The Faber Method, or: Plotting as you go

Okay, there isn’t really a Faber method.  It just makes a nice title.  But I did want to share my technique with you.

I’m one of those hybrid writers; I plot when I need to and pants the rest of the time.  I don’t fill in character sheets or complicated plot outlines before I write, but I do make a lot of notes as I go.  I fill in scene cards in batches, as the scenes occur to me.

Why is my method better than anyone else’s?  Well the short answer is, it’s not.  It’s just another way of doing things.  And if you find filling out endless pages of detailed notes before you write bores you to tears, you might find something here that works for you.

First steps

I come to the story in different ways.  Sometimes it’s a “what if?” idea.  Sometimes I get a scene in my head that is part of a larger story.  And sometimes a person comes to life and starts wandering around and doing things without my volition.

Either way, until the main characters come alive, I don’t write.  But I don’t develop them by using character sheets or any form of questionnaire.  I do a lot of the design and development in my head, and mostly in my subconscious.  I know when I’m ready, because I will start to get snippets of the story.  Interactions, scenes, voices.

Things I need: character

Before I write, I need to know what each main character wants.  I need to know what is getting in their way.  I need to know how they react to stress.

Things I need: plot

Before I write, I need to know what the big external conflict is, and how it relates to each character.

Not much, is it?  No detail, but a lot of broad brush strokes.  A sketch, if you will, of the story to come.

Next steps

By this stage, I’m getting snippets of conversation and little scene vignettes in my head.  Minor characters will appear and start making trouble.  I make copious notes; I jot down character names, brief scene notes, conflict ideas.  It’s all very messy, but it’s how I plot.

Plot diagram for Rebel and Traitor

When I’m ready to write, I’ll make a diagram something like the image to the right.  This is the core of my last novel, Rebel and Traitor.

 

It is a single page of notes that details the location and external pressures (yellow), what each main character and antagonist wants and their emotional arcs (blue, green and red), a list of supporting characters for each main character (the smaller circles) and some arrows to show conflict and the flow-on of events.

This is not a recipe.  You can’t write a book from it, and there is a lot more stuff in my head, or jotted down in my notepad. (A word of advice – keep one notepad separate and dedicated only to the novel.  Otherwise you spend half your writing time searching for your notes.)

This is my reminder card.  When I get lost, or stuck, I look back at this and say “oh yeah!  That’s why MC1 is here.”  And then I can move forward again.

Final steps

There are two more things I need before I can start writing. Firstly, I need to know how it all ends.  I don’t need details, I just need a very basic idea of who wins, who loses and how it relates to the external conflict.

Secondly, I need to know where it all starts.  This is vitally important.  Your beginning must relate not only to your main character(s), but also to your external conflict.

With Rebel and Traitor, I knew that MC1 and MC2 would destroy the extractor and defeat the Antag, and I knew that the mining platform was the key to that defeat.

That didn’t happen.  By the time I got to the end, the climax scene was in a different place, and involved a character who wasn’t even there when I started writing.  But that’s ok.  Your ideas can change as you go, based on what happens in your story.  You just need to shift the goal posts and change your aim.  As long as the core conflicts remain the same, it doesn’t matter how you come to the conclusion.

The starting point for this story was easy.  I needed to find the point where everything changed.  My two characters had been apart for 5 years, so I threw them together and let all the pent up anger and bile do its work. And I took that hate up a notch, by having MC1 capture MC2’s brothers, leaving him without his support network.  And that capture put MC1 at odds with his support network, back home.

I could have let them meet anywhere, but I chose to hold the meeting in an abandoned compound.  Both characters were there to find out why the antagonist’s people had left.  That led directly to my inciting incident, four chapters away.

Writing

This is the secret to writing a novel.  Your character acts, based on external events or his own goals or the actions of other characters.  At the end of each scene, things have changed for the characters and they must react.  Action, reaction, action, reaction, each leading naturally from the previous, all the way to the end of the book.

