Five plotting techniques to help you outline a novel

When we talk about plotting at WHQ what we really mean is “let’s have a cup of tea and a bit of a think about what you’re doing”.

Because here’s the thing: plotting a novel isn’t a one time, write a quick list kind of thing. It’s not a case of planning versus pantsing. It’s not even something that comes with a wizardly How To Guide (apart from this one, ahem).

Plotting is a process, part organic, part synthetic, part actual literal real life magic.

A long, frustrating, agonising process that will start at the beginning and continue all the way through your writing journey, when all of a sudden, much like childbirth, you hold in your arms a manuscript/baby, and it all somehow becomes a glorious, beautiful act of creation surrounded in starry sparkles that you want to do again and again. Although plotting has a much lower rate of episiotomy, and that’s a Very Good Thing.

So no magic bullet, sozzer, but in this ‘ere blog is five basic techniques you can use at any point along your journey to help you figure out where you are, where you’re going, what the next scene might be, and help you gradually mould your plop of an idea into a pile of words, which can then be sculpted lovingly (and sometimes hate-ingly) into a beautiful David-esque piece of art.

1. Have a crisis

And then calm the fuck down.

Really, it’s all going to be fine. For you at least.

Not, however, for Georgina from Chapter 2 who’s going to die when, full of excitement that her terminal cancer has spontaneously gone into remission, runs out of the hospital, trips on a loose pavement slab and falls headfirst into an oncoming, speeding bus. Poor Georgina.

We all know the Three Act Structure, or the Hero’s Journey, or at the very least when the major points in Star Wars happen.

Copy that shit right up. Jot down on a piece of paper the major happenings in pretty much every story and then map them to the major happenings in your story. Make sure you’re writing towards them, not around them.

Quick recap for those not listening at the back. Those major points, roughly speaking, are:

  1. The shit that happens to kick off the trouble.
  2. The bit where your protag desperately tries to ignore the big changes that are happening but ends up stuck with it and can’t turn back.
  3. The bit where the protag goes adventuring
  4. The bit where there’s a total crisis and everything goes to shit.
  5. The bit where everyone gets their act together and John Williams writes the score and the swelling orchestra plays and everyone is on the edge of their seat.
  6. The bit where we win, hurrah!
  7. The bit where we realise something profound and get back to the business of every day life.

2. Clickbait your characters

Georgina had terminal cancer and thought her life was over. Then it went into remission, AND YOU’LL NEVER GUESS WHAT HAPPENED NEXT.

Remember that your story is made up of people doing stuff. That’s all your plot is: people doing some things. If you find your plot gets lost or grinds to a halt, come back to your people and see what they’re up to.

Outline every character’s story in a tweet (old school 140 characters because we’re harsh task masters) and then see where they all intersect. See what the points of conflict are and how each person is impacting each other person’s life. In each tweety-outline you need the following: character, conflict and plot.

Georgina had come to terms with her terminal cancer when it mysteriously disappeared. But would she be ready to live when she had prepared to die?

You’ve always gotta know where your humans are going, otherwise you’re just herding a renegade army of words all over the page. In real life, no one walks around thinking they’re a bit part. Every single one of your characters thinks they’re the main player, and you’ve got to know their story. Don’t slack off. Do the work. Give each person a life and help them live it.

3. What’s the point?

You know that thing where you suddenly realise that you’re writing round and round in circles and worrying so much about how to make a sentence absolutely amazingly beautifully perfect that you have no idea what you’re actually writing about? Yeah, so stop for a second and think about this: what’s the point of the scene? How does it contribute to the larger story? What are your characters doing and how are they different at the end of the scene? How are your characters at odds with each other?

Answer those and you’ll probably find the brakes come off and it all starts to fly. And this doesn’t just work on a scene-by-scene basis. It’s works for the big picture. Look at your scene list, or your outline or your first or fifth draft and ask yourself for every macro and micro part of the story – what’s the point of this? How does it serve the story? What is it trying to achieve?

4. But then, so then

At first, it’s easy to think of a story as a series of “and then” events. This happened and then this happened and then this happened. Except a good story is a series of interlinked events, so really it’s a case of: but then, so then.

A woman is sitting happily in her thimble shop in Somerset when a freak landslide fills Cheddar Gorge, but then Sandra Thimbleshop manages to escape the deluge by tunnelling through the silt with a giant thimble, so then she realises she should help everyone else who’s trapped. But then she sees a picture of a thimble magazine and she misses her old, quiet life, so then she decides she really doesn’t want to help and hides out in the pub. But then her ex boyfriend comes in, injured and in pain and says his little girl is stuck in the rubble. So then she realises she has to pack her best thimbles and go help. Etc and so on.

Locate where you are, are you in a but or so? A but (teehee) is a motivating action, either external or internal, and a so is the reaction to that action. But so but so. When you know where you are in your story, you can nudge your plot along towards its glorious ending.

5. Don’t think about it

Sometimes it’s best to let your subconscious do the work for you while you relax on a recliner by the pool, soaking up the sun and drinking margaritas.

Look at roughly what needs to come next (Georgina’s funeral, attended by the distraught bus driver; Sandra loses her most important thimble), stick it in the back of your head and go do something else for a while. When you sit down again to write you might just find your brain has done all the work for you already. Thanks, Brain!


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