Developing the Plot of a Novel

developing the plot of a novel

Developing the Plot of a Novel can be done as a planner or pantser. Whether you have found your inspiration from a newspaper or found your inspiration from people watching, the inspiration, or theme, is only a starting point, and needs developing into a plot.

Let me give you a couple of examples.

You may have decided to write a romance. Jack meets Jill, and they fall in love. That’s the theme of many stories in the romance genre, but if that was all there was, then romances would be extremely boring. ‘Jack meets Jill and they fall in love’ is too small a story to keep anyone interested. You could change the names as often as you like, but that single sentence would never be enough, and that’s where the plot comes in.

The plot of the novel keeps the reader interested. It provides background context, some excitement, and a satisfactory conclusion. How did Jack and Jill meet, and why did they go up the hill? What made Jack fall down, and why did Jill follow? Did they subsequently go their separate ways, or live happily ever after?

Similarly with a political thriller. You may have decided to write a novel with the theme ‘a woman becomes president of the United States‘. That’s fine as a theme, but that single sentence on its own will not make a novel. You need a plot. 

Who was the woman, and what was her background? What made her run for office? What are her political beliefs and what party does she belong to? How did she become her party’s nominee? How did she overcome her political opponents to become president? What changes does she make once in office?

You don’t so much write a novel as daydream it. Whatever method of plot development you use you need to see the story in your mind. You need to live it in your imagination, and only then put pen to paper or finger to keyboard.

The plot changes an idea into a book, and changes a theme into a novel.

Authors have two main ways of developing the plot of a novel from a basic idea. Authors are generally planners or pantsers, and there are some very well known and successful authors in both camps.

PLANNERS

Planners like to plan everything out in advance.

Before starting to write the novel, they will write detailed notes about what happens at each stage of the story from start to finish. They will write descriptions of their main characters, and descriptions of the main locations where their characters will find themselves. They will know how their story starts, how it ends, and all the different events happening in between.

Planners put a lot of time and effort into planning things out in advance and you may feel this is counterproductive if you are eager to start writing. It is true planning a novel can take a long time, and the more detailed your plan, the longer it takes. However, once your plan is complete it may save you time in the long run because once you sit down to write your novel you know exactly what you are going to write.

PANTSERS

Pantsers are the exact opposite. They fly by the seat of their pants (hence the name) and plan nothing. They imagine a great start, or a fantastic opening sentence, but have no idea where the story will go or where it will end. They write their opening scene, and every time they stop writing they let the character dictate what happens next.

Pantsers don’t plan anything in advance, but the novel is as much an adventure to them as they hope it will be to future readers. Like future readers, the writer doesn’t know what’s going to happen next, and this, they hope, will keep their story fresh and exciting. Again, you may feel this would be counterproductive, and without a plan your novel will not be as good, but lovers of the classic film ‘Casablanca’ know differently. The two brothers who wrote the screenplay were pantsers. They submitted pages of screenplay daily to the director, who filmed it that day whilst the brothers began working on the screenplay for the following day. The film became a classic because neither the director nor the actors knew what was happening next.

MIDDLE GROUND

There are planners and pantsers, but when developing the plot of a novel many authors pick and mix. They do some planning before letting the story take them on a journey of exploration.

One of the best hybrid methods of developing a plot is to use the first two parts of what is known as the Snowflake Method.

The Snowflake Method has ten parts to it, but the first two parts can help pantsers who fly by the seat of their pants, just as much as planners who plans everything in advance.

The first part of the Snowflake Method is to write the complete story in a single sentence of 15 words or fewer. The famous elevator pitch.

Imagine getting into a lift with someone who is getting out at the next floor, and you only have seconds to describe what your story is about. Here are a couple of examples.

Civil war in a distant galaxy from the perspective of rebels fighting evil Imperial forces. (15 words – Star Wars).

Bomber pilot fakes insanity to avoid war, but wanting to avoid bombing proves his sanity. (15 words – Catch-22).

I recommend this as a good place for any author to start. Sooner or later, someone is going to discover you are writing a book, and they are going to ask what your story is about. You may or may not be in an elevator at the time, but if the story is clear in your mind you should be able to give a short and concise description of it in a single sentence. If you can’t, you need to firm up your idea before sitting down to write. 

