Ain't No Such Thing As Writer's Block, Part 3: Got Plot?

‘Ain’t No Such Thing as Writer’s Block’ is a series of blog posts following the complete process of writing my fourth novel, a Young Adult science-fiction story called ‘Alpha’. You can find the previous post on ideas here. Today’s post covers how I turn the initial idea into the first cut at a complete plot.

I’ve spoken before on my blog (in this post) about what I consider to be the single most important piece of writing advice and, to save you reading over that old post, it’s this:

'Having a plan doesn't block creativity, it gives it a framework in which to thrive.'

Many writers set out to write a novel without a plan content in the knowledge that their characters will mystically lead the way, and while there may be some people out there who can accomplish this, Stephen King springs to mind as he discusses this in his excellent book On Writing – although it’s important to recognise that someone like Stephen King has merely internalised the planning process after so much practise, the guy’s written like twelve libraries full of novels - for the vast majority of us though following our nose is not an effective way of moving forward from our initial idea. We just don’t have a good enough sense of smell yet.

I like to plan. I probably plan my novels in more detail than a lot of writers - I actually use two methods to plan out a book, effectively planning the novel twice, I’ll discuss that later – but I’m a firm believer that good novels with a tight, gripping plot and meaningful subplots are purposely planned and constructed. It’s much easier to get the plot (mostly) right prior to beginning the first draft than it is to try and beat plot into a plot-less jumble. An important point to understand is that having a plot mapped out before you begin to write your first draft does not constrict you, it gives you a structure within which to flex your creativity. When you already understand the way the plot will unfold that gives you the freedom to focus on the small details that bring each scene to life.

Having a plan laid out before you begin writing also allows you to discover any major plot holes and gives you a chance to fix them early and save yourself some major headaches when it comes to the process of rewriting.

The idea of having a plan ties directly into the name of this series of posts, ‘Ain’t No Such Thing as Writer’s Block.’ It’s my belief that writer’s block occurs as a result of a writer having to think out too many details at once. When you need to try and think through the plot of the entire novel while simultaneously making the necessary choices about the finer details of each scene and remembering every detail of the complex interplay of relationships it’s no wonder you get jammed. A plan allows you to know what you’ll be writing about next, and you can grind your way forward, sometimes you know the scene you’re writing isn’t the best and will need further work during a rewrite but at least you keep moving, you always know what you need to write about next and so you avoid the fate of writer’s block.

So after digesting the reasons why I think having a planned out plot is important the question then becomes how exactly do I go from my initial idea to a plot for a novel? Well, it all begins with the logline I spoke about developing in the last post. Remember this logline is a single paragraph that outlines the core of the story, the characters and the central conflict they will face. The logline I came up with for Alpha was:

Six years after aliens arrive on Earth as refugees from a long distant war, a group of troubled teenagers find themselves at Alpha Academy - a prestigious institute for human youth to learn from the aliens - but they soon discover Earth's visitors may not be as peaceful as they seem and must band together to prevent disaster for both races.

Now, as I mentioned previously when I plan out the plot for my novel I use two approaches, a slowly expanded written plot and a plot grid or spreadsheet. In this post I’ll cover the development of the written plot and we’ll discuss the plot grid in the next post.

The Slowly Expanding Plot, or How the Plot Thickens

I believe the easiest way to move from your initial logline to a full plot is to expand it with ever increasing detail, what I’ll cleverly call thickening the plot.

Step 1 – First take your one paragraph logline and expand the single paragraph to include the key points about:

·      How you will set up the story

·      Major plot points that occur along the way, and

·      The ending.

Basically you’re taking your logline and padding it out into the familiar beginning, middle and end.

The logline you created from your idea doubles as something of a marketing tool, the ten-second pitch, the thing you can tell people when they say, “Oh, so you’re writing a novel, what’s it about?” It gives the essence of the story but doesn’t reveal any major plot surprises. But now in this step you’re taking that logline and expanding it to include the plot points and ending you don’t want anyone to know yet. At this stage you’ve taken your one paragraph logline and expanded it out to maybe five or six paragraphs, each one hitting the main plot points of the story.

(The neat thing about developing your plot this way is, although it will likely change here and there and require a little adjustment, you’re currently writing the synopsis of your book, something that can become next to impossible when you try to condense your 100,000 word novel back the other way.)

Step 2 - Now that you’ve got the main plot points on a page in front of you this is the time when you can start tackling more detail about the world and the characters that inhabit your story. It may seem counter-intuitive to do this after you’ve already developed the key points of your plot but I actually find it more beneficial at this stage as you have a better understanding of the story you are going to tell. That said, although I’m presenting this as a step-by-step process, it’s actually somewhat iterative and you may circle back to change things in early stages as you gain a better understanding of the story you’re creating.

At this stage I will start to scribble down notes about each of the main characters and develop necessary back-story for the world-building that will take place in the novel. For Alpha I wrote a half page back-story for each of the ‘troubled teenagers’ I allude to in my logline. I also filled fifteen to twenty pages with world-building information, most notably I researched and wrote detailed information about the anatomy, psychology, language and communication of the alien race as well as a history of the events leading up to and following the arrival of the aliens on earth, ensuring I understood the technological, political and environmental consequences of the aliens arrival.

All in all this was several weeks work but it was time well spent developing a better understanding of the world, the characters and the increasingly complex relationships between the characters and the subplots that begin to emerge as a result of these relationships.

Step 3 – After the work done developing solid back-story the next step is expanding my one page synopsis of the novel out to a five to ten page plot outline. Once again, the plot thickens.

I start at the beginning of the story and work my way through chronologically, writing brief descriptions of what’s going to happen in each scene now including character names and important world-building information. This outline will probably not include every scene that will be in the final novel, and may include scenes that are ultimately cut, but it includes all the scenes I know of at the moment including all major plot points and starting to incorporate subplots based on my better understanding of character relationships and their relationship with the world around them.

You’ll find the time spent examining the characters in more detail begins to pay off here as you’ll start to have a better idea of their motivations and have them performing actions that fit with their character and intentions. A note about writing these scene descriptions, at this stage I refrain from including any character dialogue. I prefer to save dialogue for the first draft because by then you’ll have a better idea of each characters voice and won’t have fallen in love with any bits of dialogue you may have written in your outline but really just don’t fit with who the character has become.

This can be a challenging stage of planning as here you may find yourself wandering a little as you try and incorporate subplots and keep the ups and downs of the plot exciting. Don’t worry too much yet, just pad out the plot a little more, putting meat on the bones of the skeleton you already have. Dealing with the flow of the plot, keeping subplots moving along and keeping the level of action rising and falling is the reason I use the plot grid method of planning as well...and that's what we'll discuss next time.

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