“A story tells us what happened, but a plot tells us why.” – E.M. Forster
“But, how do you know if an ending is truly good for the characters unless you’ve traveled with them through every page?” – Shannon Hale
“Plot as such is not a major ingredient in my novels… it’s often better to sail on the unconscious sea.” – Richard Adams
It has taken me years to write this blog post. YEARS. Actually almost halfway through a decade, since I began to write this series on the Big Three (Setting, Character and Plot), and the Spark that connects them in a haphazard and somewhat painful but always invigorating process we call Writing A Novel.
I did not follow this timeline for the first three installments (which emerged from the depths and into the blogosphere at a tidy pace, between January 2018 and January 2019). I knew Plot was going to take some time, ultimately because – and I will gladly die on this hill – there really is no single correct way to plot a story.
You heard me.
Okay, let me specify what I mean. The “what” of plot is easy to research: we’ve all learned the narrative structures in high school English classes. MasterClass has a pretty comprehensive article to that effect.
What I’m talking about is the “how.”
First, I should acknowledge the intrepid writers who throw caution to the wind and venture into the wilderness that is their novel-in-progress without a second glance at that damn Fichtean Curve. They are on the same journey their characters are. They don’t know what’s coming. They don’t know where they’ll end up. They just know the adventure is worth the end result, whatever that ends up looking like. And that’s… certainly one way to go about it. I envy those writers, to be honest. The National Novel Writing Month community (who affectionately refer to ourselves as NaNoers), have a term for those folks: “Pantsers.” Apt description, to be sure.
The opposite end of the NaNoWriMo plotting spectrum houses the Planners, a distinctively meticulous and cautious bunch, who live by the outline. Org charts and narrative structure drafts are their bread and butter. Planners have a sub-spectrum, of course (why wouldn’t they, these slightly-fastidious lovers of order, who live to categorize and subcategorize)… within this group you have those who need to have each step of the journey measured out ahead of writing a word, down to the smallest detail. Others within the Planner cohort are a bit more flexible, preferring a solid outline but understanding that, even though they created the universe the story resides within, they might not have all the answers at the outset.
I tend to fall into this latter subgroup of Planners. My ideas become tangible through outlining. My characters come alive faster when I have some degree of direction for them in the beginning. Outlining is freeing to me, because it allows me to dream big. I can support those dreams by identifying and filling any plot holes ahead of writing. I don’t accidentally end up in a dead end corner of the story. Several of my failed projects, earlier in my writing career, were lacking an outline. Some of them were complete stories (beginning, middle, and end) but still failures. They did not succeed, in my mind, because I hadn’t devoted enough time to building a foundation that would support the story and my characters’ journey through it.
The outline grounds me in the story, and can even help me see arcs down the road that may result in sequels, or series. My novel-in-progress, Stormriders, began as an outline, after the idea phase and world-building. I flushed out my characters in tandem with construction of the main story arc; well into the plot development, I realized I had enough story – and my world was rich enough – to create arcs for a sequel, and then a trilogy. And a spinoff novella. There is a lot more to explore within the world of Stormriders now, because I connected the plot threads ahead of weaving the tapestry.
So how do I plot?
I start by writing a chapter-by-chapter summary. I tend to see plot steps/chapters almost as scenes in a movie. I write a paragraph per scene. I insert additional character notes with each scene. Who is there? Who isn’t? Where are they? What is happening in that moment? How does everyone interact? What happens to get them to the next scene? And so on, and so forth.
My chapter-by-chapter summary for Stormriders is 21 pages long.
Even though my outlining process tends to be fairly linear, my writing process is not. I jump around to different scenes, flushing them out. A bit of striking description or witty dialogue may pop into my head unannounced and unplanned, and I jot it down knowing there may be a place for it later. Once I have the summary, I can assign those random pieces of writing to a chapter, or scene. I can add and remove scenes, or rearrange them, at will. I can attach my author notes to the outline: thoughts on what’s working, and what isn’t. The summary is the plot foundation. I can double-check to make sure I have the narrative structure needed to be a successful and satisfying end product (eventually).
Another critical reason why I outline is the inevitability (and sometimes obstacle) called life. Even if I have to step away from a project for a while, I can return confident in the knowledge that the dream isn’t gone. The ideas are there, bookmarked for me in summary form.
Plot development, no matter how you experience it, is a journey. And there is no ultimately perfect way to embark on this journey, but knowing your own tendencies and style, coupled with the literary basics of plot structure, will help any writer tell the story they need to tell.