Comment below to enter using the abbreviation: FYTS, and you could win me this summer.
Huh. That didn't sound right.
To outline or not to outline, that is the question. If you as Roger Rosenblatt he'll say, "Never!" If you ask John Truby he'll say, "Always!" If you ask me, I'll say "Somewhere between never and always." What I mean is there are elements of a novel that I work out in advance of writing, and there are things I trust to the writing and don't try to plan out in advance. Today, I'm going to share some of my ways of plotting a novel (and at the end, there's a new contest!) with two disclaimers: Disclaimer 1) I write non-genre novels. If you are writing a genre novel, you will need to plot very differently as you will be expected to hit all the expected plot points of that genre. 2) There is no sure-fired right way to plot a novel. And every novel you write will make its unique demands. It's far more important to trust what the story is telling you then to worry about if you're "doing it right". Writing is fluid and any attempts to restrict the flow of story will result in a dried up narrative.
When I approach a new novel (this is after I've done all the preliminary work ensuring the idea is novel worthy), I focus on "plotting" key elements of the story before I begin writing. These key elements are:
1) Strong characters. I need a protagonist and an opponent. These two characters are after the same thing in the story (the desire line of the protagonist runs the story. Everyone else in the story exists to either help the protag to get what he wants, or to try to stop him from getting what he desires. Everything hinges on this element), so they both have to be outstanding. They have to be compelling even if they were standing against a blank wall.
1a) In conjunction with strong characters, I don't start writing until I can hear them speak. Dialogue is plot. Knowing how my characters speak is the first step to discovering what they will say.
1b) A moral argument/theme. In great stories all the characters in the novel live out various expressions of the stories moral argument. I need to plot my characters so that as many facets of the moral argument or theme is being played out.
2) A strong sense of movement in the story. I tend to start with theme when I begin thinking about a new story. So I need to ensure my themes have taken on flesh and started walking around before I start writing. Until there is movement in the story, all I have is a collection of interesting ideas, and pretty images.
3) Setting. My favorite editor will laugh at this (I'm notorious for vague settings), but setting or non-setting is a huge influence on plot. There are things that can only happen because of where the story takes place. And there are things that cannot happen because of the setting. Also, setting is another character in the story and must also reflect the moral argument.
Here are some Bonnie Grove FAQ:
Q: Do you write a "pitch line" for a story before you write the story?
A: Yes. It's a premise line and I think it's necessary to write one before I start writing the novel. It guides the writing. This is both more simple and more difficult then it appears.
Q: Do you write a synopsis before you write the story?
A: No. I write a great many details and do a great deal of planning before hand, but nothing that resembles a synopsis. When or if I require one, I can write it quickly enough.
Q: Do you outline?
A: As stated above, the answer is sort of. After I do the plot work above, I write a scene weave sequence--which is a sentence or two about the main action of all the scenes I want to write. (e.g. At the store: Dan and Bob argue about money. Bob leaves angry.) Doing this allows me to track the tension/action throughout the story and still be able to make tons of changes without having to do a bunch of rewriting.
Q: Do you know the ending before you begin?
A: Yes. But I've rewritten endings, too. I like to know where I'm headed when I start out, but I am prepared to be wrong about my choice. I try to stay flexible. And I know when I start, I'll likely end up in the expected emotional/moral place I wanted to, but it might look very different when I arrive.
CONTEST!! Find your True Story:
Comment on this post today and through the week to be eligible to win. A winner will be chosen randomly on Thursday, July 3rd.
Prize: The winner will submit their short synopsis. I will work with the winner, digging through the story to find the key elements, and the heart of the story. Then, we will craft a killer pitch line (premise) that will be the guiding force behind plotting and writing your story.
Got a story you that won't come into focus? Want a steady hand to help you work through a problem area? This is your contest! Enter today! Not everyone who comments is necessarily entering the contest. We welcome all comments! If you would like to be entered include the abbreviation FYTS at the end of your comment.