First Steps in Plotting a Novel
My girlfriend says plots are “a dime a dozen,” but I feel different. I am trying to write my story and I am loaded with themes, but no plot, nothing to drive the themes or story. Can you offer any tips or techniques for devising a plot?
In one sense the girlfriend is correct. The writing section of any library houses dozens of books offering ready-made plots.
One plot seems to be enough for many action stories: The hero is attempting to stop an assassination or foil plans to destroy the world. Reversals and disasters occur at predictable intervals before the action-packed climax and spectacular successful outcome.
There’s nothing wrong with stories like that. We all enjoy them, especially as movies, but they’re not especially memorable. If your ambition is to write a novel that will linger in the reader’s mind after the last page, plotting requires a less mechanical approach.
Many writing teachers describe plot as the “skeleton” of the novel, but I don’t think that’s quite the right metaphor.
Picturing plot as skeleton suggests that the other elements of the novel can be hung on it or peeled off. I think that creating the right plot involves combining character and story in such a way that the result is a fused whole. Plot, character, story, theme and setting should bond with one another like the molecules in vulcanized rubber.
What tips or techniques have I to offer? Only what I’m doing myself as I begin my newest fiction project:
1. Read one of the many books about plot, for example 20 Master Plots and how to build them by Ronald B. Tobias.
2. Describe the story you plan to write in one sentence. If you can’t say what your book is about in one sentence, you don’t have a clear enough idea of what you’re trying to do.
3. Decide what the main character wants more than anything else in life. The plot will grow out of this desire.
3. Write a character description of the protagonist that includes appearance, likes, dislikes, fears, childhood trauma, occupation, etc. Plot is behavior. The kind of experiences your character has had in the past will determine how he behaves in the future. What he fears will affect his actions. Plot grows from character.
4. Make a timeline for the events of the novel. This will give your plot anchor points.
5. Make a map that shows where all the action will take place. This will help you gauge distances and figure the length of time necessary to move your characters from one place to another.
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