Tag Archives: Plotting

Let’s Start At The Very Beginning

Last week’s post considered the elements of a good first line, but there’s a bigger (and in some ways harder) issue about the start of a novel, which is *where* in the story to begin. It’s usually pretty easy to know where to finish (although I struggled with that too last week). But it’s harder to know where the story begins. The actions of any character will partly depend on the things they saw and felt and experienced outside the confines of the story itself. In a later post, I’ll come back to ways of weaving in backstory, but for now, let’s just agree that some things are backstory, and some belong in the “now” of the narrative.

You want the beginning to be punchy, to include the hook, to rope the reader in. You want it to include an exciting scene, some intrigue, to introduce the main characters, setting and plot. So it’s tempting to find the most exciting thing which happens in the first quarter of your novel, and start there. Great – fantastic beginning, all sewn up.

BUT

If you do that, you spend the rest of that quarter catching up. As a rule of thumb, if the opening (which could be a paragraph, a scene, a chapter or even a couple of chapters) is immediately followed by a backstory-dump, you started too late.

There’s no easy answer to the question of where to begin; it’s entirely dependent on the story you’re telling. Usually, you just get a feeling about it – if the start drags, you went in early, if you end up with that backstory-dump, you came late to the party.

Think about your character arc and plot – generally, the first portion of the book sets the scene, tells us about the characters before anything starts to change in their lives or their psyches. Give yourself time to show this, but then you need to get on with the story, which is about those changes.

Since I’ve stolen a line from the Sound of Music for my title – let’s think about where that story starts. We get a brief look at Maria’s life in the convent: she longs to be free (The Hills Are Alive) which causes trouble for the nuns (How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?); and then we’re off into the family Von Trapp, which is where the changes and therefore the plot begin.

Of course, starting before the action doesn’t mean you can’t start with a bit of action. It just has to be a little detached from the plot, whilst still being relevant at least in terms of theme and/or character. Consider, if you will, the beginning of any Bond movie (I’ve got Daniel Craig in my head – what else is new? – Casino Royale, I think). We see Bond somewhere exotic, taking down bad guys, possibly romancing a lady: none of them in the slightest bit relevant to the plot, but all relevant to the Bond franchise and exciting enough to start us off with a bang!

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Editing The Phoenix Fire: The Plan

My first NaNoWriMo novel, The Phoenix Fire, was a real learning curve for me. I wrote it at speed, left it for a month or so and then tried to edit it. In terms of length, it was about right, the plot largely matched what I had planned, and after a month I was still far too close to it to do more than edit the text.

I let a few friends read it, and their response was mixed. The biggest issue they had was with the main character. I saw him as troubled but ultimately redeemable, they all hated him or, worse, didn’t give a damn about him. Still too close to it, I dealt with their more specific comments, picking at the text but ignoring the big issues of character and structure. Then I had a single copy printed, stuffed it on my bookshelf and left it there.

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We’re now almost 3 years later and I’m going to let myself take it down from its shelf. Because, in spite of its clear failings, I believe it’s a story worth telling and I believe I have the skill to tell it. I’ve learned a lot about writing over the last couple of years, I’ve honed my craft and more importantly I’ve put a lot of mileage between myself and this novel.

I’m dreading reading it, because I think much of it will make me cringe. But I’m also looking forward to giving it another chance. My goal is to do this slowly, over the course of 2013, so I’m setting up some not-too-ambitious targets for each month. I’m going to try to post on the last day of each month with an update on how that’s going.

January: Plan the plan. So far so good, here it is!

February: Read through the whole thing once. If I spot any textual errors, I will pacify my inner editor by highlighting them, but this read-through is intended to reacquaint myself with the story, the plot and the characters. And to identify the big-picture problems. I’ll keep a notebook beside me to keep a record of anything that strikes me as wrong, then if I have time at the end of the month, I’ll try to organise what’s in it into different elements – plot, character, style, etc.

March: Complete steps 1-9 of the planning plan here (http://fandelyon.com/?p=329). This is about identifying problems, not fixing them, so by the end of March I don’t intend to have made a single change to the text of the novel.

April: Taking the notes from February and March, plan out the structure of the novel as if writing it afresh. Work out which scenes, chapters or subplots need to be cut / rewritten / added. Re-assess the character arcs and work out if characters need to be cut / changed / added. Again, this won’t involve any work on the text itself.

May – July: Rewrite, based on the plan from April. This is likely to involve quite a lot of new text, so I’m allowing three months.

August: Read through the whole piece. Again, I’ll have a highlighter for textual errors, but the focus will be on big-picture stuff and on making sure I’ve fixed everything identified in Feb – April.

September: Rewrites based on August’s read-through and picking up any textual errors highlighted in previous read-throughs.

October: Read through. Look for big and – in particular – little errors, check for things like: clichés, anachronisms, repetition, overuse of adverbs / adjectives.

