For the past week, I’ve been studying and just cramming my brain with everything character creation and development, dialogue, and most importantly, story. The worst thing I could do is write an entire novel and be so proud of the work I did – only to find out later that the story’s either very dilapidated or, even worse, completely unviable. And as far as I’m concerned, that should be your biggest fear, too!
So I’ve searched around for plotting tips and found some real goodies in the Absolute Write forums, Writer’s Digest, Larry Brook’s Storyfix.com, and elsewhere. It was quite a bit of info, so I broke the best stuff down into some handy-dandy tips so you can learn how to plot a story like a pro.
Use the Classic “Hero’s Plot” – Or Your Own Version
This comes courtesy of Elizabeth Sims of Writer’s Digest.
It’s a plot as old as time – the plot of stories like Homer’s The Odyssey, The Hobbit, and pretty much every Disney movie. It’s a plot that has brought authors and filmmakers alike into fame and fortune and still does today, which is great news for adventure writers! The plot goes something like this:
- A message – in the form of a person, a vision, or a close call – comes.
- A big problem presents itself.
- Someone or a group of people are either chosen to solve the problem or step in themselves when nobody else is willing or able.
- The challenge is issued. If chosen, the hero(es) may or may not refuse to take it on at first.
- Something compels the hero(es) to take the challenge. Either they change their minds or are forced.
- The hero(es) depart and go into uncharted territory. They’re going to need help.
- A helper comes in, with unique knowledge, skills, or wisdom that gives the hero an advantage.
- The inevitable setbacks happen – sometimes to the point when all hope seems lost.
- The hero(es) gain new ground, or make personal breakthroughs.
- The villain is defeated, a vital item is found, or something else happens that will enable the hero(es) to return everything back to normal.
- The hero(es) return home and are celebrated for what they did. Everything is back to normal.
This isn’t set in stone, either – you can just use this as a general guide, while adding your own unique parts to the story. (Just make sure those parts are linked to the plot in some way, and are not just random things that happen for no reason.)
And yes, this isn’t a 100% original plot. What does make it unique is your own story, and how you use your own voice to tell it. This is why one big tip I’ve found is to NOT try to sound like other authors. No other author will be able to write their stories the way you write yours.
Start With the Basics
By this, I mean definitively answering the most important questions up-front before you start writing. This can differ depending on your genre. For us adventure writers, though, those important questions would be:
- What is the setting(s) of the story?
- Who is the hero, and who are the major characters? What are their general personalities? Interests? Abilities? Do they carry anything?
- What’s the conflict or problem? How does it affect the hero and major characters’ lives or environments?
- What does the hero want more than anything? Or what does he have to do the most?
- How does the hero intend to get what he wants or do what he needs to do?
- Who is the antagonist, and what does he want? What does he have to do with the conflict? What’s his motivation for what he does? This should conflict with the hero’s wants or needs, creating or at least accelerating the conflict.
- How does the antagonist intend to get what he wants?
- What happens in the climax – the “big battle” that determines whether the hero wins or loses? Does the hero win or lose?
- How will the result from #8 change the hero and his world? How will he and the major characters feel?
From there, you can fill in what happens through the novel with quite a bit of brainstorming and creativity, and maybe even a subplot or two.
Make a Foolproof Outline/Map
If you’re usually the one to plan things out at least a little before taking action, this way of plotting could be great for you!
This map from Writer’s Digest is great because it nails down the essential parts of every plot. They’re really just things we learned in our reading classes in school, like the exposition, rising action, climax, and resolution, plus other things. You could brainstorm ideas for your plot and tack them wherever you think they should go on the outline.
You’ll need to be flexible, because you’ll get new ideas and have to replace or move some previous ideas. (You should get and read the whole document it came in, too, because there’s some great information in there. You’ll have to sign up for their newsletter, but I promise you the content you’ll get is worth it!)
There’s also bullet-point outlines you can use, too, around the Internet. This one from Larry Brook’s site fits on one page and goes into more detail. It asks some important questions about your plot, protagonists, and the events propelling the story.
Then there’s NaNoWriMo’s suggestions for outlining your plot. I mentioned before that I’m going to participate this November. The prep workbook I’ve been working on has some methods on plotting your novel, starting on Session 3 (page 19 in the PDF file). They have a link to a quiz to help you determine what method works best for you. If you pick a lot of choices that suggest a lot of organization, your top results from the quiz will suggest these outlining methods:
- The 9-Step Plot Dot
- The Save the Cat! Beat sheet (with 3 acts/15 beats)
- Katytastic’s 3 act/9 block/27 chapter outline
Give each of these a try! One of these – or the less organized methods – could work so well and set you on a path to writing your story.
Go into a Mad Brainstorming Session, Then Sort
This tip comes from NaNoWriMo, too.
Brainstorming – especially if you’re just starting with a brief idea – is a great way to kick-start your plotting process and get some awesome scene ideas. This comes from the NaNo prep book.
First, you need to get into a creative state of mind. This could be at your table eating breakfast with some iced tea, at night at a quiet coffee shop, whatever works. Have a set of note cards, a notebook, or your laptop with a word processor open. Then go crazy brainstorming!
Imagine you’re reading your future book in your head, and write down every scene idea that comes to you with brief sentences. Take different paths in the story just to see what happens, and write down the results. Don’t question or judge anything just yet! Whatever you think up, just write it down – even if the new idea contradicts the other ideas. Keep at it for a couple days or so until you get about 50-100 ideas (or more depending on the novel length.)
Finally, go through your ideas and sort them in beginning, middle, and end groups. If you have ideas that are in serious doubt to you, keep them in a “maybe not” group. Then go through the groups. Look at the beginning group, think about your first few scenes, and put them in order. Think about what makes sense or feels right while you’re at it. Add any scenes that you find are missing. Rinse and repeat for the middle and end groups until you have a list of ordered scenes.
Then use that list as a general guide as you write your novel, discover new things about the characters and the story, and possibly come up with new scenes. The story structure may or may not change a lot, and you may or may not have to do another brainstorming session if you need the story to go down a different road, but that’s all part of the process. Keep at it and you’ll finally finish your first draft!
Personally, I’m going to try the brainstorming route for my NaNo novel first. Clearly, there’s more than one way to plot a story, but don’t be intimidated! This should be fun for you! Try these and other methods, and you’ll find one that you love.
So what do you think? What’s your favorite plotting method, if you have any? Is there another way of plotting you think people should try? Share your thoughts below!
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