Project 2012: Finding your plot

Jessica asked:

Any tips for plotting a novel you pantsed the first draft of? When I wrote my first draft I didn’t have one and now I’m trying to figure out a plot for my novel because I’m revising it and it’s not working very well.

A good question, and one I’m sure more than one of us has had problems with before.  Sometimes even with an outline you’ll end up with a plot disaster that needs a major rework.

Not to worry.  Revising the plotless story is a simple process.  It’s not a short process, but it is a simple one.

Step One: Character

Who are your characters?  What do they want?  Character goals and motivations are the driving force of plotting.  What kind of goals they have depends on the genre.  Think about it.  There are thousands of Mystery novels out there, all with the same basic premise: somebody dies and the main character needs to find out who kills them.  So why aren’t they all the same?  Because it’s the character who is doing the investigating that makes each plot unique.

So when you approach plot, it’s a good idea to start from character.  Make sure you have a clear idea of the main characters and what drives them through the story.  Why are they involved?  Why is it their story?  What is it about this character that you want to show to the reader?  What drives them to be who they are and do what they do?

Spend some time on your main characters and be sure that they are real people with goals and motivations, and not just ciphers carrying the Big Idea around.

Now write down what each main character wants in one sentence.  Jane wants…  John wants… If you can’t put your character’s goal in one sentence, consider revising the goal.  For example, I want a million dollars.  Who I am will determine how I go about achieving that goal – do I rob a bank, do I head for Las Vegas, do I sell drugs or do I set up my own business and work tirelessly to achieve my goals?  Character and goal are important and interlinked.  Spend time with them both.

Step Two: Conflict

Plot, at its most basic level, is about conflict.  Man vs. man, woman vs. nature etc.  This is a very simplified view, of course.  What makes the plot live is not man vs. man but John McClane vs. Hans Gruber.  It’s about two opposing forces going head to head.  And that’s the key to a plot.  Evil king invades the land is not a plot.  That’s a setting.  Whiny farmboy must save his sister is a plot.   And to turn character into plot, you add conflict.

Conflict in fiction (and in life) comes in three types.

  1. Personal conflict
  2. Environmental conflict
  3. Inner conflict

Personal conflict

Personal conflict is one character against another.  It’s goal against goal.  It is driven by your character’s motivations and needs.  It results from conscious actions from the protagonist and antagonist.  One character performs an action that affects another character in a negative way, and bang!  Conflict.

Environmental conflict

This is the conflict that comes about from the setting of the story.  Evil king invading is environmental conflict.  So is misogynist society, racism (Huckleberry Finn) dystopia (A Handmaiden’s Tale, The Road), frozen moon, desert society (Dune).  Any part of the setting, whether physical or cultural, that affects the actions and freedoms of your characters is a conflict that forms part of the plot.  Don’t neglect it.  It can turn a bad situation into a disaster.  And disasters make great fiction.

Inner conflict

Inner conflict is the character fighting (or not) against themselves.  It’s the naturally shy character trying to survive high-school (The Perks of Being a Wallflower).  It’s the son going to law school to please his parents when all he wants to do is act (Dead Poet’s Society). It’s the sorcerer shunning society out of fear of his own power (The Name of the Wind).  While it doesn’t often drive the plot, it is a powerful source of conflict for any character who is out of his comfort zone.  Don’t neglect it.  Make sure you throw things at your character that are going to mess with the very essence of who they are.

Now you should have your characters and goals and the setting.  Look at your characters’ goals and ask yourself, what is standing in their way?  What’s stopping them from getting what they want?  What force is opposing your main character?  (A note: if your antagonist is a group, e.g. an evil cult, it’s a good idea to have a single character do most of the opposing.  This puts a “face” on your antagonist, rather than have them exist as some sort of evil hive-mind.  Unless they really ARE an evil hive-mind.  Hmm.)

Now extend each character’s sentences from step one.  Jane wants to be a doctor but girls can’t go to school in Pakistan.  John wants to survive but the zombies have found a way through the fence.  And yes, survival is a perfectly legitimate goal. (For more on this, check out Maslow’s Pyramid and writing.  There are plenty of resources – here’s one to get you started.)