November: Leave it alone. I’ll hopefully be doing NaNoWriMo again this year, and a month away from PF will give me the breather I need before December’s read-through.

December: Final read-through. Careful check for typos and minor textual issues.

Are you editing anything this year? Is there anything here you think I’ve missed or should do differently? I’d love to hear from you.

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Novel Planning #5 – Pick n Mix

Planning a novel is as much a matter of personal preference as writing one. Some people don’t like to plan at all, others like to do everything they can to set their novel up so that by the time they actually sit down to write, it’s almost all on the page already. The Snowflake Method is great for the latter, NaNoWriMo’s Dare forums are probably the best place for anyone who wants to just play it by ear!

If you’re still pretty new to long-form writing, a plan can help you to produce a decent first draft, especially if you’re under a time constraint like NaNo. If you’re still developing your craft, trying different methods of planning is probably the best way to find what works for you. Reading the wisdom of published and even prolific writers can make you feel like there is one way to succeed, but I firmly believe that each person has to find their own way, and even if you are trying to become the next John Grisham, his way of putting pen to paper might just not work for you.

So, if you’re interested in planning a novel, try one of the methods I’ve outlined over the past week. Or, try something else. Or, try a combination of multiple methods – you might decide tha tyou want to use just Steps 1 and 2 of Tuesday’s suggestion, and then delve into your characters’ psyches from Wednesday.

There are a hundred (thousand) other ways to plan / outline / plot a novel, and if you feel I missed your favourite, I’d love to hear from you in the comments. Similarly, let me know how you get on if you use one of these methods.

For now, I’ll leave you with another option, best suited to a Friday. A few of my fellow Friday Fictioneers are writing long stories in 100 word chunks. Each week, they take the prompt provided by Madison Woods and right the next scene. Check out Craig Towsley’s Owl and Raccoon Fables for an excellent piecemeal example of this, or The Winger Chronicles of Adam Ickes to see how it works doing it chronologically.

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Novel Planning #4 – Planning Backwards

This is one type of planning I’ve never done, but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t work well for certain types of novel. For example, take a story with a crucial final scene – a great reveal which pulls together all the rest of the book. I’m not just talking about the ending of any book here, but specific types. Think, for example, Hercule Poirot, pulling all the characters into the Drawing Room and revealing the murderer. Alternatively, think about a major twist, whereby we suddenly realise that the main character is dead, or is Keyser Soze, or whatever.

These sorts of story revolve so much around that final reveal, that it could be argued you need to write the reveal before you can do anything else. It’s not how Agatha Christie did it, but many crime writers certainly go into the story knowing exactly whodunnit, how and why, and if that’s how you work, then starting at the end might be a good outlining method for you.

Here’s how…

Step 1: The Solution

Work out, clearly, and with diagrams and research if necessary, exactly what the solution is, how and why it happened, and – crucially – why this wasn’t immediately apparent at the beginning. Who was hiding something? How much will you just be playing on readers’ expectations?

Step 2: The Reveal

Decide how you want to get the solution across to readers. Do you want to do something formulaic, like pulling all the characters into one room? Do you want to have a sleuth-type character work it out, or someone who comes in knowing nothing about the background and has it all explained to him at the end? Will you reveal the solution through action, conversation or exposition? Plan the reveal scene in detail – you might even want to write it out in full (bearing in mind it will need a substantial rewrite by the time you’ve finished the rest of the novel).

Step 3: The Clues

The best mystery novels, and the best plot twists, give the readers half a chance to solve it before the reveal. For some readers, this will give them a sense of achievement when they do, for others it will give them a sense of recognition and of having been dealt with fairly when they realise that they should have known all along, but didn’t. They will want to read back and pick out all the clues and sneaky pointers you left along the way, whcih they missed at the time.

Think about how you might set up clues to the solution throughout the novel. Things people might say which have a double meaning, descriptions which point towards the solution, etc.

Step 4: The Red Herrings

Having sorted out the pointers you’re going to give everyone to the RIGHT answer, think about the traps you’ll lay to take them away from it. How can you keep them guessing, make other solutions seem possible, and then at the last minute, impossible. In a murder mystery, this could be other suspects, or apparent attempts on the life of the murderer herself. It might also include a list of things you DON’T show but allow the reader to assume – if your narrator is in prison, for example, you might mention them getting up, meeting friends, lining up for lunch, but miss out the things which would place those activities in a cell block.

Step 5: The Beginning

Finally, you can work out where the story starts. For a story with a twist, this is going to be where you set up all the misunderstandings you rely on for the rest of the novel; in a murder mystery, it’s probably the discovery of a body, or pretty close to it. Although not always, you might have Poirot bumble through some preparations for Christmas and if you’re Agatha Christie, people will still read on and make their way to the murder scene!

