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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.