We begin any writing project with an idea, a flash of “What if….” Sometimes, that “what if” is inspired by an idea for a character, or perhaps a setting. Maybe it was the idea for the plot that had your wheels turning. Whatever the inspiration, a little pre-planning and a bit of an outline are beneficial in getting the manuscript started.
If you work at a day job and using the note-taking app on your cellphone to take down notes during work hours is frowned on, do as I still do. Carry a pocket-sized notebook and pen and write those ideas down. This is old-school but will enable you to discreetly make notes whenever you have an idea that would work well in your story, and you don’t appear to be distracted or off-task.
Once you have assembled your random ideas, and maybe even written a chapter or two, it’s time to think about where you are going with your story.
At the outset of the story, we find our protagonist and see him/her in their normal surroundings. Once we have met them and seen them in their comfort zone, an event occurs which is the inciting incident. This is the first point of no return.
Pretend we are writing a mystery/thriller: On page one, Dave, an unmarried accountant, sees a woman from across a cafe, and through a series of innocuous actions on his part, he is caught up in thwarting a spy ring.
- What could possibly entice him out of his comfort zone? What would he spontaneously do that is out of character for him? Perhaps he buys a stranger lunch. You must show him as a shy person not given to buying lunch for strange women. This act must change his life.
Because he suddenly decided to “pay it forward” and paid for her lunch on his way out, he draws the attention of people who were following her. They suddenly think he is more than a simple accountant, that the act of buying her lunch was a secret code, making him a suspect.
Now, he is thrown out of his comfort zone and into the situation which is the core idea of your plot.
- On his way back to his office, a white limousine pulls up alongside him, and four men in black suits hustle him into the backseat. He is forced at gunpoint onto a plane bound for Oslo, Norway, handcuffed to a suitcase. The only other key that can remove the handcuffs is at the American Embassy in the custody of a mysterious woman, Jeanne Delamont.
This is the circumstance in which your protagonist finds himself at the beginning of the story.
- How will the next phase of the story start? Who is Ms. Delamont?
- What is the hero’s personal condition (strength, health) at the beginning?
- How will that condition be changed, for better or worse, by the hero himself or by the antagonistic force?
Now we come to the next part of the core of your plot: objective.
In every class I’ve taken on plotting, the instructors have said that if your main character doesn’t want something badly enough to do just about anything to achieve it over the next couple hundred pages, then he/she doesn’t deserve to have a story told about them.
- At this point, our hero just wants to get rid of the suitcase and go back to his job. He wants that desperately.
- What does the woman at the café for whom he bought lunch have to do with the whole mess?
Everything you will write from the point of the inciting incident to the last page will detail that quest and answer that question. Your protagonist must desire nothing more than to achieve that objective. Every scene and conversation will push the protagonist closer to either achieving that goal or failing, so if you make it a deeply personal quest, the reader will become as invested in it as you are.
I find it helps to have a broad outline of my intended story arc. Speaking as a reader, at some point near the outset of their manuscript authors need to have an idea of how it will end, so the story flows smoothly to the best conclusion.
It’s okay to have several possible endings in mind, as long as each fits logically to the events that led up to them.
Try them all and choose the one that you like best.
If you try to wing it through the whole book, you might end up with a mushy plot that wanders all over the place and a story that may not be commercially viable.
- What will be your inciting incident?
- What is the goal/objective?
- At the beginning of the story, what could the hero possibly want that pushes him to risk everything to acquire it?
- How badly does he want it and why?
- Who is the antagonist?
- What moral (or immoral) choice is the protagonist going to have to make in his attempt to gain that objective?
- What happens at the first pinch point?
- In what condition do we find the group at the midpoint?
- Why does the antagonist have the upper hand? What happens at the midpoint to change everything for the worse?
- At the ¾ point, your protagonist should have gathered his resources and companions and should be ready to face the antagonist. How will you choreograph that meeting?
I write fantasy novels, but I also write literary fiction. Writing fantasy does require a certain amount of planning because so much goes into world building and creating magic systems. Literary fiction must also have a logical arc or the characters won’t evolve.
In any novel, when you are winging it through a story that encompasses 75,000 to 100,000 words, it is easy to get involved in large info dumps and bunny trails to nowhere. A loose outline will tell you what must happen next to arrive at the end of the book with a logical story set in a solidly designed world.
You don’t have to go into detail in that little framework, but if you give yourself a rough outline, you will know what you must do to accomplish each task within the storyline.
I always feel it’s necessary to have an outline of the story arc even if my novel has multiple possibilities for endings, as was the case in The Wayward Son. Winging it in short bursts can be exhilarating, but my years of experience with NaNoWriMo has taught me that when we are winging it for extended lengths of time, we sometimes run out of fresh ideas of what to do next.
With a simple outline, you won’t become desperate and resort to killing off characters just to stir things up once the real work of writing starts.
Readers become frustrated with authors who randomly kill off characters they have grown to like.
Besides, you might need that character later.
Credits and Attributions
Cover of the original novel “The Maltese Falcon” 1930, by Dashiel Hammett, published by Alfred A Knopf, Fair Use. Wikipedia contributors, “The Maltese Falcon (novel),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,
https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Maltese_Falcon_(novel)&oldid=851535327 (accessed July 25, 2018).