A few weeks ago, I started a series of articles on how I write my novels. If you missed the first two parts of the series, you can find them here.
Today, I’m going to talk about the third stage of production: plotting. And I’ll add that my primary writing software of choice is Scrivener, but there may be ways to adapt these ideas to other processing programs or organization tools.
Plots in Review
There are two kinds of plots. The most popular type is conflict resolution, but there is also such a thing as a no-conflict plot. A conflict-resolution plot is one in which the characters face a problem they have to solve. This can be a quest to find a stolen or lost item, saving the world from destruction, saving a character from harm, or helping a character overcome his or her own personal challenges. Non-conflict plots are more common in Eastern literature, but Western literature has them, too. The Winnie-the-Pooh Storybook is my favourite example of a well-known, non-conflict book. There is no world to save, no item to find, no threat to overcome, no social issue that needs changing over the course of the story before it ends. The characters just live their lives, playing Pooh Sticks or whatever, and we observe the ups and downs of their existence and experiences. All of my novels so far are conflict-resolution plots, but someday I would like to try my hand at crafting a non-conflict plot. Maybe something similar to the Japanese anime Mushi-shi.
Working with conflict-resolution plots, there are only three kinds of conflict: man against man, man against nature, man against himself. Everything ever written is one or more of those conflicts. There truly is nothing new under the sun, so I don’t worry about trying to create an original plot as much as I worry about whether I can create an original blend of details from the standard literary elements. In other words, it’s the minor, personalized stuff that makes each book unique.
To develop a conflict-resolution plot, there must be at least one conflict for the characters to resolve; but the more conflicts present (the more subplots and obstacles), the more complex the story. Number of conflicts also determines how long the story will be. Short stories are allowed only one conflict because you have to get in and out quickly. Novels generally try to tackle at least one of each type of conflict for one main plot and perhaps two subplots. (For example, Character A doesn’t get along with Character B, but a “natural” catastrophe challenges them to work together to find something that will restore order.) Epic novels layer multiple conflicts like an onion. Peeling back one plot reveals another.
My novels are epic fantasy, so there’s a lot of conflict. I have characters that don’t trust their own allies and multiple antagonists that must be defeated (man vs. man). I have natural disasters, bad luck, consequences of past behavior, and curses (man vs. nature). And I have characters that have issues with their own demons: temperaments, fears, addictions, bad habits, too little or too much confidence (man vs. self). To avoid making these plots too contrived, I keep my plot planning to a minimum. Then when conflict arises during the writing of dialog or something, I let it happen. I let the conflict write itself as much as possible by going with the flow of inspiration, even if I have no idea where an unexpected challenge or twist will lead me. That’s when writing is the most fun and surprising, even for the author. I can always trim it later if it feels like it’s too much.
The only time I shut down inspired conflict is if it’s illogical in terms of serving the rest of the story, or if I’m near the end of the book. I don’t like unresolved, cliff-hanger endings, so I try not to end books that way. I resolve the main plot of each volume. And I inch closer to resolving the overall series arc by hinting at what’s coming in the next volume. The final book in the series should leave no unanswered questions or unresolved conflicts. Books should leave the reader feeling like she’s just eaten a very satisfying meal.
Outlines are the skeletons of plots. Plots are the fleshed-out versions of outlines. They’re often interchangeable concepts because they accomplish the same goal: they are a series of events that take a story from beginning actions to end consequences. The difference is that the outline is for seeing the big picture at a distance, while plots are the nuts and bolts holding the bones together.
By the time I reach this stage of writing, I usually have a skeletal time line of what I generally want from the book, along with several scenes already fleshed out due to detailed notes, spontaneous inspiration, and deconstruction. I say “nuts and bolts” rather than “sinew” because it’s a Frankenstein’s monster. I still have a lot of gaps to flesh out.
