Brace yourself, people. I’m going to talk plotting. *waits for room to empty*
Okay, now that it’s just the two of us here, I’m going to tell you how I plot a novel. Well, I’m going to tell you the tools I use to plot a novel.
Fair warning: this is a long post, and I’ve probably talked about some of this before. But it seemed like a good time to bring it up again, especially since I’ve been stuck plotting lately.
Also, these tools may or may not work for you. Heck, half the time they may or may not work for me. But of all the things I’ve tried, these are the most consistent, hands-on tools currently at my disposal.
One more side note: Please don’t think this is the only way to approach story. I’ll often start with this method and totally wander off track–usually in the middle of writing the book! There are many, many ways to outline a novel. This is just the handiest cheat sheet for me at the moment.
Ready? Here we go.
Um…okay. I have just written and deleted a chunk of info about characterization, and how I always must know what my characters most fear, and what they most need, and what they will do to avoid and obtain those things respectively. There might have been naked Balrog and a mention of Freddy Krueger in stripy pajamas.
But we’re going to skip all that. You know who your main character is, right? And totally know their deepest fear and non-negotiable need. Because no matter what BANG-BOOM things you throw at your characters in the book, you are going to ruthlessly dig into those terrible needs and fears every chance you get. Bring them up and make the characters confront them over and over, right? External BANG-BOOM conflicts are hollow without the ticking, bleeding heart of a character’s needs and fears thumping away between the lines.
I firmly believe characterization and internal struggles are absolutely vital to plotting…but that’s another post.
This post: Plotting.
Not to be boring, but the good ol’ 12-step Hero’s Journey** is a good place to start. Here’s how I think of it: (If this is old hat to you, feel free to skip down to the next bit.)
1. Ordinary world – Here is my main character’s ordinary world
2. Call to adventure – Someone, something isn’t right with our hero’s ordinary world and maybe someone says Hero should do something about it. Or Hero wishes he/she could do something about it.
3. Refusal of call – Naw. Hero has lots of reasons not to deal with this problem. Hero might even list these reasons. Hero has sweet denial skills.
4. Arrival of Mentor – Someone slaps hero up the backside of the head and tells Hero he/she must go on this adventure.
5. Crossing the Threshold into the Extra-Ordinary World – Hero decides to go on the adventure, for reasons. Hero wants to solve the case, save the orphan, cook the meth, vorpal the cube. This often is related to what Hero needs and fears.
6. Tests, Allies, Enemies – This will cover several chapters of the book. Hero will be tested, will meet allies, cross paths with enemies, maybe even be betrayed and fall in love. Hero will win some, lose some, but hero is learning, figuring things out, gaining strength, while getting deeper and deeper into trouble. And all the while the bad thing is looming, plucking at Hero, digging at Hero’s fears and needs. Until Hero MUST do something about that bad thing.
7. Approach – Hero and allies have a plan to handle this bad thing and save the day. Their plan stinks. Sure, some of it worked, but there are consequences that they couldn’t have foreseen. For one thing, that jerk of a villain is still alive.
8. Darkest Moment – Hero has failed. Maybe friends die, or seem to be dead. Maybe the wrong wire was cut. But here it is, the big SUCKS TO BE HERO moment. Is there any way out of this maze? Is it worth it? Will Hero keep fighting?
9. Reward – Of course Hero keeps fighting! Hero gains strength, or is clever, or discovers allies are there to fight with Hero. Hero discovers that Hero can overcome some of that fear and still keep his/her eye on the prize to gain (or keep safe) Hero’s need. Hero even steals the sacred statue, releases the princess from jail, or sends off the coded information.
10. Road Back – Cue the chase scene, the ticking time bomb, the do-or-die moments. The last, miraculous acts of cleverness, twists, turns and final confrontation with that jerk villain. Hero escapes, saves, smuggles, kills, solves. Hero heros all over the darn place.
11. Resurrection – But not all of Hero’s problems are solved. Still, Hero now has the magic item, the knowledge, the captive, the success. Hero has returned these things to their rightful places and has conquered fear and need. Maybe broken, maybe bloody, Hero holds his/her head up high and knows he/she has sacrificed much, but gained even more from the adventure.
12. Return with the Elixir – Hero receives praise, medals, promotion, crowns. Hero kisses the love-interest and hey, maybe gets a day off to hang with friends. Hero has changed from his/her adventure, and perhaps so has Hero’s ordinary world. Maybe these changes are for the better, maybe for the worse.
I sit down with a pencil and legal pad, and number the page 1-12, then jot down ideas for each of these steps in the novel. I never get them fully filled out before I’m stuck for what to do next.
So I go through the 1-12 Hero’s Journey from the villain’s point of view. It is sort of an Anti-Hero’s Journey, and I only use 10 steps, but much of it maps the same. In brief:
1. Villain Ordinary World
2. Villain Aware of Meddling Hero
3. Villain Ignores Meddling Hero
4. Villain Has No Choice But to Deal with Hero
5. Sets Sights on Getting Rid of Pesky Hero
6. Throws Minions, Allies, Enemies at Hero
7. Smacks Down Hero = Villain’s Brightest Moment
8. Hero Rises = Villain’s Darkest Moment
9. Villain Pulls Out All Stops To Destroy Hero – Clever Villain is Really Clever
10. Final Confrontation = Villain Loses, or Escapes to Evil Another Day
Villains are great resources for plotting bits, and as long as you know what your Villain most fears and needs (hint, hint) you will know just what that crafty villain is willing to do to stop Hero from getting in the way of Villain’s fears and needs and plans. Then you can plot that evil! Plot it!
*Glances up* You’re still here? Wow. Okay. So to finish it off, there are two more things I do:
1. I jot down my Hero/Villain’s Journey across 20 chapters. Of course, when I’m writing the novel, I’ll probably have more than 20 chapters (sometimes less). But with a limited amount of chapters I can start filling in the plot bits. Nothing fancy. A line or two of what might happen works.
Do I fill in details for every one of the 20 chapters? No. Not always. Mostly, I need some scenes from the beginning (ordinary world/call to adventure), a couple in the middle (allies, enemies, darkest moment) and a few at the end (chase scene or ticking time bomb, return with the elixir.)
By this time, the story is finally taking shape in my mind. I know my Hero, I know my Villain, I know my Important Characters. I know what’s at stake. Now all I need is….
2. The End. Yup. For every novel I’ve written, I’ve always known how it was going to end. In my opinion, it’s hard to write toward something when you have no idea what that “something” is. Even a basic idea: “happily ever after” or “beaten but not down” or “coffee by the grave” gives me something to shoot for. If the ending echoes with the beginning and resonates with Hero’s needs and fears, kudos! That makes for darn good reading.
And then, well, once I know the end….I can begin.
**To read more on the Hero’s Journey: The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell