How to Write a Book: What the Plot?

Welcome to Post #2 in my “How to Write a Book” blog series! If you’re just tuning in, be sure to catch my first post: “Transforming Prompts into Viable Ideas.”

As usual, I want to preface this post by letting you know this blog series is meant to be a high-level glimpse into my own writing process to help hopeful writers on the path to drafting their first novel. Everything you’ll see here is my opinion—there are a million different ways to plan and write a book, so branch out, research widely, and don’t be afraid to find your own methods and what works best for you!

In my last post, we discussed writing prompts and how to turn them into book ideas, more specifically, identifying the story arc, cast of characters, and drafting a rough query. Today, we’ll take a look at how to further develop your story’s plot.

What is your book about?

Before you start building your story’s plot, you should have a solid idea of what your book is about. Here are some questions to help you get started:

  • What’s the central theme or message of your story? Is this a cautionary tale or perhaps a coming-of-age story for your protagonist who learns to love herself in spite of all the hardships of life?
    • Knowing this will help you craft the plot in ways to support your central theme—but be very careful, readers don’t like to be clubbed over the head with moral lessons, etc. Your readers are very intelligent, trust they’ll get it, because they will.
  • What makes this story or characters unique? What’s different from similar books already in the market? What will excite people about reading your story?

The answers to these questions are all important to keep in mind when further developing your plot. Knowing this will give your story an extra layer of substance that will make reading it worthwhile.

 

Bubble charting for plot points and major story ideas

Have you ever had an idea for a new story, but then realize all these random thoughts suddenly start to pop into your mind, some related, some unrelated? And you tug at your hair in frustration, thinking, “How am I going to turn this mess into a cohesive story?”

Relax. That’s why I’m here. It happens to all of us, but I’m going to show you how to make the most of it. When I start planning a book, I like to do a bit of bubble charting, which helps me get a better picture of how these random plot points fit together. You can do this anywhere, on a sheet of paper, a dry erase board, a journal—wherever you can find free space. Start by writing each idea in its own bubble and then two things will happen:

  1. You’ll begin to see that certain bubbles (or ideas) are connected/related. That’s great! Draw a line to connect those two ideas together.
  2. Your mind will immediately start churning and more ideas will bubble to the surface. Even better! Hurry! Add them to the bubble chart before you forget.

Your bubble chart will become a living document for a while. I have an “idea wall” in my home that I use for this type of stuff. Whenever I get a new idea, I run to my wall and record it. This goes on for any amount of time, on average a couple weeks, until I feel I’ve ejected all the important information from my mind onto the bubble chart. Here’s an example of one I made for my latest story, “Before & After,” a YA Fantasy, re-imagining of the lore surrounding the four horsemen of the apocalypse.

Bubble Chart Example

Bubble Chart Example

Once your chart is complete, you can stand back and begin to get an idea of how all these points fit together. From here, we’re ready to develop a list of high-level plot points . These are the major events that take place over the course of your story, which typically become the focal point of each chapter, but more on that later. For now, let’s talk about how we figure out what those major plot points are.

 

Determining major plot points

Usually, with a notebook in hand and my bubble chart in plain view, I like to jot down a simple list of what I think the major events of the first story should be. Don’t fret about getting it perfect on the first attempt. This will also be a fluid document that will change throughout the entire drafting process.

So let’s go back to our AWFUL DRAGON STORY from the last post and see if we can list some major events, shall we?

Last we left, we had a pretty basic story idea for our heroine, Ruby Jenkins, resident scientist in Denver, Colorado. Check the last post if you need a refresher. I’m going to time myself as I develop this list of plot points so you can see how simple it is and also so you don’t think I’m a con-artist. As I start this list, it’s 12:20pm EST on Tuesday, September 5th, 2017. I’m sitting at my favorite coffee shop, latte in hand, listening to a delightful playlist of my favorite movie soundtracks. I’m wearing… um, okay, maybe that’s too much info. Let’s go!