From this point on, creating the first draft is like a connect-the-dots puzzle. You remember those from childhood, right? Part of the drawing was shown, like an eye or a bee buzzing around something. But the rest of the drawing was only numbered or lettered dots. It’s up to the child to follow the logical sequence, drawing lines between the dots to finish the picture. This is what plotting will do for your outlines.
Something that can help when plotting, either from leftovers or from scratch are the six basic questions of journalism: what, who, where, when, why, and how. These questions can serve as guidelines as to which plot points are missing. Or, one thing I like to do is simply ask “Why?” And when I can answer my own question, I ask it again. “But why?” It makes me dig deeper for the cause and effect between a character’s background and his current actions, which can help immensely when fleshing out his story, past or present.
Plot points are the “dots” that flow in a logical sequence to produce the final picture. But plot points are also the lines between the dots. They are the transition events as much as they are the events themselves. Too few dots often resulted in blocky pictures, so I sometimes took the liberty of adding more dots to round out the lines more nicely. I also often coloured outside the lines to add my own details to the finished art. This is what fleshing out the plot can do for the flow of the story. If I feel something is missing, or I need to hop from one point to another, there are several ways I can go about creating events and transitions.
1. Time Line — The most glaring gaps will be the most visible on the time lines. If my characters need to travel from the southeast to the northwest over a great distance, how are they going to get there? The only transportation available is horses, but they don’t have any. I can insert an asterisk “bullet” and note that travel scenes should mention how they got horses since they couldn’t pack them in their bags and don’t have the appropriate currency. Or I can insert a scene summary where they attempt to buy the horses. Just a sentence or two will do. Since I don’t use numbers, I can cut and paste my little insert wherever necessary. Now my readers won’t be wondering how they whipped a bunch of horses out of their hats.
If I then realize language differences, as well as currency differences, would be an obstacle to buying horses, I can insert another asterisk between searching for horses and getting to Point B. I can call this one “Horse Heist”. Now I have them starting in the Southeast, but realizing they can’t buy a horse because they don’t have the right money or language skills for the transaction; so they steal them and leave an offering of reasonable value in exchange. I can now logically have them ride to the Northwest. But since they’re unfamiliar with their setting, why not have a little adventure along the way and make the most of being a stranger in a strange land? Aija has been telling her fae companions all about how horrible the Roman legions are, and they’ve been trying to avoid running into any Roman soldiers or allies. What if they run into a deployed regiment along the way and some of the soldiers witness fae magic? I can insert another asterisk note or scene summarizing the idea and rearrange events for a good flow as needed. As long as each insert advances the story in some way, I can keep inserting events and transitions like this to smooth out blocky main ideas until my characters reach their goal, which is arriving safely in the Northwest.
2. Index Cards — Since I don’t divide any scenes into chapters until after the first or second draft of the story is done, I can study the entire arrangement of my index cards to see the overall flow of events. If something seems missing or needs a transition here, I can insert a new scene by inserting a new index card.
For example, I originally planned for my characters to get a horse and ride to the northwest, but then realized someone in their party would probably question why they couldn’t use one of the elf gates to just teleport there, since they know of at least one gate in the region where they’re headed. Rather than having the reader be the one to say, “Why didn’t they just take the gate?” I decided it would be better to openly raise and answer that question among the characters. It needed to be done before they attempted the horse heist. But I had an index card with a scene discussing how the gates work planned for later. I decided it might save word count to combine the new question and the old discussion, and move that card to before the horse theft. Now that scene has a “Why can’t we use it?” and “Because of how it works” dialog inserted into the topics Trizryn needs to explain regarding the gates. Obviously the gates are not an option, so they must try to get the horses.
This is one of the reasons I love Scrivener. At a glance, I can literally move a whole, already-written scene by moving one index card. And I can do this as many times as I want until I have every scene exactly where I want it in the flow of events. Or I can split index cards or merge index cards, if necessary. I don’t worry about transition sentences between scenes at this stage. What’s important is that my scenes flow in a logical order.
