Do you dream about writing a novel but struggle with plotting the story? Let me put your mind at ease. You are not alone. Many writers start a story, only to put it in a drawer unfinished. And it looks like beginner and advanced authors are equally affected by this. But why is plotting so hard, and what can you do about it?
Many writers struggle with plotting a story because various factors come into play. A plot has to be logical, believable, and relevant to the characters. There also has to be emotional value and tension. A plot cannot have unresolved issues, and it has to lead the story to a resolving ending.
When a plot does not have a clear structure with a beginning, middle, and ending, the writer can drown in a sea of happenings that all take place at once. Most of us lose the overview at that point and whoop… into the drawer the story goes.
Luckily we can fight this urge with a few simple steps. Read on to find out how you can make plotting easier on yourself.
Know your starting point
Some stories start with introducing all the characters, the world, and whatever rules apply to the situation. I tend to shy away from those because it drags and becomes boring rapidly.
When you plot your story, you need to search for the sweet spot to start it. That is often right before or even as the action begins. Think of The Hunger Games, for example, where Katniss wakes up on the morning of the reaping, or Mr. Mercedes, which starts with a bang.
When you start with the action, you immediately show what is at stake. It promises what is yet to come and what problems your characters might run into.
For my story Als het licht verdwijnt, I start with my main character, who wakes up in a coffin. The stakes are immediately presented. He has to get out of there. The promise is that, by the end of the story, the reader will know if he did or did not. But even more importantly, they will find out why he was in there in the first place.
A strong start tells the reader what to expect and will lure them in. Once you know this, you also know what ending to work towards. It is an element that is equally as important.
If you want to know more about how to start and finish your plot, you might also want to read this post:
Know what is at stake
A good start will introduce the reader to the problem at hand. But that does not automatically answer what is at stake. You will find out that those two are separate when you create a solid plot. But you need to know what is at stake before you start writing.
In some cases, the stakes are clear from the get-go. Take my story or The Hunger Games, for example. In other cases, a reader is thrown into action and adventure before the real stakes are shown. That is how a story like Ready Player One can turn a VR game into a political thriller.
A story simply does not stand if there is nothing at stake. Yes, there can be action and emotion. But your plot stands or falls with the risks which are attached to it. It is depressing that a planet loses its last three, but it loses its importance if it does not have any creatures living on it.
You need to know the point of conflict to find out what the stakes are. Think about how and why this needs to be resolved. What are the consequences if that does not happen?
Do not center your story around that single situation, but look at how it affects the different characters and what happens in their lives. Layer your stories to juice it up with the ABC technique. You can read more about that in the following post:
Know your characters’ inner conflicts
When you are aware of the conflict and what is at stake for your characters, it is time to investigate how they respond to that.
We all react differently to the same situation. We have a whole internal world that nobody else knows about. Hell, we even think we want stuff while our subconscious needs something different. We are unreliable narrators of our own stories. The same goes for your characters
What your character thinks and says they want does not always have to be what they need. Take Louis from Pet Sematary, for example. He thinks he wants his son, Cage, to come back to life while, in reality, he needs closure.
You, as their creator, need to be very aware of what their wants and needs are and how the story grows to fulfill them. What will they internally struggle with, and how (if) will they overcome it? What is it that your character needs to learn?
The trick to a well-written character is to provide it with many layers. Just look at the people around you. We are all complex. If you want to know more about how you can make your character shine, you might want to take a look at this post:
Know from which perspective to write
Writing a story is easy. Writing a story that captivates the reader and keeps them on the edge of their seat is an art. One that does not only take skills but also relies on the choices you make.
When you read a story in which you can predict a character’s every move, you will become very bored quickly. The same goes for stories about the protagonist’s inner world, but where nothing tangible happens, or stories with so many different characters that you cannot bond with any of them.
Perspective matters. And it switches depending on what story you write. Just because you are used to writing in the third person omniscient does not mean that it is the best perspective for your next story.
Look at who’s story you are telling when you are working out your plot. Is it one person, or are there several? Picking the right perspective depends on how much you want to show your reader and how intense the events in your story are.
If you hit a wall while writing your plot, or even your story, take time to look at the perspective. Do you need to widen your gaze, or perhaps make it smaller? What would happen if you write in first person instead of third-person limited? Or vice versa.
I know that the thought of rewriting your whole story is daunting. To prevent that from happening, I advise you to think about this while you plot your next novel. If you need a little extra help with it, read my post about the effects of choosing the wrong perspective (and how to pick the right one).
Know that your first draft does not have to be perfect
When you are a plotter by heart, it can be very tempting to work out all the details before you start writing. So you plow away and explore all your options, and before you know it, you have a plot idea that is over fifty pages long. Yikes.
Although this might work for some people, most of us would get lost in all those details. It is a recipe for disaster to be obsessing over the smallest things while you are drafting. It will kill your motivation before you even have a chance to act on it.
When you work out your plot, it is okay to look at important details but do not zoom in too much. Keep it simple, and do not lose the overview. Do not worry about the tiny plot holes or unresolved issues just yet. Just write your first draft.
Your first draft does not have to be perfect. It just has to be written. Work out the kinks in the second and the third rewrite. That is what those are for.
After you polish the story, you can share it with other people and ask for their feedback. If there are still unresolved issues, unclear parts, or plot holes, they will point them out to you. Trust the process. Oh, and the authors who say they only write one draft… are liars. Do not believe a word they say.
If you are looking for more information on processing feedback, I recommend you to read this blog on analyzing it.
Whether you are a pantser or a plotter, you need some direction before you start writing. Although many writers say that they struggle with plotting, it is the basis of our work. And in my opinion one of the most fun parts of it.
When you plot, you get to observe the various choices you have. You can dive into the consequences of them. When you take your time and look at all the aspects of a story separately, you will soon notice that they all fit together like the pieces of a puzzle.
Taking the time to plot your story properly, will help you increase your writing speed, give you more self-assurance, and can be the source of great inspiration. Just take it one step at a time, and you will see it is not as daunting as it seems. As I always say; you got this!