In ‘Plotting or pantsing’, I discussed why I think plotting – at least at a basic level – can be helpful to writers, whether they be plotters or pantsers. But what exactly is plot? And how does one go about plotting a novel?
Firstly, it’s important to realise that the plot and structure of a novel are two different things, which many new writers mistakenly think of as one. John Truby, author of The Anatomy of Story, describes plot as:
‘…the under-the-surface weaving of various lines of action or sets of events that the story builds steadily from the beginning through the middle to the end … It is a combination of what happens and how those events are revealed to the audience.’
At a very basic level, plot is what happens – the main events of your story and how they relate to each other – whereas structure is how the different parts of your novel are arranged – eg: how the chapters and scenes are broken up, what the conflict is, what the climax is and so on. Some novels are structured in a linear, chronological order, some are not, having chapters moving back and forth through time.
You will probably have read articles saying there are seven or ten or twenty or whatever number of plot types. I even came across a book titled Plotto, written by a William Wallace Cook in 1928, that suggests there are 1,462 plot types! So should you worry about what type of plot you’ll be writing? At this stage, I’d say no – the type of plot you’ll be writing will develop organically as you plot your story.
If you’ve researched plotting, you will also have come across some or all of these plot structures: the three or five act structure, the hero’s journey, the episodic plot, the parallel plot, and the flashback plot. And while I can see how such structures can be useful, I think there is the danger that trying to fit one’s story into such structures from the beginning can make your story formulaic [which is perhaps why pantser shy away from plotting?]. And what if the story you want to tell doesn’t fall into these formulae? Just as I suggested you ignore the various types of plot at this stage, I now also suggest you ignore the various structures, because I believe this will also become obvious as you plot. So how do you plot, if ignoring types and structures?
I prefer starting with a mind map. Mind mapping is a highly effective and creative way of generating ideas. It’s a visual representation of all your ideas for this story and how they relate to each other, and you can use it for multiple characters as well as for plots and sub-plots. You can use pen and paper, or download a mind mapping program such as Scapple [which is the one I use]. I strongly recommend using such a program, as pen and paper can become rather messy, as seen in this example, being part of Norman Mailer’s mind map for his novel Harlot’s Ghost.
It is important, when mind mapping, to not censure yourself – write down all your ideas as they occur, even if you think them silly, even if you’re sure you’ll never end up using them. The idea here is to free your creativity, not to judge the value of any one idea.
Here’s how: Get a sheet of paper and a pen, or download a mind mapping program, and in the centre of the page write down your germ of an idea, whether it be a character, a ‘What if?’ or whatever. Around that, write any other idea that comes to you. Include everything that comes to mind – major events, subplots you’ve considered, characters you’ve thought of, and so on. With each idea, ask yourself Who? Why? Where? What? How? When? You’ll probably get a number of possible ideas for each, or some, of these questions; write those ideas down too. Remember, no idea is worthless at this point. Keep doing this until you have no more answers.
Now, for each of those ideas, ask What if? For example, let’s say you have your heroine meet a man at a party. Your ‘what ifs’ could be 1] what if he’s rude to her? 2] ignores her? 3] acts as if he knows her? 4] acts as if he knows a secret about her? 5] wants nothing to do with her? and so on…
Once you have done this until you have no more What ifs to answer, look at each of these ideas and, using different colours to identify what/who they refer to, join them to other ideas they can be linked to or connect with. You can also link possible characters with scenes you’ve thought of, and so on.
Do take your time with this, and when you think you’ve finished, sit back and have a good look – it might seem pretty random at the moment, but that’s okay. This is the backbone of your story.
Now you need to look at ideas that currently stand alone, or are not linked to anything. Do you really need them? If yes, brainstorm ways to have them link to some part of your story and add these ideas to your mind map. It could mean giving that idea to one of your characters. Or does it mean that character will have to travel somewhere for it to happen? Do you need a new character to introduce two other stand alone characters to each other, if they really are important? Or could you add the qualities or quirks you thought of for a minor character to a character that is important to the story, and get rid of the minor character. Or maybe you’d be better off combining two or three characters into one? What if…? What if…? What if…?
When you are sure you have done all you can with your mind map, it’s time to do a timeline, which I talk about in another post. But before you do that, I strongly advise to leave your mind map for a day or so, because now that you’ve started, other ideas are sure to come to you as you go about your day. writingtip #plotting #mindmapFollow