Unless you're playing with a non-chronological story structure, plot unfolds as time marches on in a novel. It starts when the problem is discovered (more or less), and ends when the problem is resolved. But just because the story is in chronological order, doesn't mean we need to plot it that way.
I'm currently working on the outline for a novel a bit outside my normal genre. It's still science fiction, but it's a detective novel at heart, with all the twist and turns and plot requirements that entails. Information needs to be revealed in the right way, otherwise my plot might feel too rushed or too slow, and some of the logic leaps my detective has might not make sense. This holds true of most stories, regardless of their genres.
Luckily, there are pinch points I know I'm going to have, such as finding the body, uncovering the killer, revealing key secrets and clues. These clear moments are "destination points" for me to plot toward.
Pantsers just write their way there and see what happens, but I'm a plotter, and I need to have a solid outline in place before I begin a novel. When I can't find my way forward, I skip to the end and go backward. Because of those destination points, I know exactly where I need to be.
With a genre as structured as a mystery, this is even easier. For example, I know my detective will discover the killer's identity at a certain point. So I start there--what specifically reveals this? What clue leads him to this discovery? How does he find that clue? What is he doing when he discovers this clue? At each point, I figure out what had to have happened to get him there.
Let's look a little closer.
Say I'm working on a major plot point where a clue is found in an abandoned car. I'll brainstorm how my detective happened across that car. I might ask:
- Was he looking for the car, or something that led to this car?
- Did he expect to find this clue there or was he looking for something else?
- Did someone tell him about the car, or did another lead get him here?
These questions let me backtrack and create scenes that would allow these events and reveals to happen. Let's flesh one of these out:
Was he looking for the car, or something that led to this car?
He was looking for the car. So that leads to my next question...how did he know to look for it? I might ask:
How did he find the car? A witness remembered seeing a dark blue van nearly hit a mailbox on the day of the crime.
What was he looking for when he found this clue? He was trying to determine how the suspects fled the crime scene and decided to go back and re-interview witnesses.
With these answers, I might decide I need a scene where my detective is interviewing the witnesses from the crime. Maybe he missed something or someone might remember something new. Perhaps he has additional clues he can use to jostle their memories. I add the scene, and then work backward again, this time knowing I need a reason for him to return to the witnesses.
Why did he talk to them again? He hit a dead end with his current evidence.
Why did he miss this the first time? One of the witnesses had to leave to go pick up her child from school.
This naturally leads to, "How did he know he missed a witness?" and that will lead to another scene, all the way back to the moment he hit that dead end and had to look for new leads.
Just like you can get stuck while plotting forward, going backward can also leave you stumped and hitting your own dead ends. I do hit moments where I think, "Umm..." and stare at the screen with no idea how to fix it. When this happens, I shift back to the beginning again and see how far I can move forward now with the plot until I reach that moment (or as close to it as I can get). Often, all the work I did on the back end of the story arc is enough to give the beginning the necessary narrative drive and goals to reveal the solution. And when it doesn't, at least I have enough information to let my subconscious mull it over for a while and hopefully figure it out.
This technique is useful for both the broad strokes of plot, such as your major turning points, as well as the minutia of a scene. I like to start with the major plot points and work my way down to the individual scenes, using the larger points as directions on where to send my plot. If I know I need to find a body, I have a much better sense of what my detective needs to do to get to that point in the plot.
If you're not sure what questions to ask, here are some general scene-driving things to consider:
- What does the protagonist want? Why?
- What made her decide to pursue that goal?
- What's the next big plot moment in the story? How does the protagonist get there?
- What problems will the protagonist run into getting to that major moment?
- What doesn't she know about the situation(s) she's facing?
- What secrets are the other characters she's interacting with keeping that might affect her decisions?
- What clues might suggest or hint at those secrets? Do they need to be revealed now?
- What might mislead the protagonist? It is intentional, accidental, or just a mistake on her part?
Move forward and backward as needed, keeping what has to happen in mind. Use your imagination, but keep asking, "How did (or would) my protagonist get here?" in some manner, and you'll find your way from Plot Point A to Plot Point Z.
And for those who'd like a little extra plotting help, today is the last day to receive my free e-book, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure. Don't miss out on this useful novel developing tool.
How do you like to plot your novels? What are your biggest pain points on the road to The End?
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Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy. When she's not writing fiction, she runs the popular writing site Fiction University, and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series.