By Janice Hardy
You don’t have to know everything about your story before you start plotting.
Since writing is fairly split between character writers and plot writers, you can bet that half the writers you meet have had struggles with plot (the other half with characters, but that’s another post). Even when you enjoy it, and are good at it, plotting has its challenges.
How do you know what your protagonist has to do? What types of problems and conflicts should your protagonist face? How do you fill in the middle so it doesn’t drag?
Figuring out how to get from the inciting incident to the climax is a head-scratcher—even for hardcore plotters like me. But the key to making this easier is structure.
Structure is like the line drawing of your story. It contains all the key turning points and general flow of how the novel will unfold. Once you know the general shape of it, you can color it in any way you want. For genre novels, it’s even easier, because you’ll have expected tropes to further guide you. You won’t have to draw the image from scratch—you only have to color in the lines.
Maybe you know the details early on, maybe you don't, but that’s okay. The goal here is to find that general framework for your plot to get you started.
I’m in final edits right now for a science fiction detective novel I plotted using this concept. Detective novels have a “formula” of expected tropes and a very clear structure of what happens when. But that didn’t mean my plot would be the same as every other detective story. The tropes and structure gave me a framework that helped guide my brainstorming. I made it unique to my story, based on what that story needed.
Readers expect a detective novel to open with either the crime or the PI getting hired. But I didn’t want it to open with the client hiring my PI, because I felt that jumped in too fast. I wanted time to set the scene and ground readers in my science fiction world first. If they didn’t understand the world, they wouldn’t understand the mystery.
So I knew I had to have an opening scene that included the two big tropes of my mixed genres—introduce the PI nature and establish the science fiction world. I didn’t know what that scene would be at first, but it was clear I needed to show my PI at work in that world to accomplish both of those goals. That gave me solid place to start brainstorming.
Using that and the general trope and structure format, I was able to craft a basic outline:
It’s rough, but it’s something I could work with.
A romance novel will have a similar conceptual outline. It begins with the two love interests and their problems. Then the plot moves to the meet-cute, the attraction dance, problems with getting together, getting closer and then being torn apart. It ends with working things out, and then finally getting that happily ever after.
A non-genre novel will be more general, beginning with the protagonist living their life. They then encounter a problem and make a lot of mistakes that create more havoc in their lives as they try to solve it. Eventually, they face a moment when they want to give up, but they struggle to pull themselves together and keep going. Finally, they face the main conflict and resolve the problem.
Let’s look a little closer at my detective outline to see this in action (sorry, no spoilers):
Protagonist’s job and world introduced: I thought about how my PI’s day went and what he routinely did on the job. I knew I didn’t want this opening issue to be a major case that could make readers think this was what the book was about, but I also didn’t want it to be a throwaway scene that didn’t go anywhere. I wanted it to connect to the actual plot crime in some teeny way, so I’d need to drop in clues that later led the PI to the bad guys. Finally, I wanted to show the personal issues my PI was facing to establish his character arc and that plotline.
Many brainstorming sessions later, I had an opening scene with my PI wrapping up a pro-bono case, witnessing something that would later be important but didn’t look important at that time, and experiencing a “medical issue” that related to his personal problem. It ended with a call from his office manager that there was a client waiting to see him, which led to the inciting event and expected detective trope.
Everything I needed to do was there, and it all started with a general concept of what that opening scene needed to do for the story. I targeted the rest of the rough outline the same way.
My PI was hired for an adultery case, which let me know the types of things my PI would have to do to solve it. I knew it ended up with a murder by the end of Act One, and it raised the stakes by connecting to my PI’s past. The murder gave me a whole new set of issues and clues to work with to create new plot goals and scenes for Act Two.
I knew that the investigation would uncover something major about his past at the midpoint, setting up the second half of the plot. The two plotlines (case and personal) would become more intertwined as my PI investigated until he knew how one affected the other and what to do about it to resolve both issues, driving the plot into Act Three and the climax.
Sound super vague? Oh, it is. But it gave me direction so I wasn’t just grasping at random ideas for the plot. I knew conceptually where the plot had to go and brainstormed the specifics that got me there. I created a rough outline for the major turning points of the plot without knowing more than “This is a case of adultery that turns into a murder that leads to the PI’s past.” All I had to do was connect the dots.
Bonus Tip: Trying using this format to describe your idea in one sentence. “This story is [inciting event] that turns into [main story problem] that leads to [climax/character growth/resolution].”
Much of my brainstorming was simply asking, “How would my PI investigate this case?” and “How does this case relate to his past?” The unique science fiction aspects gave me even more to work with.
I didn’t know it all when I started, and that was okay.
If you’re stuck with an idea but no plot, take a step back and look at your novel’s structure and the tropes of the genre (if applicable). Do you have a classic formula, such as romance or mystery? Do expected tropes and issues appear in this type of story? If not, don’t fret—even a traditional story structure can provide those turning points for you to start with.
Think about how your story would generally unfold, and the types of scenes you might like to see happen. This brainstorming is all about the macro and big picture, so don’t worry about the specific details just yet. When the plot starts falling into place, then slip those specifics into the story and build from there.
If you get really stuck, try going right to your ending (even if it’s still vague) and working backward. What has to happen for the ending to turn out that way? What steps get the protagonist there? What happens to get to that point? Keep going backward until you’re at the beginning and have a clearer picture on how this story starts.
Plotting conceptually is a fun and handy way to brainstorm a novel without getting bogged down in the details of the story. It gives you permission to block out the rough lines of the novel until you have a solid framework to color and shade with the specifics of your idea.
Have you ever plotting a novel conceptually? Do you think it might help you the next time you get stuck on a plot?
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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. Sign up for her newsletter and receive 25 ways to Strengthen Your Writing Right Now free.
Top image from peshkov on depositphotos.
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