I am a believer in planning one’s novel. That isn’t to say that a more improvisational style is less effective. It is simply what works for me. I follow tangible steps in building a storyline:
- Determine the main “Suppose“ – That is, decide on the one-sentence that outlines what your story will be about. For instance, “Suppose, there were an ice age that redefined society, one where there was insufficient arable land to feed all the world’s people. What would happen when people wanted to exercise their God-given right to reproduce?” This “suppose” defines the main setting, and opens up possibilities to explore when plotting.
- Define the main characters, Antagonist and Protagonist– Who are they? What motivates each? What obstacles does the protagonist need to overcome to achieve growth in the story? I tend to define the main supporting cast here (1 or 2) but that isn’t as important.
- Think about the Theme – It is hard to define what is meant here. It’s not quite the same as the Suppose, nor is it exactly what the book is about. It is less the answer, than the question. As Pablo Picasso stated, “If there were only one truth, you couldn’t paint a hundred canvases on the same theme.” Or, as another example, Anne Rice defined her theme for Interview with the Vampire: “The whole theme of Interview with the Vampire was Louis’s quest for meaning in a godless world. He searched to find the oldest existing immortal simply to ask, What is the meaning of what we are?”In my new web serial, the theme is survival. The protagonist states: “There is but one way to survive: any way you can.” Her daughter replies, “What’s the point of having a future if no one is civilized?” Those are the only two lines of the story I’ve written, and they serve as the central theme: darkness can only be defeated by light. More about theme in another post.
- Fix the Physical Setting – Where and when does the story take place? For Fantasy, exploring the possibilities here can be the most important, and most detailed part of the plot outline. For others, it could be as simple as “a vacation cottage on the New England coast. The only rule I follow here is that when written, it must be vivid enough to allow the reader to “see” the story as it progresses. That being said, much of this is fleshed out after my first draft is complete.
- Outline the “Story“ – Here, I tend to follow the general guidelines outlined by Evan Marshall (The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing), but there are a number of valid methods. Here, the outline is at a fairly high level, mostly defining the main “failure” points, climax, etc. (There is also a Marshall Plan software package for about $149, but I have not used it.)
- Complete the Plotting – As I plot in more depth, I define the story flow in more detail, listing the flow of events, as well as define whose Point of View each scene will be in, as well as their motivations, the emotional context, etc.
It is important to note a distinction between plot and story, although they are often used interchangeably. In her book, Writing Fiction: A Guide to the Narrative Craft, Janet Burroway writes:
“A story is a series of events recorded in their chronological order. A plot is a series of events deliberately arranged so as to reveal their dramatic, thematic, and emotional significance.”
Put differently, a story is “what happened next ” whereas a plot is “what, how, and why.” Personally, I find it impossible to finish plotting until I’m finished writing.
So what is needed to start? That depends on you, the writer. I would suggest at a minimum, the “Suppose” and the main characters. If you don’t know who they are, how will you know what they would do? For my post-Apocalypse web serial, I decided the Setting is the part of planning that required the most work. (Even before deciding on the Theme, in this case.) So, given my story begins in the early 22nd century, I needed to know what life could look like them. In effect, I needed to build the Apocalypse, even though I wouldn’t be writing about it.
Now I know others would beg to differ. One could, for example, cover this in one line: “The world has become nomadic, with small cultures that are a mix of agrarian and high-tech societies.” Being the Planning type, I fleshed this out, using a number of future-cast resources to “Age” the Earth 102 years. By fifteen years out, I was no longer using anyone’s timeline ideas but my own.
The serial had begun.
I think any amount of planning will help your work. My first novel was built on impulse, and most of the following 5 drafts were spent fixing the plotting issues of the first. For my next WIP, I followed the method I described here, and the book flowed well enough that I felt like a different writer.
I’d love to hear your own experiences, so feel free to chime in below. And, if you happen to be interested in my web serial, I hope you will join in and follow Hard as Roxx. And the timeline, I mentioned? You can read that by clicking on the Roxx link, and clicking the page marked “A History of the 21st Century.”
Yeah, I’m pretty anal.