We’re going to be continuing our discussion about plotting your Novel this week. We’ll be delving into how to develop our plot and how to make it irresistible for readers. As we’ve been discussing, plot is the backbone of a story, and we need to take the time to develop a good one for our characters to wander through.
This week we’re going to look at how to build your plot. I will be going over what an outline should contain. I will also be giving you some links to tools you can use to either generate a plot or to help you craft your outline. However, outlines are not necessary for writing or organizing a good plot. Some writers are adept at writing by the seat of their pants – these people are called pantsers.
Developing Your Plot
As we’ve previously discussed, a plot is a series of events or the action that takes place in a story. If done well, plots are logical, believable, and compelling enough to keep a reader’s interest. But when do you know when you’re ready to start writing your story? Well, the ATM Writing Center suggests that we start off with a two-sentence test.
The test was developed by Jim Butcher (The Dresden Files) and helps you establish the main character, the main character’s goal, and the conflict. As Butcher puts it:
“When something happens, your protagonist pursues a goal. But will he succeed when the antagonist provides opposition?”
This is what we typically see on most jackets for the books we read. It’s, in essence, the synopsis of your book boiled down to these two sentences. For example, Sarah has run away from her abusive father and meets Josh, a rough around the edges farmer. Will Sarah find her forever home or will she be forced back into the arms of her violent father, once he finally catches up with her?
Once you’ve established the basis for your story, you can move towards laying out the groundwork for the rest of your narrative. How do we do that? Well, we have two options: write an outline or pre-write. There are mixed feelings as to the best method to use, and you should do what works for you.
I, personally, use the pre-writing, fly by the seat of your pants approach to writing. I just sit down with an idea or image in my head and let the words flow. I typically have an idea about what I want to happen in my story and when, but nothing is set in stone. I find that outlines have never really seemed to work for me because the structure muffles my character’s voice.
That being said, a lot of other writers swear by using outlines. In fact, most of the articles you see out there on plot development involve creating an outline for your Novel. There are a lot of tips for what should or should not be included in the outline. However, there are a couple things that should absolutely be included in your outline:
- You need to figure out who your protagonist is and flesh them out. Even as a pantser, I always, always flesh out who my main character(s) is/are. This helps you plan out how your character may or may not react in any given setting and why they want to get involved in the story’s conflict. Some good questions to ask your protagonist include what their goals are, how they plan to achieve their goal, and what throws them off balance.
- Figure out who your antagonist is and flesh them out too. If you don’t know who they are and what motivates them, then you’re going to have a hard time writing in their dynamic with the main character.
- What your conflict is. This is what stands in the way of your protagonist and their goal.
- What is the disaster? This is what gets your character into the story. It outlines what challenges the character will face in pursuit of their goal.
Once you have answered these questions, we turn them into “the premise” or that two-sentence test that I spoke of above. It’s basically the mission statement for your Novel. These answers form the basis of what happens in your story.
According to K. M. Weiland, she then writes down any of the scenes or ideas that she has in regards to that particular plot. Once you’re done writing your thoughts down, she recommends that you find any points that don’t make sense, connect, or raises questions and highlight them. She then advises you to go through each highlighted suggestion and write down any associated ideas with that scene to explore your story more fully.
If you decide to skip the step that Weiland has proposed, then you should move on to interviewing your characters to get as much information out of them as you can. One suggestion that I came across for this is to fill out a biography form to gather some necessary information about your character. You should also be looking into establishing the setting for your story – the places that critical events will take place. Make sure it means something to the overall plot, not just because you like or know the area.
Once these necessary pieces have been established, you should compile them into a formal outline document. It can look something like this:
Your outline doesn’t have to follow what’s done above. It can be mapped out in a variety of ways. Your imagination is the limit on this one. For example, the few times that I have created outlines for my stories, I put them on a whiteboard and wrote down the beats I wanted to hit in the order I wanted to hit them.
All that’s left for you to do is to put that outline into action and begin writing. I did want to point out that things can change when you’re writing your story, making it necessary to update your outline as you continue to write. That way, it keeps you on track and makes sure that you don’t write in a couple of holes in your narrative – more on that next week.
This next section is going to be useful for those of you who just don’t know where to start. You may have your characters and setting figured out but don’t know how to wrap it all together, which is where plot generators may come in handy. Most of these generators will ask you to input a variety of criteria to spit out a summary of what your story is going to be about based on your answers.
While these may be good for generating ideas for what your plot could be about, I wouldn’t rely solely on them for your story inspiration. Most of them will produce content that’s very similar to the content that someone else is inputting, which won’t help you stand out when trying to get published.
For those of you who would like to try out a generator to get your ideas flowing, I did go out and look for a couple that may fit the bill. Here are my recommendations:
- Reedsy. For this free generator, you just need to choose the genre you want to write for, and it’ll come up with the two main characters and the plot. They even suggest a plot twist and have additional notes to help make the story more interesting. The big drawback for me: you can’t control what type of characters come up, and the site really seems to like princesses.
- Plot-Generator.org. This free site is a little lacking in the visual appeal but does its job well enough. You pick your category and fill out either an extensive questionnaire or a short one, and the website will develop a plot summary for you to build your plot off of. I found that a lot of the plots generated here were pretty simplistic and generic.
- Writer’s Den. Another free site that has a button you press for story ideas. A lot of the ideas don’t make sense, and the site warns users that this is just a tool for generating ideas – not to give you a full-blown story.
- RanGen. This free generator is currently under development but offers users three levels of detail to the generated plot. You can choose the genre you want to write it; however, the genre choices are limited to romance, fantasy, and action. This may improve after the anticipated site changes are complete.
- Writing Exercises. Yet another free generator that offers ideas. This one is all about clicking buttons for certain aspects of the story. They have the protagonist, secondary character, setting, situation, theme, and character action buttons that help generate ideas.
Plot Development Tools
There are also a lot of tools and (free) software out there that can help you develop your plot. You just need a bit of creativity and some time to get everything together. Here are some extra resources or ideas for you when developing your plot:
- Index cards can be a great way to visually set up your major plot points. Check out this article by John August for some helpful hints when using index cards.
- Now Novel has developed a plot outlining dashboard that keeps all of your planning in a convenient spot. With a free account, the dashboard will help you describe your core idea and provide a full profile for one of your characters. To unlock the full features of the dashboard, you have to upgrade the account, which costs between $15 per month to $149 per month, depending on the plan.
- The following books are also great resources for plot structure and development:
- Chuck Wendig has an article filled with a bunch of other great ideas on how to structure your outline. He also points out that for us pantsers out there, that we should know how to do an outline as someone will want one from us eventually.
That’s it for me this week!
Until next time!