Back in February (wow, February, almost pre-pregnancy), I posted about my intention to produce a series of planning-related posts. Since then, other things have got in the way, and now it’s October, the time when lots of writers are planning their NaNoWriMo novels, so it seems like time to revive that idea. And as I have 5 possible suggestions for planning, I’m going to publish one a day for the next week. If you prefer to write without planning, these posts are unlikely to be for you, but you might still find something of interest for editing and redrafting stages. I’d love to hear what you think about any of these methods; or other planning techniques that have worked for you!
I posted a long time ago about the snowflake method. This first method of the week is similar, but slightly less time-consuming. It features our old favourites: the Beginning, Middle and End.
Step 1: One sentence story
Many planned novels start with a single sentence premise, or a question, or a hypothesis. What would happen if…? This is the single sentence story. It contains nothing close to everything, and may not even be a spoiler. I was reading today, for example about the plot of the film Hook, which apparently came about when the writer’s kids asked him “What would happen if Peter Pan grew up?”
Step 2: One paragraph about each of the beginning, middle and end.
These paragraphs don’t have to be long, but they should give you an idea of where the story is going. The paragraph about the End should definitely include a spoiler – what happens? What’s your resolution?
For Star Wars: A New Hope, for example, a condensed version of Step 2, might look something like this:
Beginning: Luke Skywalker wants to be a famous and heroic Jedi Knight. He buys a droid which holds a strange message addressed to Obi Wan Kenobi. He takes the message to OWK and when he gets home, finds his farm and family destroyed. The two men set out on a quest to help the beautiful Princess who sent the message.
Middle: There’s an evil force ruling the galaxy known as the Empire – lead by the Emperor, but his right-hand man is the cruel and powerful Darth Vadar. Good is represented by the Rebels, led by Princess Leia (of the message in part 1). She and Luke must join together, with rogue pilot Han Solo to fight the Empire.
End: The message contains plans for the Death Star, the Empire’s big and scary weapon. The Rebels launch a campaign to destroy the Death Star, but it all proves to be harder than it looked and many pilots die. Ultimately, Luke is one of few remaining pilots but the enemy forces are upon him. Han reappears, destroys the enemy ships and Luke manages to blow up the Death Star. Everyone celebrates the victory.
Step 3: Expand the middle to the 3 (or more) major events which take place in the middle of the story. Give each one a paragraph of its own.
It’s a myth that stories divide into thirds. If you look at the beginning, middle and end model, the beginning and end will probably each take up maybe a tenth of the final novel, possibly not even that. The bulk of the story, and the place where a lot of writers suffer from writer’s block (or a bad case of tangentitis) is in the middle. Many people who write without a plan know where they want the story to start (Luke has to leave home and become a Jedi Knight) and end (Good conquers evil), but they don’t really know how to get from A to B, or how to put enough interesting obstacles in the way to make a good story.
This method recognises that plotting is mostly about the middle, and gives it a lot of attention. Think about various challenges the characters are going to come across in getting from the beginning to the end. Make each one different and ideally escalating. Perhaps some of internal challenges (the main character feels like giving up) and some are external (he comes across a difficult obstacle or a new enemy).
Even a pretty basic novel will need at least three of these challenges, most will need many more. If in doubt, add more not less – you can always take them out once you start writing. For each obstacle, include how it comes about and how the main characters overcome it.
Step 4: Work out roughly how many chapters each part (beginning, middle 1, middle 2, middle 3, end) needs and write one sentence (or very short paragraph) for each chapter.
The chances are, once you start writing, this portion will largely go out of the window. It’s hard to plan chapters in advance, and I feel it hampers the writing a lot. So if you prefer, stop after Step 3. However, if you do go ahead and write a chapter plan, it will help prevent writer’s block and of course it doesn’t mean you have to be a slave to the plan once you come to write.
If you do use Step 4, I suggest you stick to short descriptions for each chapter, along the lines of an old-fashioned Jerome K Jerome heading: “In which Luke first meets Yoda”, rather than trying to plot out the whole chapter in detail.