Plot Planning for Novels
I write complex stories with action taking place in multiple fronts that needs to be synchronized. Changing the time, place, or other details in one scene often requires modifications to be made elsewhere.
In my still unfinished first novel, The Thread, I have struggled to get the story right. I abandoned my third re-write after completing about two-thirds of the story when I realized my revisions had boxed me into a predictable ending that lacked the required level of suspense. In addition, the word count looked like it would exceed my target by at least fifty percent.
Before starting my fourth version of the novel, I decided to use tools that served me well on my second novel, Power Up, which I wrote as a NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) project over two consecutive Novembers (about 50,000 words each time). In order for me to write at a NaNoWriMo pace (1667 words per day), I needed a plan. Here is what worked for Power Up.
My planning for Power Up started with a concept. This would be a writing exercise
to create a despicable character and then tell a story so compelling that the reader actually roots for him. I conjured up a philandering, alchoholic, corporate vice-president who gets fired from his job after getting caught having sex with a female salesperson in the company’s hospitality suite during their National Sales Kickoff conference. I decided to write the story in first person, since I had never done that before.
I spent a long time thinking about how to get readers to embrace him. I decided to paint him as striving to cast off his demons but failing and then, after hitting rock bottom, picking himself up and committing to changing himself, only to fail anew, finding a deeper bottom again and again. The story would end when he finally sets and achieves a goal, which needs to be something unexpected and something that demonstrates he’s finally changed.
Using this concept, I brainstormed things my character might try and spectacular ways he might fail. For example, he might get a new job only to get falsely accused of sexual harassment. He could join AA, fall off the wagon, after a couple of drinks get a call from a friend in desperate need of help, only to get arrested and jailed for driving under the influence. I filled a whiteboard wall with ideas like these.
High Level Plot Summary
From these ideas, once I developed the basic construct of the story, I sat down and sketched out the plot at a high level: how the story would open, the inciting incident that would put him on a quest, his unsuccessful attempts to change himself and then, realizing it’s not all about him, what he does that demonstrates he has truly changed.
By now, I had a solid idea of characters who played major roles in the story. At this point I gave them names and wrote a page or two for each, detailing their physical traits, their motivations and their back stories.
Don’t rush past this step. Take time to develop realistic and engaging characters. Perhaps my inside-out character development model will help you.
Scene on Slides in Bullet Points
I had all of this done by mid-October. NaNoWriMo didn’t begin for a couple of weeks. So I decided to sketch out each scene. I started with Post-It Notes but got frustrated; they kept falling off my whiteboard wall and it took too much work to rearrange them. I could have used a word processor or a spreadsheet, but I chose business presentation software (PowerPoint) because it let me easily resort the scenes (one per slide) and it encouraged me to use bullet points to describe each scene.
And Finally, Writing
If I hadn’t needed to kill time during the two weeks before November 1, I would never have taken the time to sketch out each scene. However, the time invested in this activity paid off handsomely. Each day, when I found time to write, I didn’t waste time deciding what to write. I didn’t waste time writing scenes that I’d later discard. I spent my time productively.
Does that mean I blindly executed each scene as described? Not on your life. I thought of better ideas along the way. My characters did things I hadn’t anticipated. I inserted new scenes. I deleted other scenes. However, I stuck to the high-level plan. The major turning points of the story stayed in place.
The completed story (which is still in first-draft) needs only tightening up before it goes out for line edit. Unlike my first novel, which needed major surgery before kicking off my fourth attempt to tell the story.
After applying the same plot planning techniques to my first novel, the fourth re-write of The Thread has progressed smoothly. At this point, I am more than 75% complete and can clearly see the finish line. I can safely say the process works for me.
A Solution for the Masses?
Personally, I constantly search for new writing tips and techniques. I attend conferences and workshops. I talk to other writers. When I find something that appeals to me, I try it out. If it works, I keep it.
I’m sharing what works for me in the hopes that it benefits you.
One final note, I used PowerPoint because I already owned a copy. There are plenty of other programs that offer similar features. If you want to test this concept and don’t own PowerPoint, then download LibreOffice and use Impress. It’s free and it runs on Windows, Mac OS X and even Linux.
This is what works for me. Please take time to share what works for you in the comments below.