Writing Tips - Chapter 2 - Planning and Plotting

Writing Tips - Chapter 2 - Planning and Plotting

You can write a novel by simply sitting down, writing "Chapter One" and keep typing until you hit "The End." It's possible, and some seasoned writers who understand plot and structure can do just that, but for the rest of us, another approach is to take it one step at a time.

The Big Idea

Writers don't think up a book in one go. It usually starts with a single, simple idea. For me, it's usually a "what would happen if?" idea, or just a scene playing out in my head. This could be sparked by a place or event, a song, something on the news - who knows? But no matter how simple, this really is the BIG IDEA that drives the whole book, so it's important to recognise it.

As a few examples, here are the starting points for three of my own books:
  • Buttercup Sunshine - what would happen if zombies attacked a fairy tale cottage?
  • Arabesque - what would happen if an armed criminal was disarmed by a teenage girl?
  • Clash - what would happen if you took the long way home, only to find the school psycho was hunting you down?
In each case, I had no idea where the idea would lead. It was just a silly little scene that played out in my head.

Three Acts and an Ending

Once you have idea, it's time to build up a basic plot.

On a new page, write THE BIG IDEA, as a subheading, then write a single sentence of what the whole book is about. It's important to write this down now before things get complicated - it will make writing your pitch to publishers easier when that time comes.

Now you need to think about the whole book as four simple sentences.
  1. How did it all start? What kicks off events that lead to the BIG IDEA? 
  2. What's going to happen? What's all the action about?
  3. How is the problem solved?
  4. What does the Main Character end up with, or as? 
What you have now is a very basic Three Act Structure.
  • Act 1 - setup , introduce characters and the problem they face.
  • Act 2 - main action - the conflict
  • Act 3 - solution and resolution 
Your fourth sentence is really part of Act 3, but at this stage, it's a good idea to keep it on it's own so you know what you're aiming for.

Fleshing it out

Start a new page and begin to ask questions. How did this happen? What caused that? Why did she do that? And so, going into more detail...

Act 1 is where you set up the scene, introduce the characters, their personalities and give them a problem to deal with.

Act 2 is where the action is, this is where they try to solve the problem and fail. Either their plan will go wrong or something unexpected will crop up - things generally get worse for everyone. In fact, by the end of Act 2, things should be so bad that it looks like all hope is lost.

Act 3 is the fight back, where your character spots a new way to solve the problem. We also need a satisfying end. Your character has won! Hooray.

Keep cycling through your outline, adding details and problems to drive more action and events (this is why Act 2 is usually double the size of Act 1 and Act 3). As you add more problems, keep that BIG IDEA in mind just to make sure you don't go off into a different story.

Lose the headings

What you have will eventually form the basis of your synopsis when you send your book out - (We're really thinking ahead now!) Copy it all into a new document and lose those headings. Use paragraph breaks to split up plot pointers and problems. Now you're planning chapters. You haven't written a word of your book, but already you're thinking about chapters! Good, eh?

Each chapter should work as it's own little story with a setup, problem, action and solution - PLUS some kind of cliffhanger to make the reader desperate to start the next page.

Once you have a full chapter by chapter plan of your book, you deserve a rest. So the next stage is...

Leave it! 

Come back in a few days and try to look for areas that can be developed. Is there anything else you can squeeze in? Can you make life even harder for your character? What's the worst thing that could happen in that chapter, or that one there? 

Are you happy? Does the story work? If it does, that means you've got a good solid outline and a plot that works. Well done, you've just saved yourself months of torture and rewriting. Now it's time to move onto the next step:

Colin Mulhern

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