In my efforts to lay out the story for my next novel, I've been researching various plotting techniques used by other writers. I figure there has to be a better way than what I'm doing. As stated in a previous entry, I am not a pantser, at least not until the final stages of drafting. In fact, the thought of starting a novel without knowing where I'm going next is enough to make my eye twitch. To me, that's like hopping in a car and driving off into the sunset without any desination in mind. Just take off and go until you run out of gas. Not the way I like to travel! I like the MapQuest way, where you have a clear beginning and end destination in mind, then you find the most direct route there and prebook your hotel before you even think about packing. For me, writing a book is a lot like that.
Since this is the fifth and final book in this series, I already know all my characters inside and out. Bonus for me, right? Yeah, but they've also been through so much already that I have to be careful to put them into new and even more perilous situations to keep my storyline fresh and interesting. After looking around at various methods online I've decided I already use a combination of the most popular, and that's worked fine up until now, with one major exception.
The sagging middle. All writers out there know exactly what I'm talking about. Oh, the horror! You've got your incredible beginning, the blackest moment known to the literary world and the most astounding conclusion for the book all figured out, and then--
You have no idea how to fill in the middle. I mean, like, none. Man, that sucks.
Classically, this is where all writers struggle. They start out strong out of the gate, then fall halfway to the finish line. Some struggle to their feet and carry on even though each step is painful and grueling, but some give up and lay there until someone brings a stretcher to drag them off the track because the finish line is too damn far away. Unreachable. And while they're being hauled away they wonder, "Why did I ever think I could write a novel?".
Sometimes a writer will question their ability to make the story work long enough to reach the finish they'd been so excited about initially. If this describes your situation, take heart! You can fix it. The answer that works for me? More plotting. Now, to find a system that works and appeals to you.
There's the famous Snowflake method, by Randy Ingermanson. He starts with a high concept pitch, where the story is boiled down into one tight sentence. That's your starting point. He then expands on this to add the high plot points, and then branches into character development where the author explores the goals, motivations and conflicts facing each major character. It's all very neat and scientific, but a whole lot of work!
Personally, I want something short and concrete before I start the first draft. I like to write out everything important in a pretty notebook I buy for each book I'm working on. At night I keep it next to my bed in case I wake up with something brilliant in mind (at least, it seems brilliant to me at that time of the morning), and I carry it in my purse in case inspiration strikes while I'm out doing errands. I do a character sketch outlining background, goals, motivation and conflicts for each major POV character. I don't go into so much detail for the minor characters, but feel free if it helps you get to know them better. Try an interview if this is too sterile for you. Find out what makes them tick, their darkest secrets, what habits they have, etc.
Once that's done, I already know what each major character wants, why they want it, and why they can't have it (goal, motivation and conflict--cool, huh?). By the way, conflict drives the plot. No conflict, no novel. Readers don't want to be bored, and neither do agents and editors. So whatever twists and turns your storyline takes from page one to The End, you'd better have unresolved conflict along the way. And lots of it.
Begin with an opening that introduces the major conflict for at least one of your major characters. If you can make it matter to more than one, so much the better. Then you need to figure out the major crisis points in the book, and how you want things to wind up. Once all that's done, you have the most critical parts of the book laid out already. Now, all you have to do is flesh out the scenes in between to fill in the blanks. Easy, right?
Not so much. There's still that darned saggy baggy middle to contend with. Trust me, it can stop a writer dead in their tracks and keep them mired down for weeks. Months, even. Not good! So, back to the drawing board. Tackle it on your own if you want, but don't feel bad if you need help. Talk to someone in your writing group. Find a critique partner. Bug your spouse, or your mom, or your best friend, and get some ideas going.
Try to identify why you've stalled and why the middle is so lacklustre. I bet you'll find there's not enough conflict going on at that point. So? Make something exciting happen. Introduce another subplot. Throw in a twist, or even two or three. Do something! Once you do, the story will begin to flow again. Really, I swear! And always remember you can change it later if something even better comes to mind. Just make sure that whatever conflicts you have, don't resolve them too soon or it could be a really short book. Us authors still have that pesky thing called a word count hanging over our heads.
With all this in mind, I wanted to see if there was a boiled down, nitty-gritty kind of plotting system out there. Like magic, I stumbled across a concise story line layout designed by Lynn Viehl.
Wow! How come I didn't think of this? She lays everything out in an organized way that really appeals to my Capricorn, control freak nature, and streamlines my process. I daresay it will even help me stave off that dreaded sagging middle. Hallelujah! I'm revved and ready to rock.
So now you have a few other ideas to kick around when you're in the early stages of tackling a novel. I hope at least one will be of help to you. To all you pantsers out there, my hat is off to you. I will never understand how you guys can create a novel out of thin air, but that's just me. To each their own, I guess.
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