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.

Project 2012: Scene selection: what to throw and what to keep

One of the hardest things to learn when you start your revision is that your first draft is not a template.  Anything and everything can be changed, and in some cases must be changed to write the best story you can write.

When you’ve spent months (or years) drafting your work, written a hundred thousand words of prose, the thought of throwing those words away is frightening.  Of course it is.  You may feel, when facing the draft, that if you just tweak something here, alter a few sentences there, that the story will be “good enough”.

That is very rarely, if ever, the case.  There are writers out there who can produce a first draft that is good enough.  But let’s be honest here.  You’re not one of them, and neither am I.  And “good enough” is never going to stand up to “the best it can be.”  Tweaking leads to pasted-on solutions, band-aids of prose which might hold up for a while, but lose their grip and slip away under pressure.  And the pressure in this case is someone else’s eyes on your story.

So what are you afraid of?  Let me throw some fears out there.  You’re afraid that you have wasted your time writing these words.  You’re afraid that what you write the second time will be worse than the first.  You’re afraid that your love for the story will fall apart if you have to write it again. You’re afraid that if you start messing with the plot and characters your story will fall apart like a badly built house.

I say, let it fall.

All of these fears are valid, and also completely groundless.

1. I’ve wasted my time and my words.

Of course not.  Every word you write is part of you searching for the true story, the honesty that makes a story work.  If you didn’t write the wrong words in the first place, how would you know to look for the right ones?  Every word you write is part of learning what works and what doesn’t work.  And if it doesn’t work, you do it again.  But it is never a waste.  Waste is not writing them in the first place.

2. It will be worse the second time.

This one baffles me.  Are you telling me that you only ever had one idea?  That your inspiration has dried up and you are unable to have a creative thought ever again?  If that’s the case, you’ve probably got the wrong hobby.  Rewriting something is an opportunity to bring more creativity to the work.  Think of your first draft like a platform.  You can see a lot more from here, understand a lot more about the story world you are working in.  Now take that knowledge and build an even higher platform.

3. I will lose my love for the story.

I can only say from experience that rewriting stories makes me love them more.  Because I know they are better.  They read better, even to me.  Knocking off the rough edges makes them shiny, dazzling creatures that I want to release into the world for more people to love.  Writing is a labour of love, after all.

4.  My story will fall apart.

As I said before, let it.  Burn it.  From the ashes will rise a new story, bright and strong and bold like the phoenix.  (It’s late.  Deal with my cliches.) Seriously though, finding the holes in your story is not a bad thing.  It’s an opportunity to bring your creativity to work.  How can I fix this?  Once you start thinking about that, all sorts of wonderful ideas will surface that will lead you to, once again, greater insight into the truth of your story.

Face your fears, but don’t let them stop you.  Once you have finished your spreadsheet, or even as your are filling it in, start thinking about which scenes can stay, and which ones can go.  And when I say a scene can stay, I consider that to include revising the scene.

What can go, first pass

On your first read through with fresh eyes, you should be able to immediately identify those scenes that add nothing to the story.  Scenes that describe a character going from A to B.  Scenes full of introspection without change.  Scenes with no conflict (inner or outer).  Scenes where your plot has taken a side-street.

I like to call this first step Literary Liposuction.  You’re going through and removing the obvious flab from the story.

Put each scene through a quick fitness test in your head.  Is the character in conflict with someone or something or themselves?  Has the situation at the end of the scene changed from what it was at the beginning of the scene? Has either the plot or the character arc advanced in some way?

A simple way to do this is to summarise the scene in one sentence.  Bob wants custody of little Timmy but Jane refuses and they must go to court.  Michael needs to get into the building to rescue Anna and has to work out how to get past the guards.  Lucy is trying to reach Planet X but her ship malfunctions.  You get the picture.

If you find yourself writing something like this: “Bob has a conversation with Judy and there’s a lot of information about the boat plus they have drinks on the deck” then there’s a good chance that your scene is completely pointless.  If you can’t quickly identify the conflict and the outcome, then mark it for removal and move on.  Don’t go searching for meaning or you’ll tie yourself in knots.  This is all big picture stuff.  Losing a whole scene won’t matter.

But my WORDS!

Are just words.  There’s nothing you have written that is so blindingly brilliant that you can’t write it again, and better.  And often those little phrases that we fall in love with aren’t nearly as adored by other readers as they are by us.  So don’t get hung up on words and sentences.  Let them go.

What can go, second pass

A scene may pass the conflict test but still not be a good fit for your story.  But you won’t find that out until you start working with your plotline and your character arcs.  So the second cull of scenes usually happens when you are looking at your chapter/scene progression.  Usually something in these scenes will be preserved, whether it’s the main conflict or an event that impacts on your character.  Make a note of what needs to stay in your spreadsheet, but mark the scene for removal.

Now comes the fun part

Yes, there is a fun part to all this.  Because as you are reading through, you will find some truly awesome scenes.  Scenes you never even remember writing.  Scenes that you read with fresh eyes and go “wow”.  Scenes that make you want to punch the air in triumph and shout “I WROTE THIS!”  (Resist the urge.  It’s embarrassing, even at home.)  Finding these scenes really helps when you’ve just dumped 20,000 words from your manuscript.  Mark these scenes with a great big tick.  These scenes will usually be your big set pieces, your key moments of plot or character progression.

They will need revision, there’s no doubt about that.  But at least the bones of the scene are strong enough to hold up the story.  These scenes are the skeleton you will use to write the next draft. Copy all of these scenes into a new document and hit save.


You’ve just started Draft Two.  Level up, go get some more coffee and get ready for the next stage.