If you keep your goal in sight the whole way, you won’t get lost.

Other things

I end up with pages of notes as I write.  I’ll jot down scene ideas on cards, and number them as they come up.

I also write mini-synopses of the plot when I’m stuck. A does this, which leads to this and B does this etc.  This synopsis changes as necessary, to keep up with the story.

It doesn’t matter if the story direction changes as you go.  Split scenes, remove scenes, add new ones.  This is where a lot of people get tied up in knots, thinking that if they’ve written it on a notecard, they have to write it in the story.  Like it’s some sort of mandate, some unchanging rule.

Everything can change.  Nothing is set in stone until the book is printed and on a shelf somewhere.  I use my notes as a guide, a light in the dark, not a cage.

Hints

Minor characters need to be more than just puppets that wake up when the MC comes on stage.  They have lives and dreams of their own.  The reader should feel that they have been running around and doing things in the background all this time, not just standing around, waiting for the MC to rock up and ask for help.

If you get to the end of a scene and you are stuck, look back at what has just happened.  If the scene before doesn’t end with a change in the character and his/her circumstances, rethink the scene.  Remember action, reaction.  Everything your character does should have an impact, however small, on the world around him.

Try to avoid throwing random events at your characters to keep the story moving.  Your character should be busy enough sorting out the solution to his current problems without having to worry about random attacks by ninja clowns.  Ninja clowns should only appear if they have a reason to be there, if they are part of the core of the story.

Any questions?

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15 thoughts on “The Faber Method, or: Plotting as you go

  1. Hiya there, I happen to write a lot like you… My name is also Merrilee…
    Good start, right?
    I’m a weird writer because if I plot I get bogged down and I don’t want to write… For me, I love developing characters. I don’t love writing as much as I love that. I love giving them life and a soul. I do like coming up with stories, but honestly, it all starts with that small spark for a character. I don’t know why that’s how my brain works, but it does. :)

  2. It is nice to see someone who writes in a more organic way without all the ‘rules’ around planning. I can see I’m going to have to start doing diagrams though, that looks great. I also find a timeline is a must.

  3. Merrilee, this is such a wonderful description of the writing process! It describes writing as an organic, living being.

    My process is similar to yours in many ways — though my diagrams are a tad different — more sociograms at this point. Another difference (and one that hasn’t always worked so well for me) is not having an end point in mind when I begin writing. I’m working on that for NaNoWriMo.

  4. Wow…. I had to re-read this so that I was sure I didn’t miss anything. I usually just sit down and start writing. However, this occasionally leads to having to scroll back to confirm something which usually leads to me losing my inspiration. Oh, and I have trouble choosing mythological creatures for a story. For the shiny idea I’ve currently got going, there are adlets as the main mythological creatures. Do you have problems with what creatures to put in and what creatures to leave out? And how do you find a writing group?

    Sorry for all the questions. ^^’

  5. Yay! Somebody described the way I write! minus the diagram, but it’s me anyway.

    And somebody called me an outliner. I laughed at them. I HATE outlines.

    I love this method and how you put into words, which I’ve never managed to do quite properly.

  6. Thanks for sharing, you have a great method.
    I’ve changed my approach many times. At this point I need to know my ending and I need to know the backstories (This also tells me the theme). Then I can start writing. The beginning changes until it solidifies where the action really starts. (Sometimes where that is doesn’t become clear for awhile.)
    Then each scene is a matter of achieving change while looking for sources of conflict, especially when it involves the characters’ wants and needs.

  7. What a lovely post! Very interesting to see a process that sometimes to me is still magical written down like that. And your account reminds me quite a bit of my work style, although I usually try to organise my thoughts online, as my scattered me would constantly drop this and that note into places that I later not remember …

    In general, my process is much more conscious now than the first time. So I hope I can spare me some rounds of revision with that. And on random stuff that happens to the protagonist – even if I have to cut it out later, it sometimes helps me to get to know the character better. So instead of a character back story, I just write redundant stuff that then has to go in revision….

