Unlike many NaNoWriMo plot preparation posts, I don’t want to spend a lot of time discussing the merits of “planning” versus “pantsing.” While I do think it is important to know yourself as a writer and on which end of the spectrum you fall, there have already been so many great posts on this, I know my blog is not the place for you to figure it out. You must do that for yourself by writing. Instead, much like my NaNoWriMo prep post about motivation, I want to give you all a brief insight into my strategy and offer some questions for you to consider for your own planning.
I recently attended a Scrivener webinar with Sean Platt and Johnny B. Truant, in which they discuss how they use Scrivener to plot their novels. Essentially, Sean and Johnny map their plots by “beats” — big moments that need to happen within the story. By only marking big moments, Sean and Johnny are able to focus on where their stories need to go while still allowing themselves the freedom to improvise and change the beats as necessary.
In fact, during the webinar, the example beats grew less and less detailed as the story progressed, with the first beats consisting of several paragraphs and the last beats being only a few words or a single phrase in length. Sean and Johnny allow for this decline in detail, because they know that the story will grow organically and probably end up quite different than they originally planned.
Before attending this webinar, I didn’t have terminology for how I plot my novels. Well, now I can tell you that I also plot by beats; however, not in the exact same way as Sean and Johnny. As I said before, I usually arrive at a theme or message I would like to impart to my reader first and then the story follows. When the story does come to me, I tend to think of the ending first.
Once I have my ending, I ask myself two questions: If a book I’m reading ended this way, would I be satisfied? and What action will it take to make this ending satisfying?
Normally, these questions lead me to a logical and engaging beginning, and the middle remains a bit fuzzy. Within the middle, I generally have four or five big beats that need to happen, but I don’t have a perfect plan for getting from A to B to C etc. In other words, I know I’m driving from Kansas to Oregon, I just don’t know if I’ll be driving through the Rocky Mountains, stopping at the Grand Canyon, or taking the long route along the Pacific Ocean.
While an open middle leaves me a lot of room to play, it also leaves me a lot of room to write myself into a corner. Of course, that’s where motivation and inspiration have to come in to keep me going. Hopefully, I don’t get stuck this November, and hopefully, you won’t have the same issues, either.
However, in attempts to be prepared, I’ve come up with a list of points I need to plot and questions I need to answer (preferably before November 1st, but definitely during my drafting). If you’re filling a bit lost in the NaNoWriMo whirlwind, take a look and see if any of this can be useful for you, too!
Step One: Introduce the World & Main Characters
First things first, you have to spend time orienting your readers in your world and introducing them to your characters. If your readers feel lost and overwhelmed in your world, they will be too distracted to pay attention to your story. Likewise, your readers need to get to know your characters so they will be invested in their stories and have empathy for them. If you don’t take enough time to do this, your readers probably won’t make it through the first quarter of your novel.
Ask Yourself: How can these goals be accomplished together? How can I do this in an interesting way?
The last thing you want is for your readers to feel like they’re getting a walking tour of your world or like they’ve been set up on a blind date. The introduction to the world and characters should happen organically and leave your readers feeling comfortable and invested in the story.
English majors and other students of the craft will know this as the narrative hook. Essentially, throw your reader into the action and get the main plot rolling.
Ask Yourself: Does this first step create multiple timelines that will lead to my conclusion?
Your narrative hook should be a logical first step in your main plot. However, I am a firm believer that it should also create several paths that lead to your novel’s conclusion. In other words, it should be the fork in the road, where you have the creative power to choose from different paths. This will help keep you from writing yourself into a corner, as you can decide where your novel should go and jump between your potential timelines if necessary.
Step Three to ???: Hit Your Middle Beats
I suggest planning out at least three big plot points that need to happen before the end of your novel. This will keep you moving in the right direction and help you avoid writer’s block.
Ask Yourself: Does each scene move the plot along?
Most likely, every scene in your novel will not contain a huge plot beat. However, each scene should move the plot closer to its conclusion. While you’re writing every scene, make sure it has a purpose — Is it teaching the readers about your character? Is it exploring a subplot? Is it leading up to a beat?
I don’t need to tell you this — make sure the end of your novel has the loudest beat, something that finishes your novel off on the strongest possible note.
Ask Yourself: Is this conclusion sensible and satisfying?
When you look back on your novel, does this ending make sense in relation to everything else? Can you logically track how your main characters moved from your first beat to the last? Likewise, is the ending satisfying for your readers and characters? It doesn’t matter if it is happy or sad or bittersweet. Can your readers close the book, knowing what happened to the characters and feeling that the story has truly ended? If there is an intentional cliffhanger, do enough of the subplots get resolved to leave the reader comfortable until the next book?
Some other questions to consider while planning your plot:
Do your subplots enrich or distract from your main plot?
Does the plot make sense according to the reality, culture, and physical layout of my world?
Does the plot make sense with my characters’ personalities? I.e. Would they really take these actions?
How are my characters growing and evolving alongside the plot?
Of course, there are hundreds, possibly millions, of other questions that you can ask yourself while plotting out your novel. However, as long as you know the basic timeline of your plot and ensure that your plot doesn’t conflict with the world and characters you’ve created, you should be able to produce a solid and cohesive story.
How do you plot your novels? What other questions do you ask yourself when mapping your plot? Let me know!