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Writing a Novel: Plotting It Out

Hey everyone!  This is the next installment that goes with Writing a Novel: Finding Your Topic.  Please click that title in order to find the previous post.

So you've got your topic figured out and you're very passionate about it.  Awesome - you can't wait until you can start writing it!  But before you write it, you have to have guidelines.  Let's call them guard rails.  Plots are basically literary guard rails that keep you from going overboard or swerving off in directions that your work should not take.  This way, we can write books that are to the point and tell a story effectively, instead of going off on other topics.  I even have to have a plot worked out for this post, otherwise I'd start talking about figuring out your plot and end up on a rant about how people shouldn't break into other peoples' houses or something.  Or it could be less obvious: I could revert back to the topic end of things or writing chapters out instead of plot.

How do we figure out where we want to put literary guard rails up?

Firstly, you need to decide what age range you're writing towards.  For example, if you were writing a book about someone who was abused on a deep or very personal level, you wouldn't want to aim it towards children.  Or if you did want to touch on abuse to teach children that it isn't nice to hit people or anything, you'd set some boundaries for yourself so you didn't go too deep for the age range.  You can get a feel towards what age range you're going to appeal towards by looking at your topic and why you want to write about it.

Once you have your age range figured out, then you can take a look at how you can get from point A to point...Z.  Writing a novel does not typically mean "Okay, so we start out good in point A, but when we get to point B, we saw a squirrel so we had to follow it...and then at point F we tried to get on topic again, but then we ran out of gas for our car and we met this cute person at the gas station, then at point W, we came across someone with a similar problem as what we do, and didn't know how to help because we lost track of our problems...and at point Z everything came together and fell into place".  Writing a novel means that each and every piece of information you place in the chapters means something, contributes something, to the ultimate picture.  We can't get too obsessed over the details and lose track of the ultimate finish -- although details are important as well, just not at this stage.

Therefore, we have to start thinking about our characters: their traits and flaws, what kind of redemption or character arcs you want them to go through in the story...and what shouldn't happen.  You can write a 100% turnaround for your characters, but it's rather unrealistic, so that's why we set up guard rails.  We can go to a certain point, but not too far so as to make it absolutely fake.  This is another reason why our guard rails are important: to keep the story within realistic boundaries, or to keep fantasy stories from getting too realistic.

Once you have an idea of what character arcs you want your characters to have, you'll want to  brainstorm a bunch of ideas: how can I get this character to this point, but that character to the other point, etc..  Simple outings, major events, etc--anything that can lead them to where you want them to go.  Even a simple everyday object that starts an epiphany for them is worthy of writing down!  As you decide how quickly or how slowly you want to take things, your plot may very well just fall into place on its own.  You can even play around with arcs and see how the story functions with certain characters speeding up or slowing down: this is best done when you've got your first draft completed, however.

However, this leads me to another point: again, don't force it.  If your plot seems to work unnaturally or you find that the more you write, the further the characters seem like they just take the plot and do what they want with it...don't be afraid to see what happens.  If you try to force it, the story will seem stiff and less able to be related to.  Again, as J.R.R. Tolkien once said, he oftentimes let the story go in its own direction and was surprised at the routes it took.  If the characters bust out of a guard rail, see what "rules" they broke and, if it's worthy of reconsidering your age range...maybe you could!  This is the only time that breaking such guards: if it would be beneficial to the plot.

It's easy to write out your plot on paper and try your hardest to follow it, but sometimes as you write, you realize that such-and-such should happen then instead of now.  This is pretty typical: it means you're getting a better 'feel' for your characters...how they act, how they would react, etc. and know that your original plot will not work.  This is why you have to, on occasion, rip apart an entire book in order to weave in other parts that will make it better.  If this happens, don't be discouraged: you're making your story better in doing so.  Just keep this in mind!

Alright; so in summary: plots are kind of tricky.  Long story short, you should have a solid idea of what needs to happen, but at the same time, not be so stuck on certain ideas that you are unwilling to sacrifice an idea for the betterment of the plot.  Does anyone else have other ideas for plots? Again, these tips are only my opinion, so if anyone else has ideas, feel free to comment them as well!

The next post will likely be about getting to know your characters and figuring out how many characters you need in a book.  For now -- may the plots be ever in your favor.  I'm out to work on a plot for a new book myself!

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