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Novel Planning #3 – Characters

In the third part of this week’s series about planning a novel, I bring you a very different way of planning, this time no writing an outline; instead, character immersion. This is quite an appealing half-way-house for those people who don’t like planning but want to get a headstart on their writing, have a bit of a safety net, or simply keep their hand in during October when you’re not allowed to begin writing for NaNoWriMo.  To my mind, it will work best for character-driven fiction (Don’t tell me all fiction is character-driven!) like romances. I can imagine it working well for planning a Jane Austen style romantic epic, or a chicklit beach read. It might also work for a character-driven thriller though, like the Hannibal Lecter books, or any super-hero story.

Identify the main characters in your story. All of them. Let’s say you’re plotting Pride and Prejudice, for example. I’m not just talking about Lizzy and Darcy here, you’ll also need to identify the larger cast – the other Bennet sisters and the various love-interests who buzz about them – Bingley, Wickham, Colonel Fitzwilliam, etc.

For each of these characters, establish the following:

1. Physical Traits

I start here because it’s easiest to define. You might find this is the last element that you work on though, and that’s fine too. Think about things like eye colour, hair colour, hair style, height, weight, dress sense. What do these things tell you about the character? Are they stereotypical? Do they match the character’s personality? Or are they conflicting with that personality?

2. Personality Traits

Is the character headstrong? Likeable? Haughty? Kind? What pleases them, what do they despise? Make these people really interesting, not 2-dimensional and certainly not stereotyped. What sort of job would you imagine them doing (even if they don’t have a job in the story)? What are their flaws and their strengths?

3. Quirks

Make each character an individual with some little things that stand out about them. Do they have a particular way of speaking which sets them apart from the rest of the cast? A verbal tick, or a physical habit? Again, avoid cliches, and anything that’s going to annoy your readers, but think about what makes this particular character just a little different from the next one.

4. Secrets

OK, now’s the time to start digging. What’s this character’s background? Their motivation? Their secrets? What rumours might be going around about this character and in what ways are those rumours true, or not? What would their neighbours / friends / enemies say about them?

5. The Fun Bit

Finally, get really deep into the characters. Think about unusual situations and throw them in – how would they deal with a crisis / rejection / unwanted romantic advances? A man crashing through the window with a shotgun? A woman fainting next to them on the bus?

If you like quizzes (who doesn’t like quizzes?!), go online to a site like http://www.quizrocket.com/ and try out some quizzes on behalf of your characters. You can also google serious personality tests like Myers-Briggs, but it’s just as valuable to find out What Kind of Dog they would be, or Which Member of the Royal Family will they marry? Get the Sorting Hat to choose them a house and if you have any romantic pairings, subject them to a Cosmopolitan-style compatibility test.

The results might be interesting or amusing, but the main point of these tests is that they will ask you questions about the characters you might never have thought about. For example, this What Breed of Dog Are You test asks how you’d react if a friend dared you to go skydiving. Most of these answers will probably never make it into your novel, but knowing your characters back to front will allow them to carry the story when you feel you can’t, and can help you to ensure that the people in your novel are as interesting as they can be.

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Novel Planning #2 – Plot-Type

Yesterday, I introduced this week’s series of posts about planning for novel-writing.  Step back there for one method, or read on for another method of planning your forthcoming masterwork. I refer to these masterworks as novels, but these methods would work with a bit of tweaking for other writing formats too.

Today, let’s look at plotting the Christopher Booker way.

Those who have been following my Booker’s Seven project will know the basics here. Christopher Booker says there are only seven basic plots in the world, and all stories fall into one or other. You might not agree, but if you do, you can probably identify which of those seven yours falls into. They are:

Overcoming the Monster

Rags to Riches

The Quest

Voyage and Return

Rebirth

Tragedy

Comedy

How, you have to be a bit slick, because Comedy doesn’t necessarily mean funny; it ties in more with the Shakespearean definition, and has a lot to do with large casts of characters, and situations caused by miscommunications between them. Think Much Ado About Nothing or Twelfth Night. Similarly, Overcoming the Monster might not involve a physical monster, but more something internal or an external (but non monster-y) challenge like an asteroid heading for earth.

Anyway, once you’ve picked out which Booker Plot you are intending to write, you can use it to plan your novel. Ideally (certainly in Mr Booker’s mind) you’d go out and buy his book, for a full breakdown of what that plot entails. Alternatively, you can go online and google search some summaries of his ideas. Like this one at tvtropes.org.

The plot is neatly broken down for you into stages, and your task is simply to take each stage and write a couple of paragraphs detailing how that stage will look in your story. Take time to think not only what will happen, but why, how the characters will react and – particularly if you have a target word count for the whole piece – who long that stage will be. Remember, as we saw yesterday, not all stages should be the same length.

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Novel Planning #1 – Chapters

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.

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