I’ve been blogging about planning stories, from ideas to first draft. At the bottom of this post, there are links to the other topics. (If you’re reading this as I post, some of the links might not be live yet.)
Before I keep going, I want to remind you that this is just the way I write and if you plan books (or don’t) differently, that’s not wrong. There’s no single right way to write a book.
Plot has always been one of the more difficult things for me. There are so many ideas! How does one make them all fit together in a book? Why can’t I just follow my character around and see what happens?
Well, because that’s never worked for me. Heh.
What has worked for me is gathering up all my ideas and writing out a query-style description, figuring out which of my conflicts is the main conflict, and which is secondary. It also makes sure I have clear and strong motivations for my main characters and I know:
a) Who they are and what they want,
b) What is keeping them from achieving their goal,
c) And what’s at stake/what happens if they don’t succeed.
Organizing my thoughts into a couple hundred words isn’t easy, but it definitely shows me the most important things about my story. It lets me make sure my synopsis doesn’t veer off course.
I always make myself write a synopsis. Since I don’t worry about my synopses being good, they’re usually about 3000-4000 words of “hmm, this seems fun/reasonable/completely awful for the character.”
One of the most important things for me to do when writing the synopsis is to make sure I take note of why characters do things. This is where knowing their motivations and goals and traumatic pasts come in handy. Every action the characters take should be to take them closer to their goals — or if they do something that’s counter to their goals, it needs to be an equal or stronger motivation.
For example, maybe they’d do anything for kittens and they have a plan to save all the kittens in the world. And oh no, there’s a kitten tied to the railroad tracks! HOWEVER. Their best friend is also tied to the railroad tracks and they can only save one. That’s a pretty lame example, but you get the idea. They (might) temporarily give up their primary goal in favor of a stronger one.
Also, there’s no point in writing scenes that don’t advance the story somehow, and for me, stories are about characters — what they do and why. So when I add a scene, it can’t be just because it’s cool. It has to be because the character makes it happen.
The next thing I try to remember when plotting is that by the end of every scene, the character’s situation must change somehow, for good or bad. They should be closer or farther from their goal.
And that applies to every character whose actions influence the plot. Protagonist, love interest, secondary characters, antagonist. . . . They all have goals. They need to act as individuals, not as background dancers there to help the main character achieve his/her goals.
If my synopsis ends up looking something like this–
CJ loves kittens. Her life goal is to save all the kittens in the world. When all the kittens in the world vanish, CJ sets out to figure out what happened. She starts with the last place she saw a kitten: the pet store. There, with her spunky friend Myra, CJ discovers that the kittens haven’t vanished; they’re just invisible and meowing (loudly) in their cages.
CJ wants to find the person responsible for this, but she can’t drive herself. (CJ’s car is broken thanks to her cousin — maybe? Maybe she can’t drive. Figure this out.) Myra says she’ll drive. CJ doesn’t want her to go because it’s going to be dangerous (or Myra has a scary dog that eats kittens), but ultimately, CJ gives in because Myra has a car and if she wants to save the kittens, she must accept Myra’s help. Or hotwire another car. (Which she doesn’t know how to do and doesn’t have time to learn. The kittens are in danger!) CJ makes Myra promise to leave her scary kitten-eating dog at home, which Myra resents, but understands and agrees to.
In Myra’s convertible, they head for the place the first invisible-kitten reports came from. Both hate road trips, though. They get carsick and, as a result, bicker the entire time. They both want to help the kittens, so they put up with each other . . . for now.
–I don’t worry about it. It has all the necessary components. It has notes where I know I need to figure things out. (Obviously this synopsis isn’t finished and the story isn’t ready to be written, because I don’t know how it ends. Though I guess at some point kittens will be saved and CJ and Myra will work out their carsickness issues with each other. Possibly after CJ chooses to save Myra from the railroad tracks, rather than a kitten.)
Though I do a lot of revision on the synopsis to make sure I have a story that makes sense, I don’t worry too much if there are thin spots or if there’s a place that could easily be something else. I totally pull out the notecards on Scrivener and figure out what goes in what chapter, but . . . things can still change. (And often do.)