Why plot your story before writing

The idea for a book can come from anywhere. Inspiration could strike while you are in the shower, or during your morning commute. We have all met a character with a fascinating life which sounds ripe for the plot of a bestseller.  The hard part is translating that hazy idea into something which will work as an actual book.

WHY PLOT?  WHAT IS WRONG WITH BEING A PANTSER?

I do not ever want to say there is an absolute right or wrong way to write a book. Some authors come up with an idea and just start to type.  They keep going until the end of the book and find the plot unfolds for them as they write. What keeps them coming back to typing day after day is the excitement of discovering what will happen. That is fine, if it works for you. My preference is to outline the plot of each book I write and this is why.

THE CASE AGAINST BEING A PANTSER

There is nothing more daunting than having to sit down at the computer to work on your book and not know where you are going with it next. That void makes writing difficult and sets you, the writer, up for failure. The task of writing becomes hard and is then put off for another day, and another.

HOW A PLOT OUTLINE HELPS

From your initial gem of an idea, which could be a beginning, a middle, or even the end of a book, you will then need to write a story which will maintain a reader’s interest for 80 – 120,000 words.

By planning you’ll get to assess if the idea is suitable for a book – or possibly if it is a short story idea and won’t work as a book at all, or it could be that the story would be large enough to be turned into a series. But more than that, you will be able to see if the story has the wings it will need to keep your reader interested.

It is less time consuming to outline the plot beforehand, without this you may find the action starts doing its own thing and you could block yourself into a corner. While you are probably desperate to start writing, it wastes less time in the long run if you work on the plot initially.  By having a plan in place from the start you will find it a lot easier to stay on track with your writing, from the beginning to the end as you will see the peaks and troughs in the action and be able to amend it accordingly.

HOW TO OUTLINE THE PLOT OF YOUR BOOK

Plotting a book can seem a daunting task.  How do you turn that hazy idea into 80,000 words or more? The easiest way to begin to flesh out your idea is to write what is known as an elevator pitch. Imagine you are stuck in an elevator with someone and want to tell them the plot of your book and you only have a few moments. Write this down, it gives you the basis for your plot.

While at your keyboard, or even with pen and paper while you are on the train home, break your idea into five main points:-

  • What is the genre?
  • Who is the protagonist?
  • What do they want?
  • What are the obstacles they face?
  • What is the overriding theme?

FLESH OUT THE PLOT

It is a simple process to develop your book plot. Set some time aside that could be on your commute, in the shower or even just before you go to sleep at night. Just let the ideas flow. Jot down everything you have thought about in terms of the plot, the characters, scenes that come to mind. It might be that all you have are a few very hazy ideas. Write them down because it is these which will form the foundation of the plot.

Once you have captured all your key ideas, you can start prioritising them. Which ones belong in this book? Would any be more suitable for a sequel? Be prepared for lots of scribbling and crossing out. Use plotting time to sit with graphs, sheets of paper, post it notes – whatever you find helps you. It can help to plot your narrative arc in a visual diagram. A mind maps helps to get everything in your imagination down in front of you so you can see what fits into your plot and what does not. It could be that you’ll find you have two stories, sometimes two different ones, or a series of books.

EXPANDING THE PLOT

 Expand your story until you have a rough outline which creates the basic premise and issues. You then need to break the plot into three parts, the beginning the middle and then end so that you can work through the plot in logical steps. At first it can feel quite daunting to have to get a character from A to B. Subplots involving other characters can make going the distance easier. There will be one main line of action, which happens from chapter to chapter, but equally smaller ones, which happen in individual scenes.

The story has to have the key elements necessary to make a gripping novel. The story needs to have characters who will engage the reader and a plot that will keep them enthralled, the rest of the essentials, pace, time, setting etc can be worked on, but without the first two elements the book doesn’t stand any chance of becoming a reality.

Once you have this think about the main characters. It helps to write a detailed description of them, so you understand their motivations.

Good endings are important. It may seem to be going about the plot creation in the wrong way, to plan the story ending before the climax. However, when you plot a novel, you are working at multiple levels, plotting the stories of each of the main characters as well as the broad story arc.

SAGGY MIDDLES

There will often be uncertainty for the author regarding the mid sections of the book, by doing timelines for each of the characters it helps pad this section out and keep the action and drama ramped up. Often it is easy to know the beginning and the end of the book, the crisis points, and then there may be a lull in the plot just before the final showdown. It is helpful to do a timeline for each of the characters. Annie will go from being unemployed and unemployable to running her own business. Jack will go from being a total couch potato to completing his first marathon. By mapping out each character’s journey it is easier to find slots in the plot, or chapter breakdown for their development to happen.

ALL THE LEVELS

 When you plot a novel, you are working at multiple levels, plotting the stories of each of the main characters as well as the broad story arc.

GOING DEEPER – SUBPLOTS

 Plan gripping, interesting subplots.  The purpose of a subplot is to explain and or develop tensions and crucial plot points, they help deepen the readers understanding of the central characters.

 WHATEVER WORKS

All writers are different in their approach to plotting, some like mind maps worked out and detailed in diagrams they pin to the wall, others prefer to have spread sheets or jottings on scraps of paper. Different authors use different methods. I use a kind of line diagram, showing what actions each character must perform during the narration of the book. This shows me how each interacts and makes sure that each subplot is resolved with a timeline for each of the characters. I find by mapping out each character’s journey it is easier to find slots in the plot, or chapter breakdown for their development to happen.

All work and with experience you will discover which method works for you.

 WHAT TO BEAR IN MIND WHILE YOU ARE WORKING OUT THE PLOT

  • Aim to hook your reader at the first line. The reader needs to question, who is this person? What is going on here?
  • Everyone in the book has to be likable with their own struggles, even those who are horrible have to fascinate the reader and for them to be invested in them.
  • We saw in the previous chapter what a plot needs to contain, the peaks and troughs that will hook your reader and keep them hooked right to the end.
  • Don’t forget that with regards to a plot Goal + Flaw + High Stakes = Compelling narrative.
  • While you are plotting think about your characters. More on getting to know your characters later, but when plotting be aware their flaws human failings will create compassion with your reader. Their flaws need to change in order for them to reach their goals. The change of that flaw should be woven into the plot.
  • Something important to remember is that every character in your novel thinks the novel is about them and have their own goals and motivations. They must all want something, even if it is only an icecream.
  • Whatever kind of book you are writing; your plan will not be set in stone. You may well find that things change as you start writing, but that is okay.
  • If a scene it has no purpose it should not be in the book, each piece of action must be relevant to the main story.