I’m sure at some point in your writing career you’ve faced the question of whether you’re a planner or pantser. A discovery writer or an outliner?
I haven’t written a lot about outlining in the past, mostly because I had considered myself a discovery writer. For me, creating a detailed outline was something I did after the fact, as part of the revision process. This works fairly well, actually, and is still something I’d recommend to writers of all levels.
I did change my tune about starting with an outline a bit once I began trying to revise the second novel I wrote, as the thing was (and still is) a complete mess. A little bit of pre-writing and outlining could have saved me a ton of work.
Because of this, I decided to put that second novel aside for the time being. I still like the general idea behind the novel and its basic plot, but I really might need to rewrite the whole thing. Instead, I’ve been in the process of planning a third novel. I had a very simple page-long outline, and had even written the first few chapters, but then I stopped.
Something was still missing, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
This weekend, however, I got a pretty good idea of what that was.
In her presentation, Lisa provided a lot of the basic information about story structure that every writer should plan out before they start writing.
And structure is one of the things my longer WIPs are missing.
A typical story will use a modern three-act structure, or some variant of it. I’ve listened to enough episodes of Writing Excuses to know that, but apparently not enough to actually follow through with it.
For me, the best way to sum up the three-act structure is:
- Put a character in a tree.
- Throw rocks at him.
- Get him down.
That’s metaphorical, but it’s a nice, simple way to think of your overlying story arc. There are plenty of ways to expand on this, and the three Lisa mention were the Syd Field Paradigm, Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, and Christopher Vogler’s Hero’s Journey.
While these methods are a little too detailed or formulaic for my liking, I can totally appreciate where they are coming from. I can also see one thing they all have in common: Conflict. Lots of conflict. That conflict is often followed by a rest period as well.
So while I may not like to follow the formula to the letter, I can definitely use these methods to find weaknesses in my own WIP novels. And fix them.
That second novel I brought up earlier (the one that is a complete mess) can be cleaned up. I “discovery” wrote the whole thing, hence the lack of structure. I think the first thing to do is create an outline of it, and then look for the critical scenes. I can rearrange or rewrite as needed to tighten up the plot and give it more structure.
Who knows? It might be fun.
While story structure is the problem with my second novel, I’ve got a different problem with the third novel. It’s not really a problem with the story itself, but a more of a problem with the characters.
In Lisa’s NWG presentation, she talked about something I hadn’t put a lot of thought into in the past. And that was real character development.
I know we often hear phrases like “What does your character want?” and “How does your character change?” but how often do we really pay attention to that?
One of the suggestions in the presentation was to not only use a three-act structure with your story, but also with each of the main characters. I honestly hadn’t considered that before.
And it’s a great idea. If every major character in the book has an important storyline to follow, it will make them have a better purpose and become more interesting.
And as far as a character’s goal, it’s not “what does she want?”, but “what does she really want?” Make it matter. I’m not talking about some superficial goal like “she wants a boyfriend” either. I’m talking something larger, like vengeance.
I don’t know. I learned so much–maybe too much–but that’s why we attend writing conferences in the first place.
In the meantime, however, I’ve got a lot of work to do. But that’s what writing is all about.
What about you? How do you plan your plot and characters?