Last week I wrote about my initial attempts at plotting a novel, in preparation for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) this November. (Read here.) I persevered and finished an outline, and also clarified a process that works for me. Maybe it will be useful to other writers; if so, there’s a template to print below.
When I last left my plot… I knew my next step would be actual writing: that is, brainstorming scenes. I also realized that plotting takes time; somehow it had seemed like an outline has so few words, I should be able to jot one down in five minutes. Not the case.
I sat with small blank pages (index cards work great; I used the backs of old page-a-day calendars) and waited for the scenes to come. This was hard. I reminded myself of the main themes of my story: it was a love story at heart, with a crime/mystery keeping the characters apart. Once I focused on the love story, I was able to envision some scenes I’d like my characters to experience: they go on a research trip together, they go into town together and are besieged by the press, they escape a rainstorm to a cottage in the gardens—right before the evidence appears that makes her look guilty of the crime (spoiler: she’s not).
It also helped me to use what I know. When they take the trip, what city could they go to that I’m familiar with? What could she be studying in school that I know enough about to add detail to conversations? What topic has always interested me, that I’d like to research more, to get the detail I need? Maybe some writers can make this stuff up, but I can’t.
At times, a more complex issue would start confusing me, and I would stop brainstorming to write out the issue. For example, one character’s family history is entwined with the story, and I kept confusing his ancestors, and which one did what. I wrote out a family tree, labeling as needed (grandpa was the kind one who sent him to school, great grandma was the one in the painting, etc.) and noted the approximate birth dates of each to make sure my timeline worked and fit with history (they lost their fortune during the Great Depression, for example).
Splitting My Outline in Two
As I worked, I found that I kept diverging from writing what happened in a scene to writing about how the action affected the main characters (MCs): how they felt, what they learned, how they changed, what new challenges arose for them. This diversion kept getting me off track. So I got this picture in my head: running along the bottom was the timeline of the character arc—how each MC changes in the story—with the individual scenes tacked on top. I liked this picture because it paralleled the idea that each scene must have a purpose and must advance the plot, with the MC changing in the process.
I started making this picture, using the scenes I had brainstormed. Eventually, my picture evolved to have this structure:
Note that I had two MCs, so my picture actually had two left columns.
I kept working until I had used up most of my scenes. Had I plotted enough? I counted my scenes and compared with the number of chapters I expected for a 50,000-word novel, and the outline seemed reasonable. So I tied things up with a few final scenes. (Note: I’m using the word “scene” where others might use “chapter.” Sometimes the MCs might leave one location and go to another within one scene/chapter, but in my head, this was still one scene. Other writers might prefer a different definition of “scene,” or might have shorter chapters where each chapter only has one location or event in it.)
For Next Time: The Whole Plotting Process
My first attempt at plotting was a little messy, but I can now see what I would do next time. I’d start with some initial questions:
- Who is(are) the main character(s)?
- What misconception has the MC internalized?
- What is the status quo when the story begins?
- What are the main events that occur in the story?
- What are some challenges the MC faces?
- How does the MC change? What does the MC learn?
- What are the subplots?
- What are the climax and resolution?
Then, I’d make an outline:
- Brainstorm scenes (stick to plot details and events)
- Work out the details of any tricky parts (like the timeline or family tree)
- Make the outline using the template
If you’d like to try this method, here is a PDF of the template to download. Page 1 is for a story with one MC, and page 2 is for a story with two. Print multiple copies of the page you need; the “status quo” box only needs to be filled out on the first page of your outline.
(If you’d prefer the Excel file, just send me an email and I’ll send it.)
Having a plot outline makes me excited for NaNoWriMo this November!
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