Before launching into a discussion of my favourite ways to plot and plan, a little word of caution… different things work for different people. The trick is to find what works for you, but it’s also good to know some other methods in case your usual ‘tried and tested’ approach snubs you on a particular project. So experiment. Try different things. After all, what works for you might change over time: it’s always worth learning a few new tricks, whatever stage you’re at, just in case.
Traditional approaches don’t work for me at all. Neither do most of the canonical texts about writing novels. What does work for me is script-writing theory. Almost all of it applies equally to writing a novel. I find that script-writing theory is much less vague than novel-writing theory. I’m often not at all sure how to put advice about novel writing into practice: most books by novelists and teachers are less than clear about how to apply the high-concept abstract theories they offer. Which is not to say that the theories don’t make sense or that they don’t have value, but few writers move on from explaining how they arrived at the theory to explore the nitty-gritty ‘now here’s how you break the theory down into basic building-block rules that you can adapt to whatever specific project you’re working on’.
Script-writing tomes tell you what to do – often in painstaking, endlessly repetitive detail (and that’s just the good books!). But it’s better to be crystal clear about the basics than not address them at all. And of course these sorts of books represent a hugely generalised set of bog standard rules… But that’s a great place to start. With any decent script-writing book you know exactly what the most basic format looks like in practice and how it works.
Robert McKee’s Story was a relevation for me. It’s a fantastic toolkit of technique and ways of thinking about structuring plot at the micro and macro levels. The material about ‘opening the gap’ is a far clearer explanation of how to respect the unspoken author-reader ‘contract’ while still delivering surprises, twists and turns – in dialogue as well as in the action – than any other I’ve seen. But this, like every other book of its type, is not a starting point for writing… It’s a starting point for thinking about how to apply technique to an individual writing project. It’s a set of options for figuring out how to make your plot work on a structural level.
So, how does it help me in practice?
Well, when I start a new book, the first thing I do is fill one side of A4 with notes, usually about each character’s role in the story. I then start writing scene summaries: these cover the key things that happen, the main info revealed and the key aspects of how the characters involved interact. Once I’ve written up the original set of A4 notes into a full series of rough scene summaries that outline the entirety of the plot, I spread out a clean sheet of paper and write a summary of the timeline as if the book were a script.
First, I summarise the hook in 8 words or less. Then I glare at what I’ve written. Is the hook interesting enough to make the reader want to read on? Does it happen early enough?
Next, I summarise the Act 1 turning point in 8 words or less. Again, I glare at the page. Does the turning point happen too early/late? Is it actually a turning point or just an action high-point?
Next, it’s time for the Act 2 turning point… but at this point I also summarise the Act 3 turning point (if separate from the climax), the climax and the resolution. Again with the glaring. Is the amount of time that elapses between the Act 2 turning point and the climax right? Is the resolution too long?
If I can’t pinpoint (in 8 words of less) each of these key plot-points and why they’re effective, then I don’t understand my plot. And if I don’t understand my plot, there’s no point in getting on with the actual writing because I’ll have to spend forever editing and rewriting when I could have thought longer and harder to start off with and then written a better first draft.
Now, some people just can’t work like that. They need to discover a book as they go along. I flounder when I try to do that. If I start writing before I know exactly what will happen – and why – in each scene, then I’m going to find the whole process ten times harder than it needs to be. I don’t like radically reshaping books after I’ve written the first draft, so it’s important for me to get the basic structure right from the beginning. With every book, I have a bit of retracing to do, but if it’s just a bit – one or two scenes, or one or two plot-lines – then I am fine. If it’s the whole structure of the book, I struggle to see other ways of telling the story: writing full draft tends to set things in stone for me. Well, not quite, but close enough.
Writing a book is hard enough if everything goes well. Knowing what is likely to be a problem – and doing what you can to avoid those things – is one of the keys to actually enjoy the process. And if writing is going to be your career, that’s pretty important.
For me, the key is planning and plotting using those key script-writing elements to test out whether the plot will hold up. The other thing I have to be able to do before I can write a decent draft is figure out how to summarise the book in one sentence (or two at the most). If I can’t do that, then I don’t understand what the heart of the story is and the book won’t work as a whole, however good individual bits are.
Books are big, complex things with lots of themes and important elements. But there should generally be one key thread running through the whole tapestry. The plot directs the path of this thread but the thread itself is not ‘what happens’. The thread is the thing at the heart of the book where the magic is most intense. If you think you have lots of threads, then you probably haven’t figured out what ties all of them together. Underneath all the little bits of magic there is one key thing. Wait until you find that and the book will come to life in a completely different way.
Or at least that’s how it works for me.
Does anyone else work in a similar way?
BTW, if anyone has any writing theory/technique book recommendations, I’d love to know!