Posted in Exercises, writing

Plotting a Series

As a writer, it’s entirely possible that at some point you get hit with an idea that is simply too big for one book. That might be because of complex plotlines, multiple points of view, or even because new story ideas keep cropping up that all connect tangentially back to the same thing. You’re looking at a series, and all the fun territory that comes with it.

Series might seem a little more unwieldy than a single standalone novel or even a duo, but they’re manageable. There are dozens of articles out there that will tell you the key to plotting a series is to give it an overarching goal. I’m not here to tell you that.

I’m here to tell you that as a novelist, you probably already have the tools you need to tackle a series.

Don’t laugh just yet. Let’s start at the macro level. In a series, each book is the next installment in a longer, overarching story. Down to the micro level, in a novel, each chapter is the next installment in a longer, overarching story. See the connection?

Series will be a little more detailed than your average chapter, but you can approach them the same way. Each chapter should have a goal and a conflict. So should each book in the series. And like a series, the entire book should have a central conflict.

So, rather than getting stuck on how long that series is and how difficult it seems to plot it, break it down like you would any other chapter.

For me, I like to write out a one-sentence summary of what happens in each chapter. So it might be something like this:

  1. Snow White’s father remarries an evil queen and dies on his wedding night.
  2. Snow White’s stepmother is furious to find the King’s will leaves Snow White the only heir.
  3. Stepmother tries to kill Snow White, who runs away into the woods.
  4. The Dwarves find and rescue Snow White but demand her help in exchange.
  5. Snow White solves a problem for each of the Dwarves.
  6. Stepmother finds out Snow White is still alive and sends a hunter to kill her.
  7. The Dwarves and Snow White flee their home.
  8. Snow White and the Dwarves gather an army of forest creatures.
  9. The army is marched onto the castle of the Stepmother.
  10. Snow White becomes queen and begins rebuilding.

You get the idea. Each chapter help builds and resolve the overall conflict. Now let’s take a look at these as if they were books in a series.

  1. Snow White’s father remarries an evil queen and dies on his wedding night.

On it’s own, it seems pretty simple, but if we’re assuming that’s the overall conflict, then we know there’s more to it, so it might end up being something more like this:

  1. Snow White’s father remarries an evil queen and dies on his wedding night.
    1. Snow White begs her father not to marry his bride.
    2. Stepmother convinces King Snow is merely grieving her mother.
    3. Snow White discovers proof Stepmother will kill King.
    4. Stepmother blocks Snow White from attending the wedding.
    5. The king is poisoned at supper.
    6. King dies and Stepmother warns Snow White the same can happen to her.
    7. Snow White learns she will be queen when she comes of age and decides to simply wait Stepmother out.

The ending for this one resolves it as a tragedy while still leaving it open for the next story. Snow White will be Queen…if she can avoid angering Stepmother long enough. Likewise, the next book furthers the conflict when Stepmother finally discovers that she’s only Queen until Snow White is old enough to take the throne.

Chapters work the same way. Each one has a smaller conflict in it that must be resolved, but that still feeds into the main plot. First chapters, like first books, open up the main conflict, but still handle their own struggles. Final chapters and books resolve all the conflicts and leave the story with a satisfactory ending.

As an exercise: Take your favorite series and write a one-sentence summary of each book. Then break each book into a one-sentence summary of each chapter.

Posted in General, writing

Outlining Methods

One of my least favorite tasks when I’m getting ready to start editing is creating an outline. As much as I know they’re useful and will help me create a better draft, they take time to create. The most important thing about an outline is that it is only a tool. Regardless of how or even when you create an outline, they are incredibly useful and can help you structure your novel.

And, the beautiful part about outlines is that much like the writing process itself, there’s a variety. If you’re more of a discovery/pantster/garden writer (like me!) you might find writing an outline beforehand kills your story. You can save it for later. If you need a structure to keep you on track without boggling down the details, there are methods for that too. If you’re happy creating an outline before you start on Chapter One, then you have your pick of outline flavors based on your needs and preferences for a story.

If you have trouble with breaking your story down into chapters, it might help to use a synopsis. Because the synopsis is all of the events that happen in a story, it can be useful if you have the premise and the characters, but need some guidance on the plot itself. Bonus point for the synopsis: you’re more than likely going to need to write one at some point, especially if you’re planning on traditional publishing. Most synopses are summaries of the scenes and dialogue.