The second part of the snowflake method is to enlarge that single sentence into a paragraph of five sentences. Introduction, three crisis points, and conclusion. That gives you a complete description of your novel from start to finish. One sentence about how the story starts, a sentence about how the story will end, and three sentences about crisis points along the way.

Even for pantser’s, a paragraph explaining the entire book in five sentences is liberating because they know the story works. They know where they are starting and where they want to end, so when they start writing they have a destination to aim for.

Here are a couple of examples of single sentences stories enlarged to five sentence plots as part of the process of developing the plot of a novel .

A large white shark terrorises a small coastal town, but is eventually killed. (13 words – Jaws).

After a young girl is killed by a shark, the local sheriff to wants to close the beach. It is the summer tourist season, and the mayor and local businessmen overrule the sheriff’s request resulting in the beach remaining open and the shark killing a boy. After a financial reward is offered for the shark’s death several shark hunters mistakenly believe a group of them have caught and killed the shark. The sheriff, a marine biologist, and one of the expert shark killers realise the shark is still alive and hunt for it. The shark kills the marine biologist and the expert shark killer before dying from injuries inflicted on it whilst the sheriff escapes. (5 sentences – Jaws).

A boy attending a school for wizards defeats an evil wizard threatening the world. (14 words – Harry Potter).

A young boy learns he is a wizard, and is enrolled at a school for wizards. Every year he learns wizarding skills to help him overcome an increasingly powerful evil wizard. Some schoolfriends and masters help him, but other pupils and masters hinder him. The evil wizard’s soul has been split into seven, and the young wizard sets off to destroy those souls whilst the evil wizard tries to prevent their destruction. Once the young wizard has destroyed the evil wizard’s souls, he is able to kill the evil wizard himself. (5 sentences – Harry Potter)

If you’re a planner, there’s lots more planning to do. If you’re a pantser, that single paragraph is all you need. It’s like a walk in a strange country. Planners may want a map, a compass, and a step-by-step description of every part of the route. Pantser’s only need to know where they start and the destination they’re aiming for. They’ll find the route for themselves.

The crucial advantage of the Snowflake Method comes if you work on that single paragraph before you begin writing your novel. If you can write the paragraph, you know your story will work. If you can’t write the paragraph you need to rethink your story.

Ultimately, it gives you more confidence (if it works) or prevents a lot of heartache down the road (if it doesn’t work). There is nothing worse than not knowing how to end a novel after getting half-way through it, and the world is full of unfinished stories by disheartened would-be authors.

So when developing the plot of a novel write a single sentence to describe your story, then enlarge that sentence into a five sentence paragraph taking you from the start to the end of your story. That single process will keep you on the right track, whether you are a planner or pantser, and those five sentences provide a roadmap for each of the four quarters of your book.

Sentence 1) Your opening should be a crisis.
Sentence 2) That crisis develops over the first quarter of your novel.
Sentence 3) A second crisis develops over the second quarter of your novel.
Sentence 4) A third crisis develops over the third quarter of your novel. Three quarters through your novel, your main character is dealing with the accumulated problems of three crises.
Sentence 5) During the final quarter of your novel, your main character must resolve all the crises and bring everything to a satisfactory conclusion.

It’s important to realise plans are never set in stone. There is a saying within military circles that the best laid plans only last until the first shot is fired. Writing can be like that too. If you are a planner, however detailed your plan, it describes your starting point and future intentions. As you write, you may well come back and change things in the light of events. Stories sometimes develop a mind of their own, so plans are always changeable. Keeping a final destination in mind, though, ensures you don’t end up too far off the beaten track or stuck down a dead-end.

For those who are planners, the first two parts of the Snowflake method are only the beginning . If you decide you are a planner rather than a pantser I’d advise you to read the book written by the person who devised the Method. His book, ‘How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method’ by Randy Ingermanson, should be available to order from most good book sellers, but you can find an outline of his method on his own website at https://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/articles/snowflake-method/ and will help you in developing the plot of a novel

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