3. Binder — Scrivener’s binder is a strip down the left side of the screen that behaves like a notebook binder in how it sections off folders with files, but it lines everything up neatly like an outline. Scrivener has default color coding to get an overview of chapters and scenes just by glancing at the binder. Since I don’t set up chapters while plotting, I’ll come back to this when discussing revisions. But I’m including it here because it’s another way of getting an overview of the flow of your story from start to finish. It condenses the index cards like an outline, and sometimes seeing the story through multiple filters helps double-check the logic of the flow throughout the creation process.
4. Collections — Above the binder, Scrivener gives you an option to create collections: multiple files from different folders that share a main idea. Collections can be saved from searches or manually grouped from index cards. I often use this feature to streamline my subplots and make sure everything is in order for them by themselves.
For example, in book 6 there is a subplot where Reznetha’ir sends Eisiden and Alderan back into Brinnan’s undercity to collect information on the city’s defenses, Erys’s return, and news of whether or not Shei’s parents managed to escape before the dragon siege. Every scene that shows Eisiden and Alderan achieving that objective is dragged into a collection. It begins with Eisiden’s departure from Castle Bloodstone and will end when he and his companions rejoin Rezentha’ir, having succeeded or failed at their missions. In the books, lots of other people are doing lots of other things with their own plots in between the check-ins with Eisiden. But collecting all the scenes from this subplot ONLY into one place allows me to read and write that thread uninterrupted, as if it was its own little story. Because it is. Every subplot should be treated as if it’s its own short story. Every secondary character should be treated like he’s the protagonist of that tale.
In another example, I can do a search for all my previous references in the past four books for “Edenites”. They will automatically be in order of publication, so I can re-read and refresh my memory on what I’ve already said about that topic. Then I can build a new conversation between Aija and Gaellyna about them for the next book and add those scenes to the previous collection.
If you have a lot of complex subplots, organizing them into one solitary, streamlined collection is a good way to block out everything else and focus on resolving them before fitting them into the overall story arc of the book or series.
5. Reconstruction — Finally, since I spoke earlier of what a huge role deconstruction played in the composition of this series, now it’s time to talk about reconstruction. After gutting five books and keeping only what I felt strongly about recycling alongside the new material, eventually I had to be able to pull it all back together. Honestly, it’s a bit like staring at a DIY furniture assembly sheet written in a foreign language. But all of the original manuscript’s leftover scraps should have been organized during the previous pre-writing stages. All that’s left is to acknowledge this will be a messy challenge, take a deep breath, and work on one remnant or concept at a time.
Let me return to the example I mentioned while discussing deconstruction of the scenes with Kethrei and Ellen. As I said before, originally Kethrei was jailed and Ellen was not. She was the one who tried to break him out. Draughbanir’s role in that version of the story was completely different, so he wasn’t involved in their dilemma at all. By the time I finished scrapping what I felt wasn’t worth keeping, all I had left was the general idea of them being held for a witchcraft trial in the 1500’s, where Kethrei would have been regarded as a demon, and Ellen would have been accused of consorting with the Devil. I couldn’t salvage anything else, and what survived was dumped into a mess of chopped up text with gaping holes and side notes on a card labeled, “Kethrei Jailed.” I knew I wanted Trizryn to end up jailed in a similar manner … to be walking in the footsteps of his past life, teetering on that fine line between destiny and free will, but everything else had to be rebuilt from scratch around that.
First, I had to show what happened with Kethrei. I used most of my scrap material for the setting (where) and the escape itself (how) to rebuild the original events with Kethrei and Ellen (who), but I twisted it to jail Ellen for witchcraft first, then added Kethrei’s pact with Draughbanir as a means to help her escape. (Why did they do this?) Next, the question of how to go back in time and see it was solved by having Aija and Trizryn enter a dream walk. The dream walk had to be introduced beforehand, as did the clues leading up to Trizryn’s discovery of his past life, so that this subplot wasn’t being dropped into the book out of the blue. I had to start weaving this thread as early as the first book in the series. Since I spent so much time deconstructing my original scripts, I had the advantage of hindsight, but outlines, time lines, and other pre-writing steps serve the same purpose.
