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:
- 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.
- 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.
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!
- 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?
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
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Two articles with very good tips on plotting and novel writing in general (links below):
This book was immensely helpful to me when writing my first novel (Amazon link below):