Starting is the hardest part. A blank new page may hold a world of possibilities, but all those choices can be terrifying. Imagine having a framework, a checklist of what to write and when to write it. That is your plot outline. Spend time at the beginning planning the pathway through your story, and you will get that time back further into the process.
It took me six years to write my first book, March to November. I started at what I thought was the beginning. By the time I was half way through, I needed to go back and rewrite huge chunks of the story because I’d not properly planned the structure of the book. All the way through, I struggled with word count in order to keep the length to an acceptable publishing standard for that genre. The original first chapter became the fourth chapter, other chapters had to be ditched altogether and characters needed massaging - in a literary sense, not literally!
Rather than plot my story, I’d focused solely on the characters. They took over, driving the direction of the story in a number of places. That in itself is not a bad thing. The characters come across as real, but as a writer, you want control of your story. I didn’t want to hand it over to a bunch of unruly, self-serving characters! In the end, I needed to work extra hard to produce a good quality product.
I learned my lesson. For my second book, I spent time discovering who my characters were but didn’t commit them to action until I’d plotted the course of that story. I was in charge. At each stage of the story, I knew what needed to be achieved and how many words I should use to do that. I directed the characters from the beginning rather than having to go back and coerce them. That book took three years to write. It’s the first in a trilogy. Even before I publish book one, I want to have the plots for books two and three nailed down. Your plot is your writing road map; without it, you run the risk of getting lost or worse, derailed.
That said there will be times when scenes, dialogue or critical moments in your story hammer at the inside of your skull begging to be written. That’s okay - write when the muse strikes. Worst case scenario, you may never use these muse-nuggets, but they may give you an insight into the world you have created. They may even make it into the final draft. So go ahead - you will never waste time by writing.
So what does a plot look like?
Your story needs a beginning, a middle and an end.
- The beginning should set the scene, show the incident that sets the rest of the events in motion, and outlines your protagonist’s goals.
- The middle, the main body of your story, should keep us riveted with escalating tension, action, or drama as the hero tries and fails to accomplish those goals. This is where you are really mean to your characters - go on, be nasty! The midpoint of the story is a point of no return. The main characters and their world, either internally or externally, are irreversibly changed and they can never go back to the way things were at the start. Towards the end of the middle, the hero sees the darkest hour, life or death, and sets up the climax.
- The end should start with a rip-roaring, nail-biting, edge-of-seat climax where your hero either triumphs or fails to achieve both their external goals and internal goals. Interestingly, failure is an option and makes for great stories too. There are many graphs that all boil down to describing one thing - rising action peaking at a climax and then falling action (search online for images of “plot diagram for writing.”) The denouement comes after the climax and ties up all the loose ends before leaving the reader with a satisfying finishing scene.
Approaches to Plotting
There are many ways to approach plotting. The important part is finding an approach that suits your needs. I have my favorites, the things that work for me. I’m a list person. I like to have my road map laid out step by step. I’ll have my little muse-nuggets waiting in the wings to be inserted in the appropriate spot when I get to it. So I tend to work in a linear fashion. Here are three of the most helpful outlining tools I’ve come across. You can use one or even a combination all of them
- Randy Ingermanson’s Snow Flake Method - a recursive method that begins with a one-line statement on what your book is about. Through a ten-step process, you build your outline. This is less linear, but great of you are beginning with a concept or fairly simple “what if.” I use it to get me started, but I’ll switch to the next tactic at a certain point.
- Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey - a more linear approach with prompts to help with each stage of the story. It is great for helping with your character development and character arch.
- Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat Beat Sheet - This is my favorite. This is actually developed for screenwriting, but I found it incredibly easy and flexible for use in writing books too. Handy downloadable spreadsheets are available online with the beat sheet points and a calculator that allows you to enter the word count of your book showing you the recommended word count for each beat in your story.
With all of these methods, it is important to give yourself wiggle room. Your story may not fit nicely into all the boxes, but it’s still better that being halfway through and wondering, “What’s next?”
So whether you use a spreadsheet, graphs, notepad and pen, posters and sharpies, or even crayons, to draw up your story outline, the important thing is that you produce something that allows you to stick to the plan, and remember - don’t lose the plot!
Byddi Lee, features writer. Byddi grew up in Armagh, Ireland, and moved to Belfast to study Biology at Queen’s University when she was 18. She made Belfast her home for twenty-one years, teaching science and writing for pleasure. In 2002 she took a sabbatical from teaching and traveled around the world for two years, writing blogs about her adventures as she went. She returned to Ireland in 2004 and resumed teaching. In 2008 she and her husband moved to San Jose, California where she made writing a full-time career. After the publication of her short story, Death of a Seannachai, she decided it was time to write, March to November. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.
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