I am not good at winging it when plotting a novel. I might begin with nothing but a few characters and a loose idea for a plot, but somewhere toward the middle, I will lose momentum.
I will have to spend a day or two thinking about the story as a whole and writing an outline as a framework to guide the story. The plot points I originally planned to occur at each of the four quarters of the story will be met, but how?
In my head, I know that character plus objective plus risk equals a story. In practice, it’s more complicated than it looks.
Every story begins with the opening act, introducing the characters and setting the scene. It then kicks into gear with the occurrence of the “inciting incident,” that first plot point that triggers the rest of the story.
I’m very good at getting this part on paper. But here is where my storytelling skills sometimes fail me.
At the midpoint of my outline, another serious incident is scheduled to occur, an event setting them back even further. They will be aware that they may not achieve their objectives after all.
While I know that bad things have to happen at this place, I sometimes can’t figure out what those things are.
In my logical mind, I know that the protagonists must get creative and work hard to achieve their desired goals. I know they must overcome their doubts and make themselves stronger.
But what are those doubts?
We have arrived at the first pinch point. The characters are on the hunt for the MacGuffin. The antagonist makes an appearance, and the heroes survive the first roadblock and—
This sudden blank wall is where creating an outline comes into play. But since I know what the ending is that I must write to, I approach this part of the outline as if I were writing a murder mystery.
When I can’t figure out the middle, I start at the end of my story and work my way backward until I have joined the dots connecting the ending to the beginning.
Crime writers ask themselves several things when they begin plotting a mystery. We can all learn from their method:
- What crime was committed?
- Who committed the crime?
- How did they pull it off?
- Why did they do it?
So, I look at what I originally planned for the ending and ask, “What led us to this point?”
The midpoint of the story arc is often where the protagonists lose their faith or have a crisis of conscience. Something terrible happens, and they must learn to live with it.
What was that terrible thing?
Maybe the protagonist has suffered a terrible personal loss or setback. Because of this, maybe she no longer believes in herself or the people she once looked up to.
How was her own personal weakness responsible for this turn of events?
How does this cause the protagonist to question everything she ever believed in?
What gives her the strength and the courage to pull herself together and finish the job?
How is she different after this personal death and rebirth event?
This midpoint crisis is where the protagonist makes the hard decisions and learns she truly has the courage to do the job. The antagonist has had their day in the sun and could possibly win.
What I sometimes forget is this: plot arcs hinge on our characters and their reasons for being there. No matter what genre we’re writing in, giving the individual players strong motivations makes the story easier to write.
If I haven’t made their motivations strong enough by the midpoint, I will lose track of the plot.
At the beginning of my story, I will know what “the crime” is, the incident that throws my characters into the action. I never lose track of that—it’s the middle that gets mushy for me.
I will know who the antagonist is and why they are acting against my main characters. I will even know why it is all happening.
The part I struggle with is the how.
So, starting at the end, I look at my characters’ location when the story finishes. Then I ask myself what they were doing just before the final encounter.
And before they did that, what were they doing? What did they accomplish to move the story forward to that place? What location did they begin that part of the journey from, and why were they there?
I work my way backward through each step of the problem. It’s not a perfect method, and may not work for everyone. But by working in reverse from a known point, I can see what needs to happen and begin to write the story again.