  1. Opening: Follow Ruby through a typical day at work. Introduce her co-workers and her work. Ruby has a crush on one of her colleagues, but worries he doesn’t see her that way—does he even know she’s alive?
  2. There’s been a development! One of the dragon eggs they created and have been caring for shows signs that it’s about to hatch!
  3. When the egg hatches and the baby dragon emerges, something emerges in Ruby, too. She suddenly feels disconnected from her work and wonders what will be the implications of her work.
  4. Three more eggs hatch the next day and Ruby cares for them all, becoming attached to the dragons, even though her superiors tell her not to. They say these aren’t pets, they’re weapons and they belong to the government. Her colleagues are thrilled, but she feels deeply conflicted. She tries to distance herself from them emotionally.
  5. Several weeks later, the dragons have nearly tripled in size. Government officials show up to check on their “investments.” Ruby has a run-in with a very brash official (who becomes the story's primary antagonist) and they have a heated argument. Ruby’s colleague, the one she has a crush on, doesn’t understand or agree with her and they argue about it. Though heartbroken, Ruby no longer feels conflicted. She knows what she has to do.
  6. Ruby sneaks into the lab late one night with the help of a security guard who happens to have a crush on her. He’s always had feelings for her, but never acted on them, always admiring from afar, a wave, a greeting in passing, and casual conversation whenever she wasn’t in a rush. Ruby never noticed him until tonight, something may be there, but she has bigger things on her mind… THE DRAGONS MUST BE FREED!
  7. Ruby and her security guard friend manage to get their hands on the dragons. He’s risking his job for her, but he doesn’t care. It’s deeper than just his infatuation with her. He agrees with what she’s doing and genuinely wants to help her. Ruby doesn’t forget this, though it may take her a while to realize it.
  8. They take the dragons to the Rocky Mountains and release them into the wild. They hit bumps in the road and are almost caught at every step in the way: at the lab and on the way to the mountain (figure this out later)...

Alright! So, it’s 12:30pm EST and I’m going to stop there or else I’ll plan the entire book and then I’ll be forced to actually write it. In only 10 minutes, I was able to come up with the story’s opening and major events leading up to and covering just after the inciting incident (the birth of the dragons).

Keep in mind, you don’t have to have every single detail laid out right now. It’s okay to leave yourself notes for things to fill in later (e.g. my note in bullet #8 about adding roadblocks for the characters later on). Those are minor details that we will add in the detailed outline—more on that in a later post!

Also, while drafting your major plot points, you may get any number of new ideas and have to go back and fill in more information. For example, I didn’t initially consider Ruby’s love interests when I typed the first couple plot points. But when I got to bullet #6 and realized she would need help getting into the lab, I got an idea. She could have help from a security guard who just so happens to have a crush on her. Then this plot point does double duty, we get a new character that can help us develop a sub-plot surrounding Ruby’s love life and also add a contrasting plot point around the jerk colleague who Ruby likes, but is totally wrong for her. But don’t get too hung up on characters, characterization, and character development just yet, we’ll cover that more in another post.

I stopped short for the sake of time, but you’d carry on this process until you determined all the major plot points from the beginning of your story until the end, paying close attention to the inciting incident, climax, and resolution (as we discussed in our last post). An interesting exercise: Did your inciting incident, climax, and/or resolution change from what you’d originally planned? Don’t be upset if it did, it happens to all of us, and it’ll probably change a few more times before your final draft.

Now that we have our major plot points outlined, set this document aside as we’ll come back to it later. In our next post, we’ll dive a bit deeper into our characters to better understand who they are, what they want/need, and how they fit into our world and our story.

As usual, I’ve provided additional resources on plotting/planning for your viewing pleasure. Feel free to peruse the web on your own, there’s plenty of resources out there for hopeful writers like yourself.

Don’t forget to subscribe to #AuthorISH, like this post, comment, and share! Fellow authors, also feel free to add any additional useful advice in the comments section.

Additional Resources:

Two articles with very good tips on plotting and novel writing in general (links below):

How to Plot a Novel: 7 Tips for Success

Golden Rules for a Good Plot

This book was immensely helpful to me when writing my first novel (Amazon link below):

Writing Fiction for Dummies

How to Write a Book: Transforming Prompts into Viable Ideas

I’ve been writing seriously for about 10 years now and have completed a total of 7 full-length novels and 2 novellas. Throughout the course of those 10 years, I’ve been approached by many hopeful authors, seeking advice on how to write a book. I’d like to help lay the groundwork for anyone interested in writing a book with no idea how to get started. I’ll do this through a series of 6 #AuthorISH posts that, hopefully, by the end will leave you feeling empowered and adequately prepared to tackle your first full-length novel!

First, let me preface this series with a few details from my own personal experience. Writing a book is hard, yo. It’s certainly not for the faint of heart, the easily offended, or those who aren’t willing to work hard and persist—even when you want to hurl your laptop onto the nearest highway (because you’ll definitely have quite a few of those days). 

