Late last year, we ran a small “plotting fiction” class for authors who found plotting a huge challenge. One author gave up writing fiction because it was too stressful — she said that she couldn’t find a plotting strategy which works for her.
She needed a way to make plotting fiction easier. If you do too, read on…
Plotting fiction when you “can’t plot”
Plotting is imagining — day dreaming. It’s a state of mind. From 3 Secrets For Plotting Fiction: Tell Better Lies:
In our post on fill-in-the-banks plotting, I suggested that you could create a story character based on an adjective, and a noun; a “naive model,” for example.
Next, write a few hundred words from the point of view of the character. You need to know more about the character, and constantly look for ways to make things worse for the character.
Remember — daydream…
Can you day dream? If you can, you can plot.
Let’s look at three strategies.
1. Free form plotting: the day dreaming strategy
Free form plotting is pantsing. From bestselling novelist Dean Koontz:
I started hitting best-seller lists as soon as I stopped using outlines. With Strangers, I started with nothing more than a couple of characters I thought I’d like and with a premise.
If you can’t outline, this strategy may be for you.
Tip: every novel is different. There’s no “right way” to plot. It’s always whatever works, for that novel. Feel free to switch strategies at any time.
I use the free form strategy all the time. I hate not knowing where the story’s headed, but this strategy works for me; it keeps me writing. I work out the challenges as I go.
Choose a character, start writing, and keep going, but do remember that you need to hit your milestones.
2. Minimal plotting: hit your milestones
You can start a novel without knowing much about where it’s headed, but before you hit 10,000 words, it’s time to work out your milestones.
Nothing is set in stone. You can change a milestone at any time if you get a better idea.
Authors tend to use different expressions for the milestones; some authors call them “beats”, for example. I like the term milestones, because I think of a novel as a journey. You can call the milestones anything you wish.
Once you know your word count, you’ll know where the milestones will be. For example, if you get to the midpoint, and nothing much changes, you know you’d better look lively, otherwise your novel will meander over a cliff.
Your first milestone is the end of your novel’s setup, at around the 25% point. By the time you hit this point, you’ve introduced your main characters, and your story question.
You must have a story question, and it must be on the page.
Tip: if you can’t write your story question in 25 words, you don’t have one. As we said in this article on narrative drive:
Something important MUST be at stake in your story. If not literal life or death, then metaphorical life or death. When there’s nothing at stake, readers don’t care, and they won’t read.
3. The skipping strategy: a skimpy first draft, and scenes
You don’t need to write a novel from go to whoa. You can skip to and fro — write the closing scene first, or a scene at the midpoint. Write any scene you like, but keep writing.
Many novelists who are keen outliners work this way. Their “outline” resembles a skimpy first draft. They dramatize scenes whenever inspiration strikes, just if they’re creating the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
Then they put the pieces together.
I often write this way when I’m working on a ghostwriting commission. If you keep the milestones in mind: setup, midpoint, etc., this can be a fun plotting strategy. You’ll end up trashing a few scenes, but this is a good thing. You won’t be bored, and neither will your readers. 🙂
Plotting fiction: whatever works
When you write a novel, you’re telling a story. If you become blocked, and find yourself saying that you “can’t plot”, try telling your story out loud. Grab a digital recorder, or use your phone, and tell yourself the story.
- “What if…” or
- “Once upon a time…”
Have fun. 🙂
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