Sat Sep 03 2016
Last week I promised some practical strategies for plotting. I expect plotting can be approached in any number of ways, but the three I present here are ones I have used and that have worked well for me.
The Outline Method
The outline method works by supplying you with a ready-made template for a story. A plot minus all actual details, if you will. You supply the setting, the characters, and the story's general premise. The outline then directs you as to the various events you need to generate: What's your inciting incident? What's your threshold guardian moment? What's your first plot point? And so on, until you reach the end.
This is essentially writing by recipe. The upside is that you have great guidance for making sure your story is structurally sound. The big-picture is handled for you, leaving you to enjoy the process of filling in the details and writing the scenes.
The downside is that your story will, by necessity, be rather formulaic. That doesn't mean you're going to end up with a bad story or a boring story. Not at all. If you do a good job of coming up with compelling details to fill in all the slots in the template, your story can be quite enjoyable and engaging. And of course, you don't have to follow the outline slavishly. You're welcome to modify it, so long as you have good reasons for doing so.
Where do I find a template?
- Check out the Better Novel Project. The site's creator Christine Frazier has done some really good work recently in deconstructing bestselling novels to derive a "master outline" from them. You could do a lot worse than to follow it.
- The Snowflake Method offers a system of iterative refinement: lay down the major lines of your plot first, then iteratively add complexity to them until you feel like you're finished.
- Roll your own. Think about a novel you've read that you really admire. Go re-read it, taking comprehensive plot notes along the way. Abstract the result into a framework you can populate with your own details.
- Or just google for story templates and see what grabs your fancy.
Why should I pick this method?
The outline method is great if you're new to novel-writing and don't yet have a clear sense of story structure.
The outline method is fabulous if you're writing a series of largely interchangeable novels (e.g. Babysitters Club, Hardy Boys mysteries, etc.) where each one follows the same pattern just with different details.
The outline method is also helpful if you're writing in an unfamiliar genre and want to make sure you don't miss the important stuff while concentrating on the genre's particular demands.
The Research Method
The research method is pretty much what it sounds like: start with some baseline concept for your story, then use research to generate specific ideas for your plot.
In this context, "research" doesn't have to be literal, though it often is. If you're writing a historical novel set in some specific place and time, your research will indeed be literal research to learn what that place was like, who lived there, what the culture was like, what things happened there at that time, et cetera.
If you're writing fantasy or sci-fi, you also do research but in those genres it's called "world building." The concept is the same, though: you can't write a story within a setting until you understand that setting, because the peculiarities of the setting affect what's reasonable for the characters to do. In speculative fiction, "research" consists of inventing the histories of the people and places that surround your story.
Either way, use what you discover to fill out your plot points, pitfalls, reversals, and so forth.
What's so great about research?
I absolutely love this method for historical novels, for the simple reason that history is far weirder, far more bizarre, than anything I could come up with on my own. Inevitably, while I'm doing the research I come across elements that are perfect for the story. Sometimes those elements go to the core of the story itself, giving me an entire plotline I'd never have thought of.
Cases in point: the plotline of Pebblehoof centers around a conflict over land rights between a family of homesteaders and some evil railroad barons. I'd never have thought of that myself, but when researching the location I'd chosen for the story, I discovered that the Trans-Continental Railroad went right through there. And in researching the railroad, discovered that the guys who were in charge of building it were largely a bunch of corrupt bastards. Instant villains, and bam, I had my plot.
For Blackpelt, I had it in mind to write some kind of talking-animal story, and for more or less random reasons I picked beavers. But what did I know about beavers? Nothing, really. In reading up on beavers I discovered that most beavers are brown, but very occasionally there's a black one. And bam, I had my plot: a beaver on the run from a fur trapper who's after her for her rare black pelt. Never would have thought of that on my own.
Why should I pick this method?
This method gives you less guidance on story structure, so is better suited to writers who feel comfortable with the broad strokes or writers who want to use research as the means for filling out a plot in the Outline Method.
