Novel Design: Plot Structure
With just 23 days before NaNoWriMo, you should have a nice outline of your story drawn out.
Oops. I got nothing. In fact, I’m working on two completely separate story ideas right now. But plots are coming…I hope.
Anyways, despite the “No plot? No problem.” mantra of NaNoWriMo, constructing the barest outline of a plot can help you immensely. A roadmap of your novel provides scope and direction for your writing. Having the final outcome in mind allows you to focus on the journey.
Here are some popular methods for plot construction:
Heroes Journey. I’ve written a crapload of posts on this, please read at your leisure. To sum up, Heroes Journey is a 12-step program to construct a novel, based on mythical storytelling. It is perfect for almost any story that involves drama and action, where your Hero transforms from Billy Bob Joe Everyday to Mr. Super Dude, solves a case, falls in love, learns a lesson, or fights the Underworld.
- Based on thousands of years of storytelling tradition.
- Defines character types and general obstacles Hero must face.
- Almost every major motion picture is based on it.
- It’s not actually a plot, it’s just a collection of somewhat optional elements in a rough but non-binding order
- It is a little formulaic, makes everything sound like Star Wars or Avatar
- Specific genres have specific requirements which it doesn’t address (so research your specific genre to find those requirements)
The Snowflake Method. A very intuitive method that involves creating broad strokes and then filling in the details as you go. For instance, start with a one-line description of each chapter. Then a paragraph. Then a page. For each character, do the same. For each setting, etc.
- Gives an easy drill-down into your story
- Allows you to work at any level of detail
- “Pay as you go” writing. Makes the big details right so you don’t write sections that will be deleted.
- Once again, it’s not a plot. It’s a method.
- Commits you to the big picture
- Sometimes the devil is in the small details. Sometimes my best insights into my characters have come from the things they let slip in conversations or small acts.
X-Act Structure. Now we’re talking. 3, 5, 7 act structures are all out there. Also, there are books like “20 Master Plots” that literally explain every possible plot. Let’s face it, there are really no new ideas out there, everything that can be done has been done. But this is good news. This means that the “winning” plots have been identified and are ripe for the taking.
- Definitive framework to craft your story upon
- Identifies high and low points such as setbacks, breakthroughs, and ordeals and where they go in your story
- Proven structures that appeal to readers
- They don’t help you figure out what your story is about, just how it flows.
- It’s not a methodology, just a analysis.
- NaNoWriMo is more about exploration than conformation. Crafting a story is hard work; sometimes it’s better to just write it, then worry about structure during editing.
So I hope that left you more confused than when you started reading this. Personally, I use parts of all three methods. I start with Heroes Journey, writing a few paragraphs about each aspect. Then, using the Snowflake Method, I fill in the details until I have a list of potential scenes. I use 3-Act Structure to define the turning points in the story. Then I write it.
Here’s the other problem I’ve found. Recently in my critique groups, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend for writers to throw everything in their stories, every piece of description and characters they can think of. I’ve been calling it “detail diarrhea.” During the course of plotting and planning your story, you may come up with 2-10 times the number of great ideas more than you can use in the story, and then when you actually sit down and write it, double those figures again. Ideas happen.
My final piece of advice is to plot small. Heading into NaNoWriMo, plan for a story somewhat smaller than what you’d like. Perhaps fewer subplots, a reduced cast, not as many settings. Recently, I came up with a list of everything Sophia must achieve in Steam Palace:
Sophia must find a way to rescue Viola, restore Thomas’ honor, convince Ghost to join their cause, locate the mythical Sea Key, and fight off her country’s invaders before war claims the remnants of a once-proud kingdom.
That’s even an edited-down list, and it’s TOO MUCH. If I had that in my original planning document, I’d probably freak out. Give your character ONE GOAL to achieve during the course of the story, otherwise you' may dig yourself a huge hole that 200,000 words won’t fill.