screw it up. No pressure.
You might want to tie this into the climax, unless you have something even BETTER in store. The Choice doesn’t have to be the climax. Sometimes the climax will directly follow the chain of the events which originated at the Choice.
Whichever way you choose, the Choice should play an important and distinctive role in setting the course of the remainder of the plot. Choice. That’s the fourth thing.
The fifth thing you’ll want to conceive of is how your characters are going to change as a result of these interactions. Do they change? Do they ignore the swirling tides of the goings-on around them? Maybe they become someone different altogether.
This change is also something else readers will be looking for. We like larger-than-life characters who stand out in our heads. Incredulous characters who react to and change (or choose not to change) as a result of the choices made. That’s the fifth thing.
The last thing to remember about plotting a story is that there is no right way to plot a story. Maybe my way doesn’t work for you. Maybe it does. The fun bit about the writing world is how many different approaches we can take to accomplish the same goals.
Whew. That was intense. What are your favorite ways of crafting the plot? Did I leave out anything important?