Please welcome Janice Hardy as our guest today. Janice is the award-winning author of The Healing Wars trilogy and the Foundations of Fiction series, including Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft and the upcoming Understanding Show, Don’t Tell (And Really Getting It). Janice is also the founder of the writing site, Fiction University. For more advice and helpful writing tips, visit her at Fiction University, Twitter, and Facebook.
Plotting is one of my favorite aspects of writing, but it can be hard for some writers. I’ve found that plotting a novel you don’t plan to write can help someone learn to plot without the stress of “messing up” their novel.
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A Ten-Step Guide to Plotting a Practice Novel
Plotting is a vital skill for writers, but it’s something that’s difficult to teach. Every novel is different, and every writer has a different process for how they write that novel. It’s hard to learn the necessary skills while working on a novel you care about, since you might not be willing to change an element you love to fit a conceptual plot point.
But you can practice plotting.
Plotting a novel without the pressure of a story you love allows you to get creative, because none of it matters. There are no beloved characters with pages of backstory to consider. There are no worlds to develop before you can start. There’s no fear that the idea has been done or that an agent, editor, or reader won’t like it.
You can plot whatever you want until you get the hang of plotting, and then use those skills to plot the novel you want to write.
Step One: Choose an Idea
Use an idea you have, but doubt you’ll ever write, turn on the TV and pick the first story idea you come across, or choose the premise of a random book in your favorite genre. Since you’re not going to write this novel, it doesn’t matter what the idea is or where it comes from. It just needs to be something you’ll have fun with. Aim for an external problem, such as catching a killer, stopping a deadly virus, or getting two people to go out on a date. External problems give you external goals to plot with.
Once you pick an idea, summarize it in one paragraph or less.
Step Two: Create a Conflict or Problem to Solve
Find the conflict at the heart of this idea. Something or someone is causing trouble and that conflict will cause a change. The change element is important, because by the end of the book, things need to be different from the beginning of it. A killer is free vs. a killer is caught. A world in peril vs. a world saved. A person alone vs. a person in a relationship.
Once you figure out your conflict and what changes, summarize the problem and what has to be done to fix it in one paragraph or less. This conflict is what the plot will be about.
Step Three: Create a Protagonist, Antagonist, and a Few Characters
People drive plot, and what your characters want will determine how the novel unfolds. Who wants to solve the conflict of the story? Who wants the conflict to remain unresolved, or resolve it in a different way? Who are the people supporting the two sides? Who are the people caught in the middle? Create three to seven potential characters. Aim for at least a protagonist, a sidekick and/or love interest, and an antagonist.
After you choose your characters, summarize each person and what they want in one paragraph or less. These wants are where your plot goals will come from.
Step Four: Choose a Setting
A setting with inherent conflicts provides a variety of potential problems to draw from. These conflicts can make the plot tasks harder to accomplish, create surprise problems, or provide the very goals that drive the plot.
Summarize your setting in one paragraph or less, then consider what potential problems might occur in that setting. List or summarize those problems and how they might affect your characters’ goals and the core conflict.
Step Five: Determine How Your Protagonist Gets Into Trouble
Plot comes from a character making choices. In the beginning of a story, a choice is made that puts the protagonist onto the plot path (the inciting event). Think about how your protagonist winds up in the middle of the conflict. Did they choose this path or were they dragged into it?
Summarize your inciting event in one paragraph or less. Think about how these problems will lead to the core conflict in the end.
Step Six: Determine How Your Protagonist Tries to Solve the Core Conflict
Plots typically have between five and nine major elements, and most of those turning points fall in the middle of the book (middles are where the real plot work happens). Think about the turning points as steps on a path–each step leads to the next all the way through the book. It helps to create a surprise or shocking reveal at the midpoint to give yourself an event to plot toward, and a problem to recover from on the way to the ending.
Summarize ways in which your protagonist might try to resolve the core conflict in two paragraphs or less. Aim for the external problem and the choices made to solve those problems.
Step Seven: Determine How Your Protagonist Solves the Core Conflict
The ending is the whole reason the book exists, so think about what has to happen to resolve the problem created by the core conflict. What will the climax be? Somehow, the protagonist will face and defeat the antagonist in this moment and create that change from Step Two.
Summarize your climax in one paragraph or less.
Step Eight: Summarize Your Beginning
After you create the basic turning points of the plot, it’s time to connect the dots. Start at the opening scene and describe what happens, why it happens, and how that situation leads to the next turning point. Your beginning will end with an important choice the protagonist has to make, and that choice will launch the middle. Remember–the protagonist must choose to move forward.
Step Nine: Summarize Your Middle
Once the protagonist chooses to act and has no way to back out, describe how they try and fail to solve the problems caused by that choice. Problems will get harder in the middle, and the stakes will get higher. By the end of the middle, the situation will be at its most dire and your protagonist will be at their lowest point. Again, they’ll be faced with a choice, and what they choose will launch the ending.
Step Ten: Summarize Your Ending
Describe how that choice leads the protagonist to the antagonist and the final “battle” to resolve the core conflict problem. This battle could be anything from an actual battle to a personal struggle–whatever fits your story. And don’t forget that all-important change. Think about how this resolution has changed the characters and the world they live in.
When you’re done, read your synopsis and see how your plot unfolds. Feel free to flesh it out and add subplots or character arcs. If you have a favorite story structure, map out the turning points using that structure and see how well you did with your plotting. If you find weak spots or points you missed, go back and rework those areas. Keep playing until you have a solid plot you’re happy with.
When you’re ready, move on and plot the novel you want to write.
Do you struggle with plotting? What parts are the hardest for you? What comes easily?
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