The actual act of writing a first draft can be lonely and solitary, but beyond that, it takes a village to raise a draft up into an actual published novel. You’ll need friends to bounce ideas off and brainstorm with, critique partners and beta readers to help polish your work and bring it up to publishing standard, a great agent who believes in you and your work to champion it to publishers, a publishing editor who will help push your story over that last hurdle to publication, and lastly, readers who will own your words, your characters, and your story and allow their lives to be forever touched by your art and talent. In short, writing is a marathon, not a sprint. 

There will be great days and there will be awful days. But in my experience, successful writers know how to persist, take constructive criticism, and learn as much as they can. Also, please keep in mind there are many different methods for writing and revising a novel and there are lots of resources available to help you discover which one is best for you—or you may come up with your own method. So research widely, keep an open mind, and find out what works for you.

So, let’s get started, shall we?

 

Identifying Writing Prompts

Every good story starts as nothing more than a mere writing prompt. What’s a writing prompt? Just a simple idea that sparks your interest. It could be something as simple as, “female assassins in space,” to something as complex as, “what if scientists figured out how to create dragons, but the dragons broke free and tried to take over the world?” Okay, that last one kinda sucks, but give me a break, I’m coming up with this stuff on the fly. 

Besides, I think you get the point. These “writing prompts,” or ideas, can come from anywhere. They’ve dropped into my head while watching movies / movie trailers, reading magazines, playing video games, traveling, etc. You never know when you’re going to get a random idea, so you always have to be ready! I keep a memo open in my Notes app on my phone, labeled “Writing Prompts.” Every time I get an interesting idea, I add it to the list. Some ideas take off and others waste away in literary purgatory. Not all your exciting ideas will make great books, and that’s perfectly fine. It takes a bit of work to filter out the good ideas from the distractions, but lucky for you, I can help with that. 

 

Developing Your Writing Prompt

Now that we understand writing prompts, how do we decide which of those would make a good story? Well, there are three major aspects of a story I like to consider upfront from a high-level: Plot / Conflict, Setting, and Characters.

Plot / Conflict: In a couple sentences, what’s the story about? Let’s provide a bit of structure to how we think about the plot. What’s the inciting incident, climax, and resolution? It’s as simple as that. Let’s trek back to our awful dragon writing prompt and try to turn that into a story, shall we? 

The inciting incident may be the moment the scientists figure out how to create a dragon. The climax would occur when the dragons launch a full-scale attack on humans. The resolution is the outcome of the war. Not too shabby, huh? Don’t stress too much about getting these three points perfectly right during this phase. As your book grows and develops, it’s going to become a living, breathing thing and will change quite often. Don’t fret!

Setting: It’s important to understand where your story will take place. Is it on Earth? If so, what country? State? City? What are the unique aspects of the location that support the plot? Let’s say you decide to set your story in your hometown of Denver, Colorado. Do the dragons choose to live in the Rocky Mountains when they escape the scientists? Or do they want to escape the cold and setup base in the Nevada desert? See how the setting can affect the plot of your story?

But what if your story is set in a fantastical world? Then you have considerable more work to do. I won’t get into it much here, but world-building for Science Fiction and Fantasy is very in-depth and can take a while to get just right. Tolkien took years to build the world featured in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. It very well may not take you quite as long as Tolkien, but world-building is serious and shouldn’t be rushed. Readers are savvy, no matter the age group, and they can sniff out a shoddily-planned world like weeks-old rotting fish heads—so take the time and plan your new world right! 

(For more resources on world-building, check out the list at the end of this post)

Characters: Who’s the star, main character, of your book? Will your book have multiple points of view? Who’s the antagonist, or villain? Who are the supporting characters? Answering these questions is only the start of building your story's cast. I like to think of these folks as the backbone of your story. They breathe life into your world and weave together the plot and conflict, so it's imperative we give them proper attention upfront.

Let’s start with our main character. How about we make him / her one of the scientists at the lab who helps create the dragon? After we give this lucky person a name and jot down some of their physical characteristics (e.g. body type, hair color, eye color, race, etc.), we need to start thinking about them on a deeper level. What are their desire lines? Everyone has something they want in life, something they feel they can’t live without. Even if your character has every single thing they could possibly want in life, they still want something: they don't wish their life to change.

By understanding your character on this level, you can start to see how they fit into the story. As this person navigates your world and your plot, they fight for whatever it is they desire, even if they make horrible decisions every step of the way (and they should make bad decisions, it's only human, right?). Your characters should have something (a goal, ideal, belief, etc.) that continually drives them forward, even when they feel like they physically can't go on. We’ll get more into how to fully flesh that out in one of the later posts, but for now, let’s just try to understand who our main character is and what they want.

