So here’s part 3 in my series of posts for beginner writers…
Right, where were we? We’d got started on the novel –
overcome the self-doubt and procrastination. We’d fallen in love with our
characters and breathed life into them.
So what now? What are you going to have these characters do?
What is going to happen to them? How will you introduce them to your readers? What
will their journey be?
First of all – the thing about plotting is that there is no
one correct way to do it. It’s like cooking – everyone has their own take on
methods – even where the ingredients and the outcome are similar. My mother and
my mother-in-law were both superb bakers – meringues to die for – but they used
two quite different procedures to create them. One baked them in an oven – the
French way – and the other plopped the beaten egg whites into boiling water –
the Italian way. And that’s how it is with plotting – you do what works for
you. Below are just three of the ways – you might only ever use one of them, or
you may change method depending on the novel, or you may mix and match – or you
may do none of them in any conscious way and simply write, improvising as you
go. But if cooking without a recipe scares you, you may find what follows
First up – you might like a linear layout when planning – one
scene heading, followed by the next, and the next and so on. This will work
well if you already have a clear idea of how your story is to develop. You
might follow the heading with notes on the action within the scene. It will all
run down the page – in portrait layout – beginning, middle and end all sorted.
Or you may do the above – but with only a definite start and
end point already planned – and fill in the scenes in between as you think it
However, it may be that you don’t have scenes as such. It
could be that you have fragments – an assortment of images – of experiences and
occurrences for your characters. Perhaps then you can storyboard. That is write
and/or draw out these images on cards. Then lay them out, swap them round, see
where the gaps are, do cards to fill the gaps. As you ponder the gaps you will
probably find you begin to ask yourself, and answer, all the why questions
about your plot, about what is driving it. You must be able to answer the
question as to why a particular scene is there.
If you can’t, then discard it. It’s superfluous. You’ll also start to
resolve the ‘how’ questions as you move from card to card. Perhaps new
characters and ideas will emerge as you work. Perhaps a timeline or natural
order may start to emerge. You may well
see a sort of clustering, or coming together, of scenes at certain points – these will
provide your ‘jumpcuts’ and chapter breaks – and you may well discard some
in-between scenes altogether.
And then there’s a third way. That is the mind-map, spider
diagram or cluster plotting method. Here think landscape rather than portrait.
Take a sheet of A4, or even, A3 paper and write your novel’s working title in
the middle and draw a box or cloud shape around what you’ve written. Now do
several short lines coming off this central box or blob. At the end of these
lines write, or indeed, draw the key scenes, images or events you already have
in your head. Draw a box around each of these. Then see if you can extend any
of these scene/event boxes with blobs of their own. You can continue branching
off as much as you like. It should become obvious which are the meatier scenes,
which ones are sparking off possible subplots. The more substantial plot blobs
or boxes will be the ones you’ll probably allocate most words to. You may well
also see how the scenes should link up and perhaps begin to see an order of
events. And as with the other methods you will probably find scenes that are so
insubstantial they can be dropped altogether.
Whatever plotting method you use you will need to peg your
scenes to a story arc. Your plot must serve as a roadmap for the characters’
actions. It must bring your characters together at just the right moment. You
need to decide on your opening scene, on where your telling will begin. The
plot will almost certainly begin long before your story does. You will weave in
any relevant pre-details as you tell the story. Your start point should be
where the characters’ backstories become nowstories. So looking at your plan –
linear, storyboard or mind-map, you will need to move those scenes around –
number them, arrow them, or change their order in the pile.
It doesn’t matter if you open your story at the end and tell
it as flashback or if you begin at the middle and flashback and move forward –
or if you simply drive forward. However there is a classic set of ingredients
that the story arc should probably contain and that is:
1.Stasis – once upon a time
2.Trigger – the unpredictable event
3.Quest – the protagonist(s) begins to seek
4.Surprise – discovers the unexpected
5.Critical choice – difficult decision
6.Climax – the consequence of 5
7.Reversal – change of status
8.Resolution – acceptance of new state.
But the most important thing of all about the plotting stage
is to just go for it. Don’t pause or censor or edit – that will come when you
have all your scenes before you. Enjoy this very creative phase of pre-writing
– rule nothing in or out.
N.B. There is an excellent post and youtube video on cluster
plotting at http://johannaharness.com/2010/10/21/clusterplotting.
If you’re a writer who uses twitter, you will almost certainly have heard of
Johanna. She is the person behind the #amwriting hashtag and won last year’s
inaugural Chris Al-Aswad prize awarded by Eight Cuts.