    Anyway, enjoyed that post a lot!

  8. This was a very informative and helpful post. It almost swirls me into the creative mode by itself! Ha! I must find my character and get busy! Where are you, protagonist? Come here now and show yourself to me! I’m ready! Thank you for sharing this sequence of your writing process.

  9. Whenever I think of characters — main and minor alike — I think of strangers in Starbucks. I think about how that girl in the corner has lived 23 years of life, with drama and fear and happiness that I have no clue about. Same for the sad man by the window, the annoying salesman who won’t shut up, the employees, and everyone else in the room. They all come with a full life and a past.

    These people may be minor/background characters in my life, but they are at the center of their own lives. In their worlds, THEY are the main characters — not just some random stranger who only has a five minute walk-on role.

    I think of my minor characters in the same way. Their presence in the story, no matter how brief, is the tip of a bigger iceberg. I know where they’ve come from, what they want, how they react to things and why, what they fear, etc. Thinking in this way has been incredibly helpful.

    Great post, Merrilee. :)

  10. Oh, good call with keeping a separate notebook for just the novel! I can’t tell you how many times in the past few months I’ve paged back to see where the hell I wrote that scene summary in my massively disorganized spiral bound notepad. Er…yes.

    I seem to be a hybrid too, so far, but what do I know? I’m still in at the beginning of my first novel. *shrugs*

  11. I kept nodding and agreeing as I read through this — I think I’ve been using the Faber method all along (gasp!).

    For me, the main thing is to know where a story starts, and where it ends. I need to know those two things before I begin writing. And none of these character sheets and such for me — but numerous, numerous notes as I write. I tend to buy a journal per project, and each journal will end up with plot snippets, lines of dialogue I want to use, full blown scenes, diagrams, and the occasional doodling that has nothing to do with anything. :-) But most of it is in my head.

  12. I loved the plot diagram you included. An interesting exercise to lay those elements out in that way. Bob Mayer, I think it is, has this thing about the “original idea” and this would be a great way to capture that.

    regards
    Carissa

  13. Loving the Faber Method. I’m drafting a blog post of my own about preparation. How I prepare to write today is very different to how I used to prepare to write a story. I must give credit to the Creativity Workshop which forced me to connect with my muse and get writing as quickly as possible.

  14. I think you’ve got a great approach to things. My first novel, the one I’m still working on now, was written much like a long version of NanoWrimo that took 6 months, but that’s all I did: Write and I didn’t think of anything, whether things made sense or not, and I didn’t have an outline or a clue and I thought: “wow, I’m doing really well” until I started having problems during my edits and realised I had plot holes, lost characters and a bunch of other messes. I took time out to do an outline and work on what my query letter would say and read McKee’s “Story” and suddenly I had a HUGE Homer Simpson “D’OH!” moment when I realised I’d lost the main goal of my novel along the way and left it out somehow. Anyway, now, I plan to work in a very similar way to yours so I never lose that goal. Thank you for talking about your plotting technique, it makes perfect sense to me.

  15. This Faber Method is pretty interesting! I start my plotting the traditional way, with short descriptions of each character. Not so much a character sheet, but it ensures MC1’s eyes stays blue through the whole book. Then I write a ‘mini-novel’: a few sentences detailing what happens in each chapter. First, the main story goes down. Then I add sub-plots and rearrange the chapters. I research along the way, and have a scrapbook to scribble down research notes or stick in print-outs.

    It usually ends up as a 3,000+ word chapter-by-chapter summary. With it, I can then start writing, and although it may veer from my stated path, it never veers too much, and with my mini-novel I find I don’t get stuck for hours thinking “What happens next? How does it connect?” as it has already been done in the planning stages.

    Then again, I’m still a learning writer, so if I come across any new plotting techniques, might just adapt it to suit me!

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