In keeping with our example, let’s say our main character is Ruby Jenkins, scientist extraordinaire. She’s 27-years-old, single, sapiosexual, and proud to be a science geek. She feels conflicted about her work, but stays on because it pays well and she thinks the work would go on without her, so why not stay and benefit from it (especially with crushing student loan debt and other adult responsibilities)? She wants to lead a meaningful life, to leave the world better than how she found it, but questions if that’s actually where her life is headed. Seems sufficient for now, right?

 

Transform the Prompt into a Story

Before I write a single word of a book, I like to start by drafting a rough query, or pitch. For those unfamiliar with the traditional publication process, authors create what’s called a “query letter” that’s used to pitch their ideas to literary agents (among other things like a synopsis and sample pages, more on that later). The purpose of the query is to hook the agent and make him or her want to read your sample pages. It’s great practice to draft a query before you start writing. A solid query will properly setup your story’s setting, main character, inciting incident, and stakes. If you can’t describe your story efficiently in a query, you’ve probably left something important out. For example, perhaps the character's stakes aren’t high enough to make the story interesting, or the story doesn’t have a proper arc (there’s no climax and / or resolution), or the story starts in the wrong place. In the past, I’ve wasted months writing full-length novels, only to spend weeks trying to cram a poorly thought out idea into a query. Without a doubt, doing this exercise beforehand will save you lots of time and heartache.

Alright, so what goes in this draft query? Here’s a super high-level template:

Paragraph 1: Introduce the main character. Who is she? What are her desire lines? What makes her interesting enough to make us want to read an entire book about her?

Paragraph 2: Introduce the setting and the inciting incident. How is the main character involved in all this? How does this change or impact her life?

Paragraph 3: What are the stakes? What choice must the character make? What dilemmas does she face? What does she stand to gain or lose if she succeeds or fails?

Paragraph 4: What is the word count, genre, and comparison titles (similar works, can be television, film, or books, but must have at least one book)?

So, let’s try putting our example into a rough query, shall we?

 

Five years ago, Ruby Jenkins graduated college with a Biology degree, thinking she’d go out into the world and use science to make it a better place. But crushing student loan debt pushed her career in the opposite direction. Now she develops biological weapons for the United States government.

Since she was young, Ruby loved reading stories about dragons and other mythological creatures. She never thought she’d have the opportunity to see one in real life—or create one in her lab. But when she and her team develop the first living, breathing dragon, overwhelming guilt overshadows her excitement and intrigue. Our government will raise this creature as a tool of death and destruction. After the birth of two more dragons, Ruby, unable to bear the weight of her heavy conscious, steals the young dragons and releases them into the wild of the Rocky Mountains.

Ruby is fired after her team discovers she freed the dragons and her team’s work continues without her. But it’s not long before the dragons resurface, not only fully grown, but extremely intelligent and anxious to wage war on the humans who meant to enslave them. On the cusp of an apocalyptic war between humans and dragons, Ruby may be the only one who can reason with either side, but if she fails, it could spell the end of human life.

AWFUL DRAGON STORY is a XX,000 Adult Science Fiction that can be described as Eragon meets Westworld.

That query certainly is nowhere near ready to put in front of an agent, but can you see how this process can help you structure your story and reveal where you potentially have holes in the plot / structure? This is an excellent starting point and as your story develops, you can tweak the query as well. Even better, when your story is complete, you already have a solid query to revise and are one step closer to being ready to query agents. 

But most importantly, we’ve turned your writing prompt into a viable story idea! In my next post, “What the Plot?”, I’ll discuss the process for further developing the plot in detail.

 

Resources: 

World-building Articles / Blog Posts

https://writersedit.com/fiction-writing/the-ultimate-guide-to-world-building-how-to-write-fantasy-sci-fi-and-real-life-worlds/

http://www.web-writer.net/fantasy/

General Writing / Publishing Content

Writer's Digest is a great resource with all sorts of information on writing and publishing, some paid, some free. Sign up for their email list and feel free to poke around. You'll always find something good there!

Writer’s Digest

Susan Dennard is the bestselling author of the Witchland books and has graciously created a website chocked full of invaluable writing advice for hopeful writers at all stages of their career. You'd seriously be doing yourself a disservice by not checking out her site:

Susan Dennard's Website