Do you find writing novels and short stories a challenge? If you do, you may believe that you “can’t plot”. In my chats with writers, many say that plotting fiction is their biggest challenge. Let’s look at three tips which will help.
Plotting fiction secrets: focus on your characters
I’m not a natural at plotting fiction. For my first few years of writing, I’d grit my teeth, and spent weeks “plotting.” Finally an editor told me: never mind the plot, focus on your people.
That made writing fiction much easier for me. Today, I enjoy plotting, and I always start by thinking about my characters.
1. Start your plotting with character growth to build believable characters
This article summarizes a process which works.
“Get a big sheet of paper, at least A3 size. Or grab a whiteboard. Make circles on the board. List your main characters down the side.
“Fiction is about people. People who CHANGE, over the course of the story. In your first circle, write your main character’s name, and his situation and major attribute at the start of the story.
“It’s your challenge to show your main character’s growth, and change, throughout the story. A “plot” means nothing if your character doesn’t change. You’ve heard of the character arc, and character development. That means change.”
Decide how many major characters you need for your novel. You may only have two or three major characters. If you’re just starting out writing fiction, keep your major character count low — stick with two.
You need to show your characters changing, which means developing a character arc. It can be hard to get your head around character arcs, but as Jami Gold suggests, start with the end of your novel:
“If we’re writing a story with a character arc… we want our characters to change from point A (the beginning) to point B (the ending). That means we need to show contrast between point A and point B.”
If you’re writing a series, or a serial, a character’s arc may be spread across several novels. That said, in some mysteries (and other types of genre fiction) the main character doesn’t change much at all. Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple for example, doesn’t have a character arc in the Miss Marple novels, but other characters in the novels do.
2. Give your characters secrets: ask your characters what they are (keep a book journal)
Once you have the basics of at least one character’s arc for your novel, give all your major characters secrets.
This is fun. What’s each character hiding — from others, and from himself?
Vital: avoid bouncing around in your characters’ heads. That is, your characters’ secrets must be tangible. A secret needs to be something physical: something the character did, or something real. Avoid having your characters think and agonize. Focus on action (your plot) and your characters’ thoughts only in response to the action.
Everyone has secrets. Your characters’ secrets can be major, or minor. Whatever his secret is, a character will go to some lengths to avoid his secrets being revealed.
Dialogue with your characters in your book journal. Ask a character what he’s hiding, and why.
Characters’ secrets make for easier plotting.
3. All change: for easier plotting, decide on the big middle of your novel
Your characters change and grow throughout your novel, and they have secrets. I like to keep my plotting simple. Once I know how my primary character changes, I know that the midpoint of the novel is crucial. At the midpoint, the character’s life changes in a major way.
Authors talk about the “dead middle”, and struggle with the vast area of a novel that’s between the setup, and the final chapters. The key to plotting the middle is the midpoint reversal:
“What it is: The midpoint reversal often throws the entire plot sideways. The plan or worldview the protagonist had all along no longer works or is no longer viable, and things have to change.”
In a romance, the hero and heroine make love at around 50% of the novel. In a mystery, there’s often another murder at the midpoint. Things must change in a big way in the middle of a novel.
I’ve found that if I can plot the midpoint reversal, I’ve got an excellent handle on the novel.
With your midpoint in mind, you can also plot the other two main waypoints. The first waypoint occurs after the novel’s setup concludes; it’s the big change which occurs at around 25% of the novel. The final waypoint is the event which instigates the climax of the novel: this event occurs at around the 75% point.
In summary: you only need five things for your “plot” to get started writing
I’ve tried just about every plotting system going. All of them got me hopelessly tangled. I’d spend too much time plotting, and never started the novel because I was bored with it. Or I moved characters around like pieces on a checkerboard so they never came alive, and gave up on the novel somewhere in the “dead middle”.
You only really need these elements to create a functional plot:
- Character arcs;
- A midpoint reversal;
- Two other waypoints.
These days, I’m a minimalist plotter. I spend most of my plotting time journaling, and from my book journal, I tease out the main elements. This process usually takes around two weeks, but I’ve done it in three hours when a client hired me as a ghostwriter.
If you have challenges plotting fiction, try these tips. They’re a lot of fun, they’re easy to manage and get your head around. Mostly importantly of all, they create functional plots, so that you can focus on your writing.