So writers like me have many different ways of plotting and deciding how to write a story, whether it is the actual writing process, or just trying to come up with an idea. Obviously, my thoughts on this aren’t a definite way to plot or write; they are just what I have found for me personally to work the best, and perhaps a thing or two may help you.
There are many ways to plot, but two main ones. One is what I’ll call Extensive Plotting. Extensive plotting is when you write down EVERYTHING you know about the story idea you have. What you want to happen in Chapter one. Chapter two. Chapter three. So on and so forth. Oftentimes you make sure you have the characters all fleshed out and perfectly ready for the story. Now, this way works for A LOT of people. Many people I know plot extensively, and it really works for them. So if it works for you, keep it up! For me personally, however, I don’t like this way, because I lose the excitement about the story as I plot, whereas if I had started to write even a bit I may not have lost my excitement over it. Also, it makes me feel caged in by the outline I wrote out. I am one of those people who hate wasting energy, so if I plotted out a whole twelve or twenty-one chapter book, then I determine to stick to it, and sometimes I get bored with the idea I had planned. Ultimately, I end up drained and bored with the idea, and hop onto some other idea.
The second main plotting technique people use is to just sit down and write. This works if you just want to write a quick flash fiction or short story, but in my experience, even extensive plotting is better than this if you’re trying to write a novel. If you just sit down and write one day, with no clear idea where you’re going, you may start out good, but most likely down the road you will tire of the idea because you don’t know where you’re going. If you leave it for a few days or weeks, then come back to it, you might not even remember where you were going with it, and may end up putting it in the unfinished story pile, never to be looked at again.
My way of plotting is sort of a mixture between these two techniques, and I will attempt to show you exactly how I plan out a novel, leaving enough room for change but still keeping a firm skeleton to the story.
First off, you have to have an idea. Maybe you wrote a quick flash fiction or you want to write a novel but only have a very sketchy idea. That’s a start. But you will need some sort of plot if you want to make it into something longer like a novel.
Usually, one of the first things I look for is either the genre or setting of the idea. If your idea is about someone who survives a plane crash, then obviously the setting is not medieval Europe. If your idea has spaceships and space stations, then its genre is probably Science Fiction. In one of my ideas, I didn’t know what the genre was, but the characters used swords and bows and arrows, thus it was clear it was in a medieval time period. Obviously then, computers, guns and advanced technology wouldn’t be in it.
Next, I think of the main conflict. If you have a sci-fi idea, for example, maybe the main conflict is a spy has to escape from an enemy planet, or a person imprisoned on a planet has to make it home again.
One thing that can help figure out a main conflict is finding what type of story you’re writing. Type is a bit different from genre in that genre’s usually describe the setting, and in certain genres (as in crime/romance) what the main conflict will be. Types can be used to help decide what conflict you want to choose in other genres, such as Western. A western could be a romance story, but classified as a Western because of the setting. But a western could also be an action packed gunslinger vs outlaw novel as well. If you were to write a western, but didn’t know what type of conflict you wanted, you could use the types.
There are three types I have heard of: Heroic Quest, Man Who Learned Better, and Boy Meets Girl. Boy Meets Girl is pretty self explanatory, the main conflict is the boy wants girl, but probably looses her, but then in the end gets her. Basically a romance story. The Man Who Learned Better is one of my favorites, but the main conflict is usually the main character has a fault, and by the end of the book, learns better, and changes. Think Ebenezer Scrooge from Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol. My short story that is partly posted on here, Never An Absolution is also a Man Who Learned Better story. This type can be used in pretty much any genre. The last type is the Heroic Quest type. It’s when a character goes after something, larger than himself. Think of A New Hope in the Star Wars saga. The main plot was for Luke Skywalker (with tag-alongs Obi Wan Kenobi, Han Solo, Chewie, R2D2 and C3PO) to rescue Princess Leia.
The best stories, in my opinion, have elements of all three of these types, but they can only have one main type; one clear goal. Using the Star Wars saga again as an example, there was elements of Boy Meets Girl (think Han and Leia; Anakin and Padmé), and Heroic Quest (such as Luke rescuing Leia and Obi Wan going to fight General Grievous) but really in my opinion, the main saga altogether was a Man Who Learned Better, in that it’s all about Anakin Skywalker’s fall, and Luke Skywalker showing him where he was wrong, and helping bring him back to the Light Side. Thus the main conflict, if you look at the saga as a whole, was Anakin Skywalker struggling with thinking he could save his wife, and have power to never lose anyone again if he stayed on the Dark Side, and then feeling guilty and thinking it was too late for him to ever return to the Light Side. He had to learn better.
So once you decided on an idea, genre or setting, and type, you can zero in on the main conflict. Say from your vague idea, you’ve chosen your genre to be Sci-Fi, and you decided on the Heroic Quest type. Then you have all sorts of ideas to choose from. You could choose the idea that your character has to save a planet from imminent destruction, or your main character has been taken from his home planet and enslaved, and has to escape so he can get home. Maybe your character has been raised on one planet but realizes he has been kidnapped from a royal family on another planet. Think up ideas, or read writing prompts that could maybe help!
Up to now, all of this “Plotting” can really be done in your head, unless you want to write it down. But now is when you should write some things down.
When I plotted for one of my novels I’m currently working on, it started out as a three paragraph plot. That was it. From beginning to end, I wrote down three paragraphs. I wanted to have at least twenty-one chapters, and I wrote down what I wanted to happen in the whole of the book. My setting was medieval, my type was heroic quest, and my idea was that one country went at war with another, and the main character was to go on a journey from one of the warring countries to a peaceful country to create an alliance with them so they could defeat the other country.
In my experience, I have always had better luck having an idea of how I want my novel to end first. In my novel, I know that my ending is that the war will end. That doesn’t necessarily mean I know exactly how everything is going to play out at the end just yet. But I know at the end the war will end.
Using the example of the sci-fi story above, say we chose the character who has been enslaved has to get home idea. We could write a quick paragraph to tell what we want to happen.
Barrett’s family crash landed on the planet of Baca, and all but he and his little brother die. He and his brother are taken by the aliens (called Bacapen’s) and are separated. Barrett is taken as a slave, and his brother is taken away somewhere Barrett doesn’t know. Barrett uses his position as a slave to feign dumbness so he can find out as much as he can concerning why they kept him and his brother alive seeing as they kill all the other humans, as well as trying to find his brother, create an escape plan, and go back to Earth. Finally he finds out they kept him and his brother alive so they could study them so they can see how humans make advanced technology, and so they can wage war on Earth and win with more advanced technology. Just after, he escapes with his brother via a spaceship and makes it home to Earth where he warns the people and they are able to stop the Bacapen’s in time.
Now say you want to add a small idea that you’ve had or you get an idea later on. All you have to do is scribble it down. Say you decided you wanted one of the aliens to help your main character (Barrett, in this example) escape. So all you have to do is scribble down, “An alien helps Barrett get into the big government building and break his brother out and escape”. And as you get more ideas, write them down underneath there as well.
When I explained when I plotted my novel, I said I only had three paragraphs. Now I have over three pages of ideas, and my number of chapters I wanted has grown from twenty-one to forty-five, at least. Granted, some of the ideas I scribbled down have changed, and some I haven’t used, but that’s what I like about this way of plotting. If you don’t want to use the idea later on, you just have to scratch it out or erase it completely. And it’s not like it took you three whole hours to sit down and plot out extensively what you wanted to happen here and there, or just sat down one day, started writing, and then three days later forget exactly where you were going with your idea.
Obviously, this might not work for everyone, but I hope that at least some of the things in here might be able to help you in your novel writing! God bless!~ C.G