Today we’re continuing prepping our novel by thinking about the plot, the story our characters inhabit. In post one, we thought about what kind of project we want to write–novel, short stories, poems, memoir, personal essays, etc.
Post two of this series introduced the protagonist(s), so we have an idea of who they are and what they do.
In post three, we explored the setting, so we already know where they are and what their circumstances are.
Now we’re going to design the conflict by creating a skeleton, a series of guideposts to write to. I write fantasy, but every story is the same, no matter the set dressing: Protagonist A needs something desperately, and Antagonist B stands in their way.
What does the protagonist want? Everyone wants something. The story is in if they acquire it or not. Doubt, uncertainty, the unknown—these nouns comprise the story.
This is where we have to sit and think a bit. Are we writing a murder mystery? A space-opera? A thriller? The story of a girl dealing with bulimia?
Let’s write a historical fiction.
My uncle fought in WWII in Ardennes and was wounded. He never discussed his wartime experiences, but I like to use that battle as my example for plotting. Here in the US, that battle is referred to as the Battle of the Bulge. A book about that battle may be compiled from personal accounts, interviews, photographs, and diaries. But the author must build the events of Ardennes in December 1944 and January 1945 out of words that express memories, opinions, and wishes.
Even though your novel about this battle may explore an Allied soldier’s experiences, in reality, this narrative is a fantasy because the events it explores have disappeared into the mists of a long-ago time. They now exist only in a few places:
- military archives
- newspaper accounts
- history as written by the victors
- the memories of a dying generation
- the handwritten diary of the soldier
- the author’s mind
- the pages of the book you are constructing
- the readers’ minds as they are reading
Where does our soldier’s story begin? We open the story by introducing our characters, showing them in their everyday world, and then we kick into gear with the occurrence of the “inciting incident,” which is the first plot point. That might be their arrival at their first camp in the Ardennes region.
For our soldier, the inciting incident might be the orders that transfer him and his unit to Ardennes. After that, many things will occur before he and his fellow soldiers return home. Each event will range in intensity from the inconvenience of filthy living conditions to the unavoidable confrontation with the horror of war.
We will make a list, a ladder of events that give us landmarks to write to, like a connect-the-dots picture.
First, how long do you plan the book to be? If you plan to write 50,000 words, take that word count and divide it by 4. The first quarter opens our story and introduces the inciting incident. This is the moment of no return, even if our characters still believe they can salvage things.
The following two quarters are the middle of the narrative, exploring the obstacles that our soldier faces. If you are writing a historical novel, your plot will follow the historical calendar of actual events. The Battle of the Bulge was fought between 16 December 1944 and 25 January 1946, and reams of documentation still exist about that terrible month.
Your plot arc might include these events, but in chronological order:
- Initial German assault
- Attack on the northern shoulder
- German forces held up
- Germans advance west
- German advance halted
Attack in the center: our soldier will either be with the US 30th Infantry Division at the Battle for St. Vith (Americans) or the Meuse River bridges (British 29th Armoured Brigade of 11th Armoured Division). He likely couldn’t be at both unless he was in the US Army Air Force.
- Attack in the south
- Allied counteroffensive
- German counterattack
- Allies prevail
You will connect those dots. Take each incident and write the scenes that our soldier experiences. You might also write scenes showing the commanders planning the offensives and switch to show the enemy’s plans.
No matter what sort of book you plan to write, this is all you need at first. It’s just a skeleton of the plot. You will write the scenes between these events, connecting them to form a story with an arc to it.
As we write, our soldier’s thoughts and interactions will illuminate and color in the scenes. His encounters, how he saw the enemy—were they people like him or were they faceless—all his emotions will emerge as you write his story.
No matter what genre we are writing in, you must introduce a story-worthy problem, a test that will propel the protagonist to the middle of the book.
This event is the hook. We raise a question and set the protagonist on the trail of the answer. In finding that answer, the protagonist is thrown into the action.
- If you are writing genre fiction, get to the action quickly.
Drop the protagonist into the soup as soon as possible, even if the conflict is interpersonal. Some books open with a minor hiccup that spirals out of control with each attempt to resolve it. This is the place where the characters are set on the path to their destiny.
Some plots are action and adventure. Other books explore a relationship that changes a character’s life for good or ill, while others detail surviving hardship.
When do the protagonists first realize they’re utterly blocked from achieving their desired goal? Note this event on your outline somewhere in the first quarter. This is the moment our protagonist realizes their problem is much worse than they initially thought.
At this point, they have little information regarding the magnitude of the trouble.
This is where the skeleton list comes in handy for me. Crucial knowledge that affects my characters’ choices, the information they don’t have, should be doled out at the point in the story arc where they need it. If I give all the information in the first 10 pages, there’s no point in reading the book any further—the reader knows it all.
One thing that I do is make notes that help limit my tendency toward heavy-handed foreshadowing. I try to keep it brief, but what will be enough of a hint, and where should it go?
Subplots will emerge as we begin writing. It’s a good idea to note them on the outline as they come to you. In my opinion, side quests work best if they are presented once the book’s tone and the central crisis have been established. Good subplots are excellent ways of supporting the emotional parts of the story.
Now is the time to read in your genre and let your ideas simmer for a while. If you are writing in a fiction genre, read the bestsellers so you know what kind of plot the reading public is looking for. Don’t worry about inadvertently channeling their ideas—there is no such thing as a story that has never been told.
Whatever you write, you will take it one step further and give it your own spin.
Posts in this series:
Credits and Attributions:
Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:117th Infantry North Carolina NG at St. Vith 1945.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:117th_Infantry_North_Carolina_NG_at_St._Vith_1945.jpg&oldid=661386897 (accessed October 14, 2022).