Writing Bits: Plotting

National Novel Writer’s Month is looming closer and closer.
I was thinking about it the other day, and decided it would be fun to do a
series of writing topics. October is the perfect month for it; hot drinks abound, good pumpkiny sweets are available (great aids to the creative brain cells), and
curling up with a book seems especially appealing with the
colder weather. Not that it ever really gets cold down here. But that’s beside
the point, the point is I am starting a writing topic this month. If you think
of something you would like me to talk about (side notes vs. footnotes, settings,
ending a book, etc.) Facebook me on my author page. But remember, everything I
say is my take on it, and I know other people have completely different methods.
All you fellow authors out there, write your technique up and let us know! I
would love to find out how you go about writing your book, send me a long
comment so I can try your method sometime. Now, for all you fellow novelists
out there, and for those of you who notice the bizarre people staring blankly
at a wall for thirty minutes and wonder what they are doing, here is the first
installment; on Plotting Your Novel.
Have you ever settled in to read a book, loved the opening
line, been drawn into the setting so much you felt like you could see it, and
loved the characters… and halfway through you tossed it away with a sigh
because the book wasn’t going anywhere? I know I have, on several occasions. If
you have everything else right, but you don’t tell a good story, you’ve lost
your audience. The essence of a novel is the story. Tell a good one, and people
will keep reading. Ramble some and you’re fine, so long as you bring the reader
back to the story. But take the reader nowhere, and you find yourself reading
your book alone. Which all goes to say, the plot is important.
My own plotting for my stories has been an evolution through
trial and error. In some of my early tries at writing, I just sort of had a
vague idea and stared writing, hoping the idea would become clearer as I went
along. My books always came out feeling like I had done just that, with
conflicting little statements and diverging themes that never quite gelled by
the end of the story. And then I decided to write a mystery. And for that I
needed a plot. Thus began the first of my steps to where I am now; the
Brainstorming Stage. Instead of pulling up a Word document and starting a
story, I pulled up a Word document and started to furiously type any and all
ideas I had for the story I wanted to write. From that I pulled the ideas that
sounded the best, and typed up the final ideas and thoughts of where this story
needed to go, converting it into a kind of map. It gave me a muddy sense of
direction. But half a map is better than none, and that story turned out better
then my other attempts. And yet a few years later, I came back to it and
realized I was confused by some of
the elements of the plot in that book. Thus I moved on to my next step;
flushing out the ideas into a realized plot and putting the revelations that
needed to fall along the way into their proper places before I even started
writing. It was a better step, and worked much better. Here is my method now.  
The Brainstorming
comes first. It is still the first important step, where all the
ideas that suddenly pop into your mind when you’re driving down an empty
highway, or doing the dishes, or some other mindless chore where your brain runs
off and chases rabbits on the rabbit trails you usually avoid and ends up
thinking of some great revelation to do with a book, get put down in long
rambling sentences with bad punctuation because you are so excited over this
idea of yours, and you know you will forget it if you don’t get it written down
quickly. Here your ideas can ramble and be as muddy as you like. So long as you
understand your sort of shorthanded comments and bad spelling, you are doing
great. Write it all down, and have a wonderful time with letting your mind play
with ridiculous, impossible situations, and character names that will almost
certainly change later.
Polish it. Go
back and reread your brainstorms. Pull out the ideas you love and that make
sense, and clean them up a little. Refine them into a real idea that congeals
into a good plot. If it isn’t a good, original plot that will keep the readers
interested for the whole novel, go back and do some more brainstorming. Once the
general idea is settled, I like to make sure I have the whole thing fully
explained to myself. Generally I do that by writing it out from the bad guy’s
point of view. After all, in most stories it is the hero of the novel that the
reader follows, and he spends the book finding out what the bad guy has been
doing so he can stop it. So when writing a story with a bad guy somewhere in
its pages, I have to know what it is my protagonist is going to have to find
out before they find it. Typing up all that the antagonist has been up too,
from the beginning through all that we have to lead the protagonists to
discover, gives a great clarity to where to take the readers. Enjoy it. Make it
sneaky and dark, or sneaky and silly, depending on your book. If you enjoy it,
the reader is much more likely to enjoy it too. And now we have a good plot!
Pat yourself on the back (proverbially), refresh your cup of tea, and start in
Outline it. Once
I have the plot settled to my liking I put it all down step by step. Start with
“Chapter 1” and explain what you want to happen in that chapter. Leave it bare
bones, or flesh it out impressively, whichever you like best. But tell yourself
everything you need to remember to get into Chapter 1 when you start writing.
And then go on to Chapter 2, and so on all the way till you get to the end of
your plotline. And now, stop and glance over it. You have a good strong plot
all laid out, waiting to be turned into a brilliant story! Go brag about it a
little, or just get another cup of tea, depending on which option makes you happiest.
Getting excited about changing that bare chapter outline into a story yet?
That’s usually when I get hyped about my newest creations-to-be.
This method sounds like it would make writing a book so
lucid and definite, doesn’t it? Maybe even a little boring. If you know exactly
what’s going to happen when and where, why even take the trouble to write the
book? Well, I have at least one answer to that. The reason I have to go to all
this trouble of typing up plots instead of just writing is simple yet surprising; a story tends to take me places I didn’t expect. It sweeps you off
your feet and takes you along as if you were only half telling the story, and
your characters are telling the other half of it to you as you type. There is
always something unexpected that pops up when I’m writing. Usually it is mild
enough, but there have been times where I’ve been halfway through writing a
book and suddenly a great plot revelation jumps out at me from nowhere and
revamps the entire thing. And the characters! A character takes on a life of
its own when they begin to flow from typing fingers into a book. It’s a
beautiful, and slightly unnerving, thing when you start to think about it. You
know what your characters were supposed to be, or at least the ideas you had of
who they should be when you started writing; but then when you’re all done with
the book and read how they react in situations, you realize there is a lot you
had never planned, and this character is someone you never really envisioned.

C.S. Lewis once used the anomaly of these living characters
as an illustration of how freewill and God’s sovereignty exist in the same
world. God is the story teller, the plotter, He knows exactly what is going to happen
and has created all these characters that interact with one another. But
somehow, someway, the characters still take on a life of their own. They create
their own characters to a large degree, even though the author is still in
charge. It is very strange, and very hard to explain. If you want to know how
it works, I suggest you start plotting and write a novel. Maybe this November. But
my last bit of advice? Let it happen. Let the characters take you places you
didn’t expect, and be excited about new plot revelations, even after all the
work you put into a chapter by chapter outline. If you try to keep them chained
to what you first envisioned, you’re libel to get frustrated and stop enjoying
writing that particular story. And after you’re done, look back at your
brainstorming and who you thought these characters were going to be. Then read
over your book again, and see who they turned out to really be. And then take a
moment to thank God that He holds the ending of our own story in His great