Once you have decided upon the theme or message of your novel, the next step is to create a roadmap to get you from the first page to the last scene. New authors often have an idea for a beginning and a vague sense of how the book should end, with some notes or thoughts about the scenes they want in the middle. It often comes as a big shock when they suddenly get stuck after realising they didn’t think through a core plot point, or they don’t have enough of a justification for their antagonist’s evil deeds (or indeed, their protagonist’s heroic behaviour). This can lead to writers giving up on a promising project altogether.
Winging It vs the Snowflake Method
You may have heard of the terms ‘planners’ and ‘pantsers’, but rarely does anyone actually tell you how to use either method successfully. In my opinion, those who extol the virtue of ‘flying by the seat of their pants’ (which has a funnier meaning in British English), are usually either new writers enjoying the process of finding their voice or their message, treating fiction as an experimental form in itself, or are highly experienced writers who have learnt their favoured story structure and themes, and have a feel for how to write their chosen form already, won by hard experience.
It’s also worth noting that even the most die-hard pantser often admits to keeping copious notes on various aspects of their story.
Some writers go for the other extreme and plan every tiny detail. They know everything about their story before they even type ‘It was a dark and stormy night…’ One example of this type of planning is called the Snowflake Method, which views the novel from a broad perspective before setting increasingly detailed tasks, like a group of cells gradually developing into a fully formed baby in the womb. Like the gestation of a baby, it takes a long time, and can make writers feel a sense of failure or unease if they can’t complete the snowflake or if they wish to diverge from the plan during the actual writing process. This can stifle creativity and ironically cause writers’ block, even though they understand the story they are ‘meant’ to tell inside out.
Extremes are rarely helpful in life, and writing is no exception. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t use a GPS, as long as it can cope with sudden diversions and lead you smoothly onto an alternative route. Fiction writing is an art after all, not a science. The formula you come up with should address your own strengths and weaknesses and adapt to your needs. Let’s take a look at the Middle Way, which considers the whole point of storytelling in the first place.
The Path of Conflict (A Middle Way)
Ask readers what they look for in a novel and you will hear responses such as:
- Emotional rollercoaster
- A page-turner
- A puzzle to solve
- Strong lead characters
Obviously, readers of certain genres will also be looking for certain tropes and character types. For example, fantasy readers want unique magic systems, romance readers want an exciting push-and-pull between the hero and heroine. But at the moment we’re talking in general terms about what makes a story something worth spending our time on in the first place. And all the elements in the list above contain something in common: conflict.
Ever heard ‘Location, location, location,’ when people talk about real estate? Well, for fiction it's ‘Problems, problems, problems’. Some of these problems get resolved, some don’t, but the central problem posed by your story must be dealt with by the end of the book. Only conflict keeps people reading.
A story about perfect characters who are always super nice and live perfectly happy lives won’t interest anyone, no matter how good your prose or world-building. Now, a story about seemingly perfect people living seemingly perfect lives (think Stepford Wives) has oodles of potential conflict. The reader wants to know what will happen when the masquerade fails to fool anyone and how this downfall will come about.
The Path of Conflict is like standing before an overgrown wood with a sword in one hand and a compass in the other. The compass (the answers to the stages below) will guide you in the right direction if you veer off course as you hack through the wood, but you are free to get to the other side any way you choose.
- The opening question/promise:
The setup and the opening scenes of your story tell the reader what to expect, the genre, and the conflict that will be explored as your tale unfolds. Examples:
- A rookie police officer from an underprivileged background discovers his superior dead his first day on the job. His colleagues immediately suspect his involvement. Reader’s question: Will the rookie police officer discover the real killer before he’s framed for the murder?
- A young, unemployed woman recovering from a broken heart is invited to her cousin’s wedding to a millionaire. In order to avoid humiliation, she determines to launch a successful business and bag a wealthy man of her own with just five weeks until the wedding. Reader’s question: Will she manage to turn her life around in such a short time? Will it make her happy?
You must fulfil the promise made in your first scenes and answer the questions a reader will pose in their mind as you progress through the story. It’s searching for the answers that keep readers turning the pages. Notice that these openings are conflict and character-driven, and aren’t about long, idle conversations or descriptions of scenery.
- Out of the frying pan into the fire
A novel will contain increasing stakes and points of no return that prevent your protagonist from giving up and returning to their previous life. If you think of your story as having three parts – a beginning, middle, and an end – then you need to build your points of no return into each part, increasing the stakes until your story reaches a crescendo. To return to our previous examples:
- The rookie police officer is taken for questioning and it is discovered that he lied about his past when he joined the force (first point of no return). He’s suspended while an investigation begins, and someone from his past shows up claiming he knows why his superior was murdered. The rookie must decide whether to trust him or the police (second point of no return), which sets off a chain of events nobody could predict.
- The heartbroken woman invests her life savings in a business that might turn out to be a scam (first point of no return) in her desperation to make a success. When she approaches the bank for a loan, she takes the number of the sexy manager and that night, after a bottle of wine, she summons the courage to ask him out. They have a great date but she realises that she has yet to accept the loss of her previous lover, and will not be happy until she can finally let him go (second point of no return).
Deciding on your stakes and the type of conflict you will explore forms the backbone of your entire story.
- Ignorance to Enlightenment
Once you have cracked external points of conflict, your next job is to understand the internal conflict within the story. This often takes the form of characters moving from a state of ignorance – about the wider world and their true selves – to knowledge. As they progress through the obstacles placed before them, their viewpoint and beliefs may grow and change. Not only do they learn about the world and other people, they learn about what really matters to them. This emotional journey creates natural tension, highs and lows, and will control how your plot develops. Decide what each of your characters need to experience and learn during the course of your story to achieve their own unique enlightenment.
- The crescendo and the tail off
After planning your step-up and charting your major way-points, both internal and external, you are ready to start building up to a crescendo. The middle of your story should have raised the stakes, and now the pace should be picking up, along with the tension, a natural result of your protagonist’s responses to the core conflict of the story. Problems, both inner and outer, should be bashing your main characters from every side until the last moment where the conflict is resolved, either positively or negatively.
Oh, and the crescendo usually benefits from a surprising but inevitable twist that catches the reader – and protagonist – off guard and yet makes perfect sense. This is where the initial promise made to the reader is fulfilled by the writer. Once the reader is satisfied, you can tie up the loose ends as they gradually come back down to earth.
Your theme, genre, and core plot will decide the roles available for potential characters to audition for. You may already have strong ideas about who will be involved in the story, but now you can decide exactly where to place them within the narrative, their relationships with the protagonist or other important characters, as well as filling in the important backstory to justify why they have taken on those roles.
Once you have your cast, send them to make up and wardrobe so their appearance makes sense for their role, even if you decide to subvert reader expectations in some way. Be open to new characters showing up, or minor characters suddenly stepping into a role you didn’t expect. But actually, now you think about it, it kind of makes sense…
That’s it! You can fill in as much detail as you want – or not. Use this plan as a way to prompt your creativity and get you thinking about your story on a deeper level.
In the third part of this series, I will be discussing some common problems writers encounter when they finally put pen to paper…
Ciao for now,