You may have heard of the concept of plotting versus pantsing: some writers plot out a novel before they begin writing, while others sit before a blank page and “fly by the seat of their pants.” Both my Nanowrimo experiences were pantsing, and I loved it. I didn’t know how I even would plot a book, since I always start with an opening scene and no idea where the book is going.
This past year I worked with a developmental editor on my new-adult novel (The Knowledge Game [or maybe The Knowledge Trick?]; Nanowrimo 2014), and she cut about 30,000 words and suggested some major rewrites. After working through the revision, and feeling certain she was right about it, I returned to my romance novel draft (Rose Fair; Nanowrimo 2016) and found a similar mess, and set about reworking it.
So I was thinking, maybe there is something in this plotting. I was waffling on Nanowrimo 2018—can I really fit it in this year?—and decided to try plotting a new novel. If I could generate an outline before November, I’d sign up.
My First Attempt
I knew the opening scene, at a grand estate. Mom and I were heading to Asheville to see a Chihuly exhibit at Biltmore, so I decided to keep alert for plot ideas in the background of my brain during our visit.
At the farm, we watched a video on the historical residents of Biltmore Village. I jotted ideas. As we rode the shuttle to the Biltmore house, I scanned the countryside and imagined my characters venturing into it. More ideas. I took notes in the gardens: there was a greenhouse, a gardener’s cottage, a team of workers planting mums. We walked to the pond through the azalea garden; if it were spring, the azaleas could be blooming.
When I got home, I sat with my notes and a sheet of blank paper and started planning my scenes, writing a few words about each and connecting them with arrows. I plotted eight scenes before running out of notes.
Getting Advice on Plotting
Setting aside time to plot felt like it opened my imagination. But now I was back in normal life, with the cats crying for breakfast, the rug un-vacuumed, the office job looming over my morning. How would I continue?
I googled “how to plot a novel” and the results overwhelmed me: use our template, the definitive guide, the Story Circle Method, three awesome plot structures. There was one video that seemed to be Google’s top choice, though, so I watched it: Ellen Brock’s “How to Plot a Novel,” https://youtu.be/cems_-085nQ. Ellen offers a simple approach. (1) Write down every scene you can think of that you’d like to include in your novel. (2) Put them in order. (3) Make sure each is part of the main goal, and has conflict or an obstacle. But where do these scenes come from? I thought.
I also applied the main lesson I learned from reading Story Genius (see my review here):* the main character existed before the story begins, and developed a misconception about herself that she tries to overcome in the story. I’d be writing a romance novel, but the central thread of the novel couldn’t just be “Cailin wants to find love.” It would be that Cailin has begun believing she is unlovable, and can’t believe Alex would love her—especially not when she realizes who he is. What about Alex? He’s grown distrustful of women since they’re so often interested only in his wealth. Cailin seems different; she likes him before she finds out who he is. But then the circumstances indicate she might be playing him (spoiler: she’s not), and he is forced to tread carefully. Identifying this central belief for each character seemed to bring my plot to life.
More Advice: I Test Ride the “How to Plot a Novel” Articles
I gave googling another shot, first thing on a Saturday morning. This time the results didn’t seem so overwhelming. I’d recently learned that Google ranks results based on how long users stay on a page after clicking, so I would trust the writers who had searched before.
1. “How to Plot a Novel,” by Jericho Writers: https://jerichowriters.com/how-to-plot/
This article stresses keeping it simple, which I like. It asks you to jot down seven points about your novel; there was a pad and pencil sitting next to me so I made myself do it, and guess what? It was easy, and I had enough material to do it. So far so good.
Then I jotted down subplots and put everything into a template. There were also tips for if you don’t have enough material. I hoped for another step to turn my sketch into an outline, but the article ended there with a sales pitch. Still, I give this one five stars.
2. “How to plot a novel: 7 tips for success,” by Now Novel: https://www.nownovel.com/blog/how-to-plot-novel/
This article gives a writer a lot to think about. At first I found both the article and its links overwhelming, but I read through it all and found it worthwhile. The tips include
- Think about the elements of the best plots
- Create an outline
- Plan subplots
- Consider the goals of each character
- Identify the purpose of each scene
- Plan for characters, events, and settings, not just one of these elements
One of the links is to “How to develop a story: 10 steps to a winning plot” (https://www.nownovel.com/blog/develop-story-10-ways-write-better-plots/). The steps include
- Write a one-page synopsis of each chapter
- Create a timeline
- Plan how characters will develop over time
- Plan what else will change as the novel progresses
- Use index cards to create a storyboard; each scene has a reason
- Add subplots to reinforce the main plot
Another link is to “Plot outline creation: 7 smart methods” (https://www.nownovel.com/blog/7-ways-write-plot-outline/), which lists different methods that might work for different authors. No particular method jumped out at me, but rather I noted what they all have in common: start with a sketch, add detail, then add more detail.
This general method reminded me of painting: Before I had any training, I would approach a painting by starting at one spot with detail and working outward. Often the result would fall off the canvas, or have an inaccurate overall shape. Then I learned to sketch the whole painting first, in one color, before filling in detail, and it worked much better.
3. “How to Plot a Novel: The Definitive Guide,” by Novel Writing Help: https://www.novel-writing-help.com/how-to-plot-a-novel.html
The third Google result was an overview with links to the articles of the “definitive guide.” I read the whole overview and then skimmed through the articles. A lot of the material now felt like repeat material, but the organization and detail might make this a good starting place for some writers. The one section that filled a gap for me was “Plotting the middle” using linked “mini goals” and “mini plots” to keep the reader hooked. That said, the detail overwhelmed me and I gave up about a third of the way through the page.
4. “7 Steps to Creating a Flexible Outline for Any Story,” by K.M. Weiland: http://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/7-steps-to-creating-a-flexible-outline-for-any-story
I found this article to be a good overview of everything I’d read previously. It also seems to suggest doing what I had found myself doing last week at Biltmore. It includes several steps for generating material, followed by organizing that material into an outline.
I clicked on a few more Google results, and there was more good material, as well as repeat material and recommendations that fell flat. But none of the websites told me exactly what to do next. I gradually accepted the truth: the next step would be sitting to write, forcing myself to come up with (1) more scenes and (2) more detail. There’s no magical method for making it happen that doesn’t involve (wait for it) actual writing.
Being at Biltmore gave me a boost and made the process feel fun and effortless. Cailin is an art graduate student who hangs out in the library carrels with her classmates. Since I live close to UNC–Chapel Hill, and used to frequent the libraries there, I plan to take a “research” trip to visit the libraries and art department.
And even when all I can do is work at home, I can aid my plotting effort by setting aside time and clearing my head of distractions.
What’s been your experience with plotting? I’d love to hear more tips.
*There are dozens of books on writing craft, and I hope to read them all eventually. It seems to me that authors will find most of them useless but will connect with a few. Or, some authors might find key takeaways in each, while not subscribing to the entire method presented. This is how I felt about Story Genius; I got a lot out of it, but at this point in my writing career, I would go nuts trying to follow the plan step by step.