Another summary-like method is often called the flashlight method. I’ve also see this occasionally referred to as the ‘traditional’ method. In essence, you create one or two sentences for each chapter or story section. You can use the Hero’s Journey or the traditional plot structure known as Freytag’s pyramid if you’re not sure where your chapters are. The flashlight method flexes well enough that you can dedicate entire pages to each section, or keep it all on index cards.

If detail is a large priority for you, consider an expanding outline such as the snowflake method. With the snowflake method you start with a single sentence and simply keep expanding until you’ve reached the level of detail you want. If you choose to use the original form of this method (created by Randy Ingermanson) it can be very work-intensive but steps you through everything from character arcs through to plot and into early scenes.

The final method I want to cover is the mind map. This is a fantastic thing for brainstorming. You start with your core premise and began mapping out the parts that branch off from it. This includes things like your Main Character, who then has branches out for his goal, his motivation, his flaw. It might also include your main conflict and how it connects to your Main Character and your antagonist. This doesn’t follow any structure, so be warned that it may not give you a clear-cut plot line.

Regardless of what you use to outlines, keep in mind that these are organizational tools. As your story develops and changes, you might find yourself needing to revisit and revise your outline.

Posted in General

The Revision Process

One of the biggest things I struggled with when I started taking writing seriously was the revision process. By nature and default, I write the story without a plan and let it go where it will. Coupling that with the fact that I’m constantly getting new ideas and I’ve taught myself to write a rough draft pretty quickly. I have a constant stack of rough drafts that I’m pretty much always adding too. The big problem for me is that when I’m ready to move from rough draft to next draft, I always feel like I’m staring at a pile of words and wondering where to start.

Writing being what it is and being so highly subjective, there isn’t going to be a guide on ‘do this next’ that suits every writer every single time. However, while trying to figure out where my revision processes was the slowest, I ended up with a list of steps I usually take. While this won’t necessarily fit every person, if you’re wondering ‘what next’ this might give you some ideas of your own on where to head next.

Notes are a huge thing for me. Before I actually start editing, I read through the whole draft and make notes about edits I want to make. Usually I do these by hand and have my own short-hand for it (+ to add something, – to take it out, ~ for changing something completely). This way I can get a good overview of where I’m at and where I want to be.

A Character List is the next step. I do this so I don’t forget anyone, and so I can mark down who is playing for the protagonist, the antagonist, or themselves. Typically I leave enough space that I can jot down what their goal and motivation is. This makes it easy to see if I have hidden conflicts I haven’t touched on, or if I have solid reasoning for two characters to be opposing each other.

Because I use outlines only after I’ve done the first draft, Plot Breakdowns help me check to make sure my conflicts and resolutions don’t have gaping holes in them. Although I’ve used the standard plot structure (exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution) to do this before, I’ve also found another method focused on the conflicts rather than the events that works better for me (I’ll cover that method in another post, so keep any eye out for it!).

With my characters and plot done, it’s time to make the Outline. I try to do this based on memory of the rough draft and with the information in the plot breakdown and from the notes. This makes it easier to limit extraneous scenes from the rough that either didn’t pan out or that just don’t fit in with the plot properly, as well as give myself a roadmap of changes I need to make while rewriting scenes.

Once all of that’s done, it’s time to tackle the next draft. At this point I actually create a new document and work side-by-side the original. This way if I come across a phrase or sentence I like, I can copy and paste directly into the new draft while cleaning up any questionable word choice as I go.

This doesn’t hold true on every single project I’m working on. Series are a little more involved because I also need to make sure the series arc itself makes sense and progresses. On occasion I’ve also come across a draft that needs a lot more work than just listed above–things like just finding the main plot, changing or reducing the number of view points, possibly even revamping the initial idea. In this case I may have to just work off the notes I’ve made and rewrite most if not all of the initial draft.

Posted in writing

The Outline

Outlines are well known tools for writers. Many writers like to use them as a way to help discover and plan the story before they begin writing, while others look at the outline with some dismay. Regardless of how you view outlines, they are well-known for a reason.

It’s important to remember that an outline isn’t concrete. Think of it more as a guideline that can change just as the needs of your story change. It can change just as much as your story does.

The other really important thing about an outline is that you don’t need it before you start writing that first draft. In fact, you may find it more useful to create an outline after you’ve written the story, to help you edit. I’ve found this helps identify extraneous scenes, but also to help build support for saggy middles.

Outlines also take a lot of different forms. List, bullet points, flow charts, summaries. There are about a dozen different ways to create an outline. And like everything else in writing, the only one that’s guaranteed to work is the one that works for you. Trial and error are your friends.