A notebook for fiction writers and aspiring novelists. An editor’s perspective.
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Plotting (Part 2): Plot ahead.
To reit: Can one begin a novel with an incomplete plot in mind? Absolutely. However, the sooner you understand the direction and logical conclusion of your novel (its purpose, its story line, its various, integral nuances) the better your ability to create an intelligent tale with few, if any, wrong turns.
One suggestion, before (or as you begin) a novel: Consider drafting an outline/timeline.
The process of outlining doesn’t work for all writers (it’s often tedious) but if you’re contemplating your first novel, or you’ve encountered a few false starts, if you’ve never been able to write more than a few pages or chapters, an outline/timeline may provide you with the appropriate impetus and excitement to continue. Think of an outline as the basic, skeletal framework of an otherwise unwieldy beast. You’re not really writing, you’re creating a blueprint of sorts. A laundry list of chronological ideas. Because even the mightiest of lions, without a backbone, is pretty much a slug. And nobody wants to write a slug.
An outline need be nothing more than a collection of brief notes you jot as a reminder: What info do I need to impart in this chapter? Who’s included in this segment? What keys fit what locks to forward the overall plot? Lacking an outline, some writers tend to get caught in aggressive wanderlust—on a momentary whim, veering away from an established plot (or idea) into uncharted waters, sooner or later completely unsure of any credible direction.
Some writers, of course, relish this sort of unfettered and unrestricted approach—although I suspect those writers, knowingly or not, have the ability to construct a rough mental map of their whereabouts. For many of us who can’t play chess—or outline novels—in our heads, the fewer false starts and wrong turns, the easier (and far more enjoyable) the eventual process of creative writing.
For instance, an outline can be as descriptive as:
Chapter 17. The Volvo’s radiator shot, Johnny finds himself stranded in a small, nameless town, somewhere in the middle of the Mojave Desert. Across the crumbling two-lane highway, in the diner, a few townspeople (whom he’ll soon meet) regard him suspiciously as he walks toward the dreary looking post-office/sheriff’s office and—as Johnny discovers—a three-room fleabag hotel. Except for the gas-station/diner across the street, and a distant scattering of drab trailer homes, he sees no other structures. Yet inside the $20/night hotel room, Johnny discovers [INSERT PLOT TWIST HERE.] And the discovery boggles him!
So while the chapter itself may eventually fill 20-30 or more pages and contain several conversations and introduce multiple new characters, even additional twists and turns—the gist of choreographing this, or any, chapter is simply to remind you what should or must happen here, at this moment. Perhaps Johnny’s unexpected discovery drives the entire story forward. Or maybe he finds a friend, a useful device—through dialog, for instance—to more deeply delve into Johnny’s motivation for, well… [INSERT MOTIVATION HERE]. Drafting an outline may not immediately supply an author with necessary answers, but it prompts us to think about our plot structure, and all those potential “what if?!” possibilities. It prompts us to ask new questions. An outline should force a writer to create, to improvise, and to improve our original concept. An outline need not contain minutia—only the necessary basics. For some writers, the bare bones of the chapter might be as simple as:
Chapter 17: Johnny gets stuck in Bumfuque. He meets a mysterious stranger. The stranger tells Johnny a secret.
Remember, outlining isn’t a first draft. It’s simply a useful tool.
An admission: Outlining isn’t my favorite part of novel writing, but I typically discover new ideas and characters, and additional, unexpected plot directions and possibilities, waiting to emerge. So it’s become an integral part of my own personal process. I audition each and every new thought. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. But if a notion doesn’t make the cut, I’ve saved myself a lot of time and heartache dumping it quickly, rather than trying to puzzle-piece a square peg into a round hole.
I recently re-discovered an early outline/timeline that I created for my crime novel On The Edge. I’m including a random snippet below, to better illuminate the intent of the outline; that is to function as a convenient shorthand, reminding the writer: where, what, who, when and how. BTW, the text shown in red indicates incomplete thoughts that have temporarily stumped me, and that I’ll tackle (or change, or delete) later. Note that the italicized words are my chapter openings that allow me, with a quick glance, to more easily reacquaint myself with exactly where I am in the novel. (A timeline isn’t necessary, but if you’re working with multiple characters who must converge in a timely fashion, a timeline can be a life saver!)
(Page) 112 • THURS AM
He sat on an aluminum chair in a small room…
Bobby’s questioned by the two cops (Scaggs and Ramona)
who are suspicious of his alibi. Bobby suspects Peter Dumas
to be the killer but the detectives don’t share that assumption.
pg 119 • Backstory
Two weeks before Dumas pointed a gun at Elliot…
Elliot and Peter Dumas talk about the hacked Intek secrets.
Dumas believes the data is highly confidential, perhaps even
military secrets. He tells Elliot to drop the matter. Too dangerous
for them to pursue. Elliot reluctantly agrees—but end the scene
with Elliot grinning mischievously when Dumas’s back is turned.
• THU PM or FRI AM?
Segue back to present. Bobby and Niki scene (who’s POV?)—
but their conversation’s probably about Dumas. Did he or not kill Elliot?
Motives?? (Hide or reveal?)
pg 124 • FRI PM
Niki Song took a ticket stub and pulled her Celica….
Niki meets with agent Mitch Raleigh. She confirms
that her undercover status has not been compromised by the murder.
pg 131 • Backstory
Elliot had died for his sins… (Dumas reflects.) Flashback.
Is he frantic here or self-assured? First glimpse of Dumas’s
sociopathic behavior—or save this trait for later?
pg 135 • FRI PM
Dumas pokes through Elliot’s briefcase, looking for info.
Clues of Elliot’s deceit begin to fall into place.
pg 141 • Backstory
(Put this here? Or move before pg 135?)
In a sane world, Mitchell Raleigh knew an agent…
Mitch Raleigh reflects. Worries that he may be putting Niki
in harm’s way.)
pg 143 • SAT AM
Niki drives to Rancho Madera; meets with Dumas to chat, hoping to discover clues. She worries about Bobby.
pg 150 • SAT PM
She couldn’t stop thinking about Bobby Leland….
Niki searches for Bobby. She finds him and invites him to spend
the night in her guest room. (Not a romantic scene. More like
two friends making amends. Careful. Cautious.)
And so on…
Note that a timeline can be as basic as the outline itself. Many plots don’t need to choreograph a timeline. In my case (above) I have several sets of characters who will converge at a specific moment in the story. Thus, by creating even a vague timeline, I’m assuring myself that everybody’s properly motivated and gets there on time.
So, yeah, thinking ahead helps. Outlining can spark a creative energy that pushes your plot forward, catches wrong turns before they happen, and can even offer new ideas, fresh out of nowhere. So, for most of us, it’s a necessary tool. But, again, s’up to you.
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