Once you have this sentence, you have your plot.  Really, it’s that simple.

These first two steps are very important.  You cannot move on to the next steps until you really have a grip on this.  So take your time.  Read.  Think.  Create.  Don’t rush.

And if you’re lucky, all this will already be in your first draft.  You will have already done a lot of the exploring of character and setting as you write.  If you’re lucky, all you will need to do is find it and do some tweaking.

If you’re unlucky, like me, you’ll need to throw the whole thing away and start again.  No, stop crying.  Really.  This can only make your story stronger.  Have a tissue.  Better?  Let’s move on then.

Step Three: Cards

Now we get down to the physical.  There’s less creativity and more order here, but don’t neglect it.  This helps you to pinpoint the weak parts of your story.

First you need to work out what you already have.  Read each scene and figure out its purpose.  What happens that lines up with your character’s core conflict?

Now reduce each scene to a sentence.

  • Tarzan rescues Jane and takes her to his tree house. 
  • Tarzan demands Jane do the cooking and cleaning.
  •  Jane stalks out and gets a job as a safari guide. 
  • Tarzan is lonely and realises Jane is more important that his misogynist principles. 
  • Tarzan seeks out Jane at the safari park and begs her to return. 
  • Jane and Tarzan hug, and draw up a roster for cooking and cleaning.

If you are having difficulty pinpointing the core concept of the scene, put a big fat question mark next to it.  Because if the conflict isn’t immediately apparent to you, the writer, it’s going to be fog and elevator music to the reader.  Don’t let that happen.

Take your time with this one.  Sometimes you’ll need to spend a couple of days mulling things over.  Often you’ll get ideas on how to strengthen the core conflicts.  Jot these down, they’ll be very useful later.  At the end, you should have a stack of cards (physical or electronic) that break your novel down into a neat package.

Note that you don’t have to use cards.  You can use a piece of A4 for each scene.  You can use a notebook, and write each scene on it’s own page.  But the value of the cards is that you don’t have to pull your book apart to rearrange scenes, and it really forces you to condense the scene to its essence.

Step Four: Cull

This is the hard part, the part that makes a lot of writers cry.  You have to go through, merciless and dispassionate, and cull any scene that doesn’t add to your plot.  So that wonderful scene where Jane paints a masterpiece and looks out over the jungle, musing on its cruel beauty?  Yeah.  In the bin.

You could have a ceremony where you don black crepe and a veil, print out each discarded scene, cremate them and scatter their ashes on your hopes and dreams.  Or you could just suck it up, professional writer in training that you are, cut them from your narrative and put them in another file.

I don’t suggest you delete them, because you never know when you can steal a little bit from a discarded scene that will fit perfectly in your new improved scenes.  But don’t hold on to them.  They are a dead weight that will hang like a stone around the neck of your story and drown it in mediocre.

A well-written scene is useless if it doesn’t advance the plot. A scene is useless if it has no conflict.  A scene is useless if the situation at the end of the scene is the same as at the beginning.  Read your scenes.  What changes?  Write that down.  If nothing changes, junk it.

Step 5: Construct

Now you have the bare, skeletal bones of a story. The amount of flesh left on those bones will depend on how much your original draft supported your character’s core conflicts.

Now you need to read the story in your head.  What do you need to add to fill in the gaps between the surviving scenes?  What do you need to change in each scene to make it a better fit with your plot?

Figure out what you need to fill in to make it work, and write those scenes from scratch.

With your BLOOOOOD.

There you have it; a five-step method to find your plot and turn it into a finished draft.  I hope that helps, Jessica, and good luck with your next draft.

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3 thoughts on “Project 2012: Finding your plot

  1. A perfect blend of concise and detailed, this post is one of the best I’ve seen on constructing a work of fiction – and I’ve seen a lot (and written a few of my own). As short as it is, it can’t legitimately be called a summary because it pretty much says it all.

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