Continuing my series on pre-writing, I’m talking today about different ways to plot your novel before sitting down to write. Figuring out your plot at the beginning of the writing process can help you:
- distribute your writing– knowing in advance all the pieces that your story will need to include keeps you from getting bogged down/spending an inordinate number of words on minutiae or set-up
- get a sense of your timeline– understanding the time frame of the events of your story helps you identify any out-of-place jumps or pauses
- develop a plan B when writer’s block hits– if you get stuck in a certain scene or beat, you know what’s coming next and can move ahead and come back later instead of coming to a grinding halt while you beat your head against the wall (but maybe that’s just me)
There are as many ways to plot a novel as there are authors, and no one approach is the “perfect” one, but most authors use some variation of several common approaches to story planning. These approaches can be organized from least to most detailed, and knowing your writing process and the plot areas you most often struggle with can help you determine which level of detail will be most helpful to you– some authors enjoy the organic plot development that takes place when they’re writing toward a climax without a more rigid plan in place, while others get bogged down in the middle if they haven’t figured out all of the plot points that will take the story from beginning to climax. With that in mind, here are three common approaches to story planning and the common plot problems they can help prevent.
1. The Compass: The Story Arc or Line
At its most basic, a story arc charts the rise and fall of tension in a story. From the stasis, or the way things are at the beginning, all plots generally follow a path of increasing tension or increasing stakes to the high point or climax, after which the relieved tension leads to a new stasis or new normal where most elements of the plot have been resolved. If you chart a story arc on a line graph where the Y axis represents tension and the X axis represents the timeline of the story, the arc will be roughly hill-shaped, though will appear sharper the more quickly events escalate to the climax. If you google “story arc graph,” you’ll find thousands of variations on this type of plot organization strategy, and there isn’t one correct version of a story arc, but an effective arc graph usually includes at least the following landmarks:
- Stasis (the way things are)
- Inciting incident (the action or circumstance or revelation that gets sets the story into motion)
- Rising tension (a series of events or a state of being rather than an individual instance)
- Climax (the high point of the action where tension reaches the breaking point)
- Falling action (the fallout or consequences of whatever went down during the climax)
- Denouement (the resolution/introduction to the new normal)
Some authors don’t need to know any more detail about their plot at the beginning of the writing process than is provided by a simple story arc graph. By knowing the inciting incident, the climax, and the way things are going to end up, they have a sufficient road map to push the story in the right direction but still have the freedom to let it take shape/surprise them as they write. If you think about it in terms of an actual physical journey, a story arc as a means of plotting can be thought of as the equivalent of a compass as a navigational tool. If you know you want to get to the Pacific Ocean from Denver but don’t want to be tied down to a specific route, a compass will get you there by pointing you due west until you hit the Pacific Ocean. Everything you do and see along the way is up to you, but you’re able to keep moving in the right direction thanks to the compass (or, more accurately, thanks to knowing that the Pacific Ocean is where you want to go and that it’s due west). Identifying the major elements of your story using a story arc graph or outline can give you the same directed spontaneity in your writing.
- You like to discover minor characters and subplots during the writing process
- You struggle to stick to an outline once you’ve made it
- You’ve been told that there isn’t enough build-up to your climax, or that your climax isn’t dramatic enough
- You make frequent deviations from your original plot plans
- Your characters tend to change/mutate significantly during the writing process (not to be confused with regular character growth)
- Your story ideas tend to be more character driven than event-driven
2. Turn by Turn Directions: The Beat Sheet
Beats are the unit of storytelling used by screenwriters to organize the action events of a movie, and many authors have adopted their use into their own story planning. When you hear the term “action events,” you may jump immediately to high-octane scenes of gunfire and car chases, but in reality, the phrase simply refers to every action performed by the characters that moves the action of the story forward in a significant way. For example, a conversation your protagonist has with her best friend in which she first begins to doubt her boyfriend’s fidelity would be a beat. Sneaking a look at her boyfriend’s phone while he was in the bathroom would be another beat. Confronting him about all the texts from “Alicia” would be another. All these actions, though smaller than a big confrontation at her wedding in which she finally realizes that she’s about to marry a cheater and calls him out in front of all their friends and family (this would be more of a “climax” type of action, and also a beat) move the story forward in significant ways– her thinking is changed in the first one, she takes action in the second one, she changes the dynamic of her relationship in the third, etc.
The number of beats required to lay out an entire plot changes based on the type of story you’re writing, but will generally be between 15 (a category romance) and 30 (a complicated political thriller). If you’re confused about whether or not an event is actually a beat or not, ask yourself if anything is different after it happens– a scene in which your protagonist googles “how to know if he’s cheating” might be funny, but if it doesn’t change her thinking or incite her to action (the conversation with her friend is what really rocked her world/introduced her doubt), it’s not really a story beat. However, because story beats exist to get the actions/decisions of a story pinned down, they leave a moderate amount of space for periphery or filler scenes such as the Google one. Continuing our navigation analogy, a beat sheet is more like specific directions to the Pacific Ocean– “get on I-70 heading west, then take I-15 south, then follow the signs for Long Beach.” You know the specific landmarks and turns you need to make, but you still have the freedom to get off the highway and look around/buy some beef jerky if you want to.
- You enjoy having a road map to follow when writing
- You often struggle with writer’s block
- Your plots have been criticized for escalating too slowly or too quickly
- You begin with a clear sense of your major characters and their world/the settings you’ll be using
- You enjoy (or at least aren’t bothered by) writing scenes out-of-order on occasion
3. The Guided Tour: The Outline
A full outline is the most detailed of story planning devices. Some authors love writing from an outline because a well-constructed outline can serve as a virtual blueprint for a novel, telling you exactly what scenes appear in which order, as well as the setting, the featured characters, and the point of view for each one. Not surprisingly, other authors HATE this kind of story planning, because of the lack of room for spontaneity it offers and the amount of premeditation it requires. If you like the idea of having an outline tell you exactly what you’ll be use your word count on each day, you may want to try this method of plotting. If your beat sheet laid out every action event or scene of significance to the story arc, an outline expands on that to include the trivial and expository content that round out a novel– an outline indicates where you’re going to put the protagonist’s backstory and description, which scenes are going to start out with a description of the setting, which scenes will be told from alternate points of view, where you’ll include “montage”-type scenes which establish a pattern or show the main character in her element (i.e., scenes showing a wedding planner meeting with a couple or chasing a flower girl or wrapping chairs in tulle which aren’t central to the plot but which bring the character’s daily life into focus and provide a backdrop for the action events of the plot), etc.
If story beats are turn-by-turn directions, an outline is a guided tour which takes you on a carefully scheduled and carefully routed excursion on which each rest stop, gas station, and side trip is planned in advance and the guide has a list of views he’ll direct your attention to along the way. Not everyone enjoys traveling this way, but it does ensure that you will get safely to your destination and will have seen everything you should have along the way.
- You’re a control freak– in a good way
- Your subplots have been criticized for being weak or underdeveloped
- You’ve been told your plots are confusing
- You have a short time frame for writing
- You have trouble jumping back into your novel when you come back to it each day
- You’re writing your first novel/you’ve had trouble completing a novel in the past
Obviously, there are dozens of variations on these three methods, and a quick Google search will yield a myriad of resources to help you use and adapt each one to suit your own needs, but hopefully you recognized an element of your own process or a problem you’ve struggled with and can walk away with a better idea of which story-planning method can best help you position your next novel for success! Where on the spectrum of compass/directions/guided tour does your plotting technique fall?