Research is obviously great for historical novels and speculative fiction because in those genres the setting is as important as the plot. In historicals, reality has supplied you with all the details you'll need, you just need to go find them and pick the ones that jump out at you as dramatic moments or strong central conflicts for a story.
In spec-fic, this method is great because (in my opinion, anyway) creating the details of your story's world is delightfully fun. Inventing place names, histories for why this city is in that particular location, who the kings and generals were, how that world's political alliances got to be the way they are. It's fun!
Doing that kind of world building does require you to put your mind in a slightly different space than for plotting. You need to be in a free, generative state of mind where you're creating details that feel natural and organic to the world you're building, without concern for whether any particular detail may be useful in the eventual story. Some will, some won't, and that's ok.
The Unscramble Method
The unscramble method is the one to use when your story has become a weedy mess and you're not sure how to fix it. This is the one to pick when what you've got isn't working as a whole, but does contain a lot of awesome scenes, plot points, and whatnot that you'd like to keep.
The unscramble method is all about taking what you've already got and reorganizing it into something that works.
The problem, when a manuscript gets into a broken state like this, is that you can't work with its individual elements when they're all written out as full scenes. There are too many words in the way for you to see the structure.
How do I do it?
The process is more or less these three steps:
- Distill what you've got into individual elements. I generally boil my messy manuscripts down to the level of scenes, plot points, and storylines.
- Rearrange the elements according to the principles of story structure.
- Revise the manuscript by moving the elements around into the new order and patching up the transitions between them.
Distilling your prose down into elements is not hard, but does take some time. Read through your manuscript and make yourself a list of short descriptions. "The marketplace scene." "The romance subplot." "John's illness." Whatever they might happen to be. You don't need much text because you already know what these things are. You just need short labels for them.
The specific mechanism and tools you use to rearrange the elements is largely a matter of personal preference. You could put them in a spreadsheet and move the cells around. You could just make an ordered list of them in a Word document and rearrange it until you're happy.
My favorite method, though, is sticky-notes and a blank wall. I write each element on a separate sticky--nice and big so I can read them from a distance--and I arrange them on a wall. I use left-to-right positioning to represent time. I use vertical positioning to indicate the different storylines I'm trying to keep track of. I put each sticky at the horizontal and vertical position that categorizes it both by chronology and storyline. Something about putting the story into this spatial, tactile form allows me to see it and think about it differently.
Then I stand back and look at what I've got. Any giant gaps in a given storyline become immediately obvious. Any places where one storyline dominates with a long run of successive scenes are equally obvious. I can use other sticky-notes to mark the horizontal positions where the inciting incident, first plot point, reversals, climax, and so forth should go. Any such structural elements that don't have scenes associated with them become very evident.
Then I move the sticky notes around to fill in the gaps, address pacing issues, break up consecutive runs of scenes in a single storyline, et cetera. I write new stickies to fill in scenes missing scenes. I select between stickies which both try to occupy the same spot on the wall, indicating redundant scenes, or make notes to myself to consolidate them into a single scene.
When the wall looks good, I number each sticky with its order in the new story structure, carefully take them off the wall in order, and use that as the basis for the third step of the process.
Why should I pick this one?
Try the unscramble method if you're good with story structure but somehow got this manuscript into a mess. Or try it if you're realizing that you're not good with story structure yet because you've got this manuscript into a mess, and want to combine this method with the outline method to impose structure onto your pieces.
This method is even good before you've written the manuscript, for times when you have a bunch of great ideas for scenes and are looking for a way to weave them together into something that works.
Each method has its particular strengths and is suited to some situations better than others. It's also nice that these methods combine well with one another. You could do a bunch of research just to generate scene ideas, then use the unscramble method or the outline method to put them into a structure.
And remember, these are just three methods I like. I think they work well, but one can certainly approach the task of plotting in many other ways besides, and I'd love to learn about your favorite plotting methods in the comments. As far as I'm concerned, you can't have too many tools in your toolbox for tackling story structure issues.