Well, kind of. I’m writing this post-midnight since I had to work all day, and I’m just now able to get to this. So, really, it’s more like two days left, but who’s counting?
Today, let’s focus on what happens in your story. This isn’t so much of an outline [I hear your rebellion, pantsers] so much as it’s a general guide. It’s difficult to truly pants a story.
[And if you’re wondering what pantsing is it’s simply writing by the seat of your pants and foregoing an outline.]
With events such as NaNoWriMo [and similar ones] where there’s a hard deadline, it makes it easier for you to jot down some basic notes about your story, your world, and your character. How much you jot down – whether it’s a small bulleted list or a full outline complete with character synopses – is up to you. I tend to gravitate toward something in the middle, making myself a “plantser,” a plotter and pantser. [I never did fit in one box, anyway.]
Because this topic is huge in scope and there are literally thousands of blogs and articles written about how to plan for different genres, I’ll only touch on my own genres and some of the bigger ones. I stay within the mystery/thriller and literary fiction genres, though I do write some young adult and children’s books from time to time. I’ll also briefly discuss world building in the scifi/fantasy genres.
All you need for this is a notebook and writing implement or a computer. I like doing all my planning on paper because it activates different parts of the brain that aren’t activated while typing, and paper gives me the freedom to doodle and mind map. Of course, choose the method that works best for you or try them both.
If you want to get fancy, you can choose to have:
- Index cards – for characters, setting, scenes, plot points, anything else you think is important for you to write the story
- Various colors of markers and highlighters – useful especially if you’re working with multiple POVs
- Mapping software – to draw a map of your characters’ environment, which is useful for any genre and not just fantasy
First, let’s give your characters somewhere to live. Setting is important to every story, not just science fiction and fantasy. Whether your story takes place at 221B Baker Street in London, on a faraway planet in a different galaxy, the street you grew up on, or a random city, it’s important to map out where everything is. Ideally, your setting will complement your story. It will enhance your characters and their conflict.
For now, describe your setting as an outsider would see it. Play tourist in your own world and note big things [like the Space Needle in Seattle] and the small things [the hole-in-the-wall pub that serves the best fish and chips that only the locals know about]. What kind of things are in your city or on your planet? Right now, this is a general look at it. You can be as vague or as specific as you’d like to be. Do you write
If you’re writing a historical fiction novel, this is the time when you need to show off your research skills. You’ll need to research different topics, such as: political/social/cultural context, manner of speech, clothing, geography [which may have changed over the course of time], etc. Number one rule? Fact check everything. Here are tips to get you started.
Do you write scifi or fantasy? Check out this great guide.
I typically write 5-8 pages of setting notes that include grocery stores, parks, schools, population size, basic statistics [average socioeconomic class, average ages of residents, and ethnicity breakdown], tourist attractions, shops, town history [origin of the town, who founded it, why is it called that], overall “vibe” of the town, local lore [like ghost stories], and newsworthy events [like murders either well-publicized or covered up by the powers that be].
Keep this setting description and we will dig deeper in setting after we develop the main characters. I recommend every writer read this excellent article on inspirational settings.
It’s time to populate your world. Make a list of your characters – main characters, supporting/minor characters, antagonists, mentors, and what some people call “power players.” For this part, we’re focusing on a general list – names, ages, their roles, their goals, and their conflicts. What motivates your character to continue? What barriers are in their way? [These can be external, internal, and/or both.] How do they interact with the other characters?
- Your main characters are just that – they’re the people the story revolves. Without the main characters, the story wouldn’t be told.
- Your supporting or minor characters help [or hinder] the main characters. Either way, they’re there to help keep the forward momentum and drive the story to the end.
- Your antagonists are in competition with your protagonist [and sometimes the minor characters]. They want something, and the protagonist is in the way. The key to creating a believable antagonist is remembering that everyone is the hero of their own story. The reasons behind their actions will make the antagonist realistic and sympathetic.
- Mentors are those characters that guide the protagonist through their journey. Traditionally, it’s an older person in a high role, but molds were made to be broken. Mentors could include: a teacher, a parent, a friend, a boss, or a wizard. The options are unlimited. Mentors traditionally help the protagonist, but they could also offer well-intentioned advice that causes conflict for the protagonist.
- Power players are characters that have the power to change the course of the story. Is there a murderer running loose in the city, picking off people randomly? Does your mentor character hold a secret that, if divulged to the protagonist, will help defeat the antagonist?
It’s important to note that your characters aren’t meant to stay in one box. Antagonists can be power players, as can mentors. [If you really want to get twisted, an antagonist can be a mentor and a power player.] Play around with the roles your characters will play in the story. Develop their relationships with each other. How do they interact with one another? How do they affect each other? Characters, just like people, don’t live in a vacuum.
Now you’ve got a world and people, so next you need them to do stuff to get the plot rolling. Dust off your work from yesterday – the one paragraph that gives you an overview of the what happens during the story. This is your framework to build upon.
Reread what you’ve written then see if your story fits one of these plot templates. Knowing the root of the story will help understand which plot details and subplots to choose. [Note: Your story might fit more than one template, and that’s okay.]
Rarely will a plot, by itself, sustain a novel-length story. That’s where subplots come into play. Take a moment and think about your other characters. What’s going on in their lives? How does it relate to the protagonist and the main storyline? Is there a love interest? Is there a family feud? Revenge? Jealousy? Murder? How will a minor character’s story converge with a main character’s story? What other character’s (or characters’) story will enhance the protagonist’s story?
I tried to structure a section about plot and how to layer different elements to create a deeper story while adding subplots to the mix, but it would turn into a book in itself. Instead, I’m going to direct you to these fantastic references. I recommend reading them in order since they build upon one another, but, of course, like anything, do what works for you.
- This short article talks about what exactly are plot, plot layers, and subplots. It goes into how exactly to set up an easy-to-reference chart for you to use as you’re writing to make sure you’re weaving each element seamlessly.
- This denser article, which has several other links with worksheets and checklists embedded, goes into more detail than I could ever imagine about how to work in subplots. I’ve read it four times already, and I pick up on something new each time. Definitely something to print and have handy. I highly recommend clicking through other links referenced in the article and printing off the checklists.
- Finally, this article shows the methods in which to practically weave in your subplots. It talks about the different ways to write them on the page – whether to start each thread as a new chapter, parallel writing, or something else entirely. There are seven methods explored in this article, and it contains examples of each.
Now that you have your plot, plot layers, and subplots, think of different scenes that are a part of each of these elements. Scenes, at their heart, do one of two things. [Sometimes, they can do both at the same time, which is wildly efficient.]
- Reveal characters – their motivations, goals, personality, etc.
- Move the story forward – getting characters to point A to Z.
By keeping these two categories in mind, it’ll help to ward off those information dumps that are common, especially in the beginning when it’s tempting to want to explain everything all at once – the setting and its history, the main character and their life story, the problem or conflict without actually doing anything to solve it. Ideally, this information can be revealed on an as-needed basis and intertwined within the story to where it’s almost imperceptible that you’re doling out information at all.
Take the time now to jot down a few scenes for each element – plot, plot layer, and subplot – to get you started.
That was a lot of work, and if you’re still here with me, thank you. By now, you have a good idea of what your story is and the layers that make it up. You’ll also probably see where you can improve your story – gaping plot holes or topics to research. Jot these concerns down. We’ll address them soon.
Tomorrow [later today during the next post], we will dive into your characters and explore their role in the story. Keep the work you’ve done today handy. When you learn who your characters are, some of these plot and subplot details may change. Don’t be afraid to alter anything if it strengthens your story.