The Dragonling further cements the connection between Kethrei’s past and Trizryn’s present, but it’s the following book in the series, The Teufling, that will challenge it. What I want is to hold up a mirror between Trizryn and Kethrei. But this time, I want Trizryn jailed and Aija on the outside — a return to the original plan for Kethrei and Ellen. See what I did there? I took what was originally one chapter with only two people and divided it into two chapters mirrored against each other between four people.
So for Teufling, first I need a reason to have Trizryn jailed. I inserted an index card called “Trizryn Jailed”. How Kethrei was jailed was never really explained, but when Aija arrived, she witnessed him putting up a fight while being cuffed and taken to the dungeon. So, how about baiting Trizryn into a fight? A public brawl in which he gets carried away and uses magic would be a sure-fire way of throwing his “demonic” butt in jail. And 16th century English people would eyeball anyone associated with him as a witch. (*cough* Aija *cough*) I already had an index card with the notes and scraps leftover from the originally gutted Kethrei and Ellen scene for after Trizryn arrives in jail and Aija tries to visit him. But whether or not he does actually follow in Kethrei’s footsteps by trying to escape and seek revenge against the village will have to be written from scratch, using the revised scene with Kethrei and Ellen from Trizryn’s dreamwalk. Therefore, the scene transitioning him into the jail will also have to be completely new. I inserted an index card before the “Trizryn Jailed” card and called it, “Fight with Ilisram”. Ta-da~! I just created a plot point that will pull two similar events from two different books together as one vastly different reconstruction for contrast and comparison.
Now, that I have my “what”, I need a “why” … an excuse for Trizryn to pick a fight with Ilisram. (Heh. As if he needed any excuses …) I can arrange for Trizryn to catch up to Ilisram in the village. Upon seeing him, Trizryn would immediately launch into “I’ll kill you, you bastard!” mode, especially if Ilisram eggs him on by saying something snarky about K’tía’s murder. But it’s too early to actually resolve Trizryn’s conflict with Ilisram, so the necromancer has to be free to escape this particular encounter, but Trizryn will be cuffed and thrown in jail as Kethrei once was. Aija and the rest of Trizryn’s companions would be left to angst over ways to get him out of prison without risking a repeat of what happened in the past with Kethrei and Ellen. Ja-jaa~! The other half of the reconstructed plot takes form. I can open the “Fight with Ilisram” index card, use asterisks to create a loose time line summarizing these events and add any other ideas as notes about what I want to continue fleshing out the scene. I’m done. If there are any remaining old notes that I won’t be using, I can trash them.
You may have to put on your thinking cap or pull out your idea generator to get the creative juices flowing for fleshing out a reconstruction, but keep asking yourself what, who, how, why, and where this event happens. Keep coming back to “why” and “how” in particular. Eventually you can create enough new dots to connect and smooth out old plot threads for a new story.
When most of the story has taken shape via plotting, it will probably still look like Frankenstein’s monster. It will still be a blend of notes, time lines, scenes, and deconstructed mess. But now it will be a well-organized, smooth-flowing mess! It will be a very ugly, almost-first draft. And the plot of this new book will breathe from one event to the next through a logical sequence of action and consequence, from beginning to end, no matter how sketchy that end may still be.
If my book was a connect-the-dots puzzle, the lines between the dots are now vivid and rounded. If my book was a road map, I would now have my trip planned with all the important pit stops and tourist attractions along the way. It doesn’t mean stuff won’t happen I didn’t plan on. I might get lost at a wrong turn, or maybe I won’t have time to see everything I wanted. But that’s exactly the kind of stuff that pops up writing the scenes, which can make composition an adventure.
So, next comes the fun part: writing the scenes based on everything you’ve drafted, outlined, and plotted so far! Further fleshing out the events with details, dialog, and atmosphere is what will make the story really come alive. We’ll talk about writing the first draft in part four of this series.