Plotting Your Story in Two Steps
Tomorrow is November 1, the start of 2019’s National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). I love NaNoWriMo, though not for the same reasons as many. Unlike most writers who participate yearly to write fifty thousand words in thirty days, I have only ever chosen to do that once. As the year draws to a close, however, I always love to participate in some small way to relearn discipline in my writing. Inspiration is important, and for most of the year, I allow my muse to drive me in when I write, how often I write, and what I write. And that isn’t a bad thing.
In November, however, I set a modest goal (usually around 250 to 500 words per day, though I’ve also set time goals before—whatever works best) and I strive to write every day. After a whole month, even with less than a page a day, I usually have a decently sized first draft to show for my efforts and (usually) some inspiration to continue writing.
Are you thinking about participating in NaNo and have a few ideas bouncing around your head, but don’t know if you’ll be ready to start tomorrow? While some writers prep all October, this year I used a process of quick-outlining that allows me the freedom to be flexible. You may have heard the terms plotters and pantsers. Well, I always considered myself more of a plotter, but in recent years I have discovered that I find the most joy in plotting the big points and pantsing the intricate details. I love discovering new ideas, character goals, and aspects of worldbuilding on the fly, so I outline to maximize my joy and minimize the amount of heavy rewriting. So I combined a few techniques to create a two-step plotting method.
With my method, you won’t have a comprehensive, waterproof outline, but you will have a flexible skeleton that you can begin fleshing out with your writing practice during the month of November. A word of disclaimer: some genres may require more research than others, and this method of outlining can be scaled up or down based on the length and complexity of your story. To complete this outline in a few hours or less, choose an idea that is centered on a topic you know well.
In November, I’m starting a new short story based on an idea that I’ve had rattling around in my brain for a while. During this blog post, I’ll plot my story as an example for you. Completing this two-step process took about three hours. Here’s an overview:
Step One: Create Your Concept (MICE Quotient, Main Character, and POV)
Step Two: Plug Your Concept into a Seven-Point Plot
Step One: Create Your Concept
Stories for me usually begin with a single vague idea that contains a setting, a couple characters, and a conflict. These go in an idea notebook (electronic or otherwise), where I list them in bullet-point form to revisit later. These ideas usually contain a what, who, where, and when. I often save the why and how for later development. Here’s a bullet-point idea that I came up with last year:
Ideas can be (and usually are) full of holes and have inadequate details for a full story. To hone your idea into a solid concept, start with this question: what kind of story are you writing? Is it primarily driven by a setting (milieu), an idea, a character, or an event? Depending on your angle, you could write a few different stories with a single idea, or even layer them together for a longer or more complex story using Orson Scott Card’s MICE quotient. My idea contains two main(ish) characters (who), a setting (where), a journey (what), a time period (when), and the potential for internal and external conflict. To help me determine my concept, I rewrote my idea from these four angles.
In plots that focus on the setting, the stories begins and ends when the characters arrive and/or leave a particular place. In this angle, I picked out a few details of the world. I researched the kinds of ships that made transatlantic crossings in the early 1900s. I read articles and studies on the kinds of people who migrated from Europe to America during this time. I drew on some of the knowledge I have from my own family’s immigration in the first decade of the twentieth century. I focused on the external conflict of the setting: the steamship malfunction. At this point, the story could be entirely historical fiction written from third-person omniscient, but I know I want to toss a bit of fantasy in the mix and go deeper, so I moved on to the next angle.
What question drives the plot? This is what you want to ask yourself when rewriting your original bullet-point into an idea story. In an idea story, there is usually an element of mystery or curiosity that drives the reader through, so that is what I focused on here. This angle adds a cause for the ship’s engine malfunction and an element of fantasy and external conflict: a magical creature that only the Sicilian girl can sense. This story is now where I want it to be genre-wise (historical fantasy) but still gives me a few options for the point of view. This story could feasibly be told in first or limited third person from the point of view of the Sicilian girl, an engineer, or even the trapped creature. For the next angle, I chose the Sicilian girl.
A character story centers on the main character’s inner conflict and arc. What are his or her goals? What obstacles are preventing them from reaching that goal? For this angle, I did a little research on Italian-Sicilian race relations and solidified the Sicilian girl as the main character in my rewrite. On top of her strange ability, she now must deal with internal hurdles to accomplish her external goal. I could still easily choose between first and deep-third person for this angle, and at this point, I favor deep-third person as a personal preference.
In event-centered plots, something occurs to upset the world’s normal (or ideal) state. In this case, the ship’s engine malfunctions and effectively sets the vessel adrift in the middle of the Atlantic. When the ship’s engine is fixed, the conflict is resolved. In this final and fourth angle, I combine the internal conflict of the character angle (Italian-Sicilian prejudice) with the external conflict of the milieu and idea angles (the ship’s malfunction).
If I wanted to flesh the concept out even further, I could rewrite these concepts again, adding characters, subplots, and additional conflict, but for a short story, this is more than enough. The next step is blending these angles together into a single solid, detailed concept. This is the nested MICE formula I chose for this story and the order in which each part of my concept should open and close:
There you have it. A concept with enough springboard surface to get you moving. If you’re like me and need a little more detail before you can jump into the writing process, take a look at step two!
Step Two: Plug Your Concept into a Seven-Point Plot
Once you have a concept that defines the who, what, when, where, why, and how, you can take it one step further. If you’re a hardcore pantser, the concept may be all you need. If you’re like me and want a little more detail before you get to the good stuff, try expanding your concept into a seven-point plot.
What is the seven-point plot structure, you ask? Well, there are many opinions, but the one I use in my plotting is from Algis Budrys’ Writing to the Point. Budrys was an American-Lithuanian science fiction author whose seven plot points helped me to boil down the concept of my complex first novel into a snappy single paragraph, so I’ve front-loaded his technique ever since. These seven plot points of a story are: (1) A character (2) in a context (3) with a problem (4), who tries to solve his problem (5) but fails, (6) and then, at the climax of the story, makes a final attempt that either succeeds or fails, after which (7) the result is “validated” or resolved.
So let’s plug my example story into this structure.
Once you’ve finished this two-step plot system, you’re ready to write! I’m constantly refining and tweaking this system with the help of experts and other writers, so I’d love to hear more about yours! Do you consider yourself a plotter or a pantser or something in between? How much of the writing process do you love to plan, and how much do you enjoy discovering along the way?