Hi, Lily Stone here, offering you a chance to win a copy of my e-book, Spark of Magic. I'll be selecting a winner from those who stop by today, Monday, November 3, 2008. Check back at 11 pm to see who the lucky person is. Meanwhile, I thought I'd share a few thoughts on plotting a novel. Hope it helps if you're writing one or gives you some insight into the writing process if you're a reader.
I recently returned from a weeklong novel-revising workshop. Spending time with other dedicated writers was energizing, but, even better, we each had our own small cabin in the woods and plenty of time to daydream and write. I found I wrote less in that environment than when I have to squeeze my writing into tiny slots between pressing deadlines. Not sure why that is, but I learned having unlimited time to write my own books isn’t a necessity. Perhaps those of you who are desperately seeking that illusive (and elusive) free time don’t need it either.
One great thing I picked up at the workshop had to do with revising novels (more about that later). To get to the revision process, you must first write the novel. And writing a novel means plotting. Or not.
Years ago when I first began writing novels, I plotted all my stories before I put pen to paper. I used different methods—writing all the main scenes on index cards and laying them out, using the Snowflake Method (http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/art/snowflake.php), following Robert McKee’s instructions in Story to have three acts with escalating tension, and reversing the emotional trajectory between the beginning and end of each chapter as recommended in The Marshall Plan Workbook.
Later I came up with my own method of plotting using multi-colored sticky notes. The three end-of-act climaxes were in pink. Yellow was for all the minor scene end climaxes. Green was for reversals, or “change bombs,” as John Vorhaus, the author of Creativity Rules calls them. Orange was for character growth. I highly recommend all of these techniques, especially for writers who are just starting out or for those who are struggling with plotting. Syd Field's Screenwriting is another gem. So is Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder. A great online resource is http://pbackwriter.blogspot.com/2005/01/ten-things-to-help-with-novel-plotting.html.
Now, however, I use a combination of methods that works better for me. First I begin with a suggestion from Robert Olen Butler’s From Where We Dream. He doesn’t believe you should put pen to paper until you’ve daydreamed the whole story into existence. He suggests taking weeks on this process. I’m sure he’s right, but I’m usually too impatient to get started. My adaptation is to visualize my beginning scene (so I have a starting point) and my ending scene (so I have a goal to head toward), then fly by the seat of my pants, which makes me mainly a pantser. I think, though, all that previous plotting information sank into my brain, so now I plot instinctively.
But a strong plot is not enough, I want my characters (or “people”—because they become so real they live with me off the page) to drive the novel, so while I'm daydreaming I ask myself two questions: What does my heroine want/What's the object of her desire (in addition to the hero, of course)? And what does she fear? Those are the two keys to developing plots. The goal is to keep her from getting what she really wants until the end of the novel and to force her to confront her deepest fear at some point in the book.
Those same questions should be asked about the hero (in a romance) &/or about the antagonist. It's best if the hero's desires are the direct opposite of the heroine's. That makes for constant tension. (It's much better than the artificial tension caused by misunderstandings.) Once all these questions have been thrown into the imagination soup, scenes rise magically to the surface of the cauldron that's brewing and bubbling with ideas.
At that point I write the beginning and the end as well as any other scenes that are vivid. I know many people say you should write straight through, but I can't punish myself that way. I let myself enjoy the process. And for me that means writing out of order. I'm not sure how it happens, but when I'm done, the whole thing works together and seems as if it had been intricately plotted. That's the power of the subconscious.
When I finish the first draft and am ready to revise, I learned a trick at the workshop I mentioned earlier: storyboarding. Take a large sheet of paper and block off squares for each chapter. In each square write the main event of the chapter (you can draw a little picture in the square if you'd like) & the purpose of the chapter. Under it write the dominant emotion. In my books, the chapter usually starts on one emotional note and ends on another, so I have two emotions with a little arrow between. Seeing the big picture reveals chapters where nothing much happens or that don't further the book's purpose. Look closely at the emotional trajectory too. Are there too many similarities (which can make the book feel flat and boring or irritating or exhausting)? Are emotions too high in the beginning, then do they trail off at the end? Are some emotions too great for the chapter event or too strong in the beginning of the story? Emotion should be plotted to build to a climax too.
Writing a book is similar to knitting a multi-colored sweater. All the emotions, plot points, symbols, desires, characterization, dialogue, setting details, etc. bring a different color to the surface. It's a challenge to be sure all the colors are equally distributed into a beautiful, compelling whole. But the end product is worth it. Happy knitting!