Plotting fiction can be fun, but sometimes you need to take a leap of faith that you know enough about your plot and characters to start writing. The other day a writer friend said: “I hate plotting, but I can’t write until I know what I’m doing.” He’s been plotting his new novel for the past year.
Then he said: “I wish I was like you — you just write.”
I wondered how he got that impression. I seem to spend a lot of time plotting and reading history books for research before I even think about writing. I feel as if I’m wasting more time than writing. However, I conceded that once I feel that I know my characters well enough, I start writing.
The first chapters always go slowly. I change character names and attributes. And I keep plotting — plotting seems never-ending.
I asked my friend whether he knew his characters. He wasn’t sure.
Plot fiction: how much time do you need to invest in plotting?
Today, writing novels can seem like a job. We’re all encouraged to write more. Whether we have one loyal fan, or thousands, they want to know how the book’s coming along, and when it will be published. After someone asks you for the third time, saying “I’m working on the plot” can sound as if you’re wasting time.
So how do you know when you just need to knuckle down, and work on the first draft of your novel?
Here are five questions to ask yourself. If you know the answers, you’re (probably) ready to start writing.
1. What’s the point of your book?
For me, the “point” is always the genre. Once I know the genre, I’m happy. However, the genre can change. I’m working on a mystery series. It started out as a cozy mystery series , because I love reading cozies — Agatha Christie et al.
Unfortunately my crime didn’t lend itself to a cozy. I got the idea from an incident in Regency history, and the crime didn’t work in a contemporary or recent history cozy. It’s working as a Regency mystery. 🙂 (Big sigh of relief.)
2. Do you know the ending?
For mysteries, the ending is easy: it’s the big reveal. The murderer is exposed. The sleuth modestly accepts gratitude, and skillfully fends off animosity from his enemies.
In romances, the happy couple get their happily every after.
Of course you need more details than that. You need to know how your main character resolves his internal conflicts, as well as the external.
In my Regency mystery series, in addition to the mystery in each novel, there’s an over-arching mystery which gets wrapped up in the final novel in the series. I’m a big fan of the TV series Damages, and want to try a story structure that’s nonlinear.
3. Do you know what your main characters want — even if they won’t admit it?
What does each of your main characters want? What does a character want that he won’t admit, not even to himself?
This sets up the major conflict of the book. You may need to change elements of the plot if you get a powerful idea.
Keep asking yourself: what if…
Tip: if you’re not sure what a character wants, write his journal.
4. Are you interested in, and intrigued by your characters?
Some authors (Dean Koontz and Stephen King come to mind), never plot. They work it out as they go along. They’re writing horror, so they follow the fear — what’s scary?
If you’re writing romance, following the emotions works brilliantly too. You can follow your characters’ passion without building a plot in advance.
For mysteries however, you’ve got two plots operating; the story of the crime, and the story of the sleuth, who aims to solve the crime. You need to be very confident that you can handle both storylines.
Either way, whether you plot extensively before you start writing or not, you need to be excited by your characters, for two reasons. Firstly, if your characters bore you, they’ll bore readers. And of course, if they bore you, spending weeks in their company will be torture.
5. Do you hear your characters talking — can you see them interacting?
I know I’m ready to start writing when my characters have conversations in my mind. I can imagine them interacting, as if I were watching a movie. Once characters come to life in this way, I know that writing the novel will be fun.
If you’re stuck on your plot, as my friend is, ask yourself the above questions. You may be ready to start writing. 🙂
Plot your novel: 60-minute plotting, the plotting process which improves all your fiction
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Updated: May 22, 2022