Today we will be discussing ways to actually outline your plot. As I mentioned last week an outline is like the “skeleton” of your book. It is the scaffolding that holds your whole story up, providing a plan for how things are going to progress and help you avoid getting bogged down in unnecessary scenes and lost in a forest of your own creation.
Before You Begin
There are a lot of different ways to plot a novel. I tend to do things in a fairly non linear fashion. Something will spark my interest, such as a character, a scene, an object etc. Then I will ask myself how I can create a story around that one element. Experiment with different methods until you find one that works for you. I will draw from last weeks example story (which can be found in this blog post).
Once you have your “launching pad” (the element that piqued your interest in the first place) you should start plotting out your story. I tend to focus on my protagonist and their journey (either physical or emotional) and get that organized first. Since that character and their struggles, trials, triumphs and tribulations is what drives the story.
The Story Arc
When you are crafting the general outline of your character’s journey try and keep your story arc in mind. For those of you unfamiliar with story arcs most stories are divided into three main acts. In the first act you introduce your readers to your world and your protagonist, setting the whole story up.
In our example last week we met the character Flig, a poor and resentful man. He lives in a futuristic society filled with hover cars, extreme wealth discrepancies and a whole lot of problems. This short scene introduces us to his world and gives us a glimpse of what his life is like. We also witness the inciting incident, which is the event that sparks the whole story. In the example Flig witnesses a large diamond ring fall from one of the shiny hover cars above. This single event could change his entire life, lifting him from the drudgery and catapulting him into the realm of the upper class.
This event also sows potential seeds for conflict, both internal and external. External conflict could mean literal conflict: Did someone see him pick up the ring? Will they try and take it from him?
Internal conflict is exactly what it sounds like: When a character is offered a choice and must decide which course of action to take. In Flig’s case if he manages to keep it long enough to sell it, how will he use his new wealth? Will he try to change the system and make life better for the lower classes or will he shrug his shoulders and turn his back on them? Act I typically ends with your first major plot point. In our case, Flig makes it to the pawn shop owner and goes about trying to sell the ring.
During Act II is when most of the story actually happens. This is where you introduce more of your secondary characters, explore any subplots you have, and show how your characters grow and change over the course of the story. In our example story Flig makes it to the pawn shop, only to be informed that there is no possible way the owner of the shop can afford to buy the ring. So the two decide to launch a plan that involves making Flig look like a wealthy seller, sneaking him into a fancy auction house and holding up the ruse long enough for him to get his ring on the docket, sell it, and make off with the money.
Of course there will be hiccups along the way. He doesn’t have the cultural capital to blend in, so he fumbles along and the whole time the reader is anxious that he will get caught. This is also where we show the readers that Flig is a good man, and not some scoundrel, therefore establishing that despite his faults and the fact that he is a thief he deserves to accomplish his goals. While he is trying to launch his plan he has to call in some favours, borrowing funds and items from his various acquaintances in order to convince the muckety mucks that he is one of them. Perhaps he convinces some of them too well, and has to politely decline the interest of a wealthy family who has set their eyes on him as a potential match for their daughter. Perhaps he falls in love with a young woman, and must decide whether he can risk revealing his true identity to her (and hoping they can stay together) or breaking her heart and disappearing as soon as the auction is over. Perhaps one of his “peers” grows suspicious and Flig has to either throw him off the scent or somehow convince him that his wealth is not fabricated.
The second act typically ends with the second major plot point. In this case, Flig’s plan appears to be working and he settles down in his seat to watch his ring get auctioned off.
During the final act we experience crisis, witness the climax and then wrap up all of our loose ends. Up until the crisis point the tension in the story has been rising. A good story is one that your reader has trouble putting down. It is one where your readers are emotionally invested in your characters and want them to succeed. They want to see the antagonists get what is coming to them.
The crisis in the story of Flig involves his antagonist trying to call him out on his ruse right as Flig’s ring is about to go up for auction. Flig panics, terrified that he has been caught. However, in a stunning turn of events the woman Flig loves reveals that the antagonist is, in fact, selling fake paintings. The antagonist is tossed out of the auction house, his reputation in shambles, and his accusations against Flig instantly lose any credibility they had. Flig triumphs against the odds and finds both wealth and love.
While we wrap things up we talk about what happens after the dramatic auction scene. The ring is revealed to be the property of Flig’s love, who reclaims it. Flig, who chose to reveal his true identity to her before the climax, is allowed to marry her and they settle down to a comfortable life together. Flig and his wife also use some of her wealth to help improve conditions for the poor, and use their power to lobby the government for real change.
Crafting good scenes
While you are creating each scene there are several questions you should be asking yourself. Firstly, what is the purpose of this scene? It can be to advance the plot, show character growth, or help your readers get a more complete picture of the world your story occupies. You should also keep in mind the overarching goals of your characters. Each character you introduce should want something, and be working towards it. Flig wanted to sell the ring so he could have a better life. Flig’s wife wanted to find someone she genuinely loved. Flig’s enemy wanted to draw attention away from his own fraudulent activities by finding a way to distract his peers.
A note on subplots
Subplots are a great way to explore other points of view, flesh out secondary characters and add depth to the world. However, only add a subplot if it actually adds something to the story. Yes, you might want your character to find love in the end, but don’t add a love subplot just for its own sake. Instead use it as a tool. As Flig fell in love he became less selfish, and his black and white view of the world mellowed. His relationship with her also gave him the confidence he needed to succeed, and helped him discover that he could use his wealth to help more people than just himself. Even the antagonist, with his forged paintings, evolves over the course of the story. He forges the paintings to try and dig himself out of debt. Though he is eventually found out and his secret is revealed, a negative outcome, he is also set free by the truth. The situation remains the same, but he no longer has a secret eating away at him inside.
That is all for this week everyone! I hope you found this post useful.