Three Steps to Plotting a Successful Novel
Please welcome guest author, Dr. John Yeoman, with three steps to plotting a successful novel using a combination of outlining and discovery writing.
Or would you rather start with a strong idea, drop in some interesting characters, then go with the flow?
The Michelangelo approach is at the heart of every plotting software program.
It’s painting by numbers, though the numbers can get complicated. (Think of the Sistine Chapel.) Once you’ve invested in such programs, you’ll find that the same job could often be done using the Table utility in Word, and less expensively. But you still need to know what to put into each cell. And that’s what these programs are selling.
They have the merit that, once you’ve drafted every plot twist, character profile, scene setting, and transitional device suggested by the program, you know where you’re going. Michelangelos rarely have writer’s block. Their stories get finished.
Kandinskys despise plot schemes.
Plotting programs stifle creativity, they say, and produce cookie-cutter stories. True, they do. Such stories may head The New York Times best-seller lists, but they lack freshness, innovation, and surprise… they’re artificial.
One of the benefits of the free-flowing Kandinsky approach is that, in the hands of a gifted author, it can give a tale a fresh sensibility—and surprise—that’s exactly like real life.
Allegedly, Dostoyevsky finished The Brothers Karamazov because he had no idea what the characters would do next. He had to write the next scene to find out. That’s one reason why the novel still glows with freshness 130 years after it was written.
However, the downside of the go-with-the-flow method, for new authors, is that their characters wander all over the place. At the end, the best scenes—wonderful but irrelevant—have to be cut and months of work are wasted.
What’s the answer?
Can you really combine the precision craftsmanship of a Michelangelo with the free-wheeling creativity of a Kandinsky? Yes! Simply let a plotting formula be your guide, not your master. For example, here’s a standard plot scheme:
Our main character is faced with a challenge that threatens their life or community. They confront the challenge. They fail. They try again but things get even worse. So it goes, chapter after chapter. We might weave in a few sub-plots where lesser characters face their own big challenges.
At last, we achieve our desired word length. We can allow our main character to succeed! (Or fail heroically.) The bit players might also be granted some reward, or punishment, to the degree that the reader likes or hates them.
That’s a very long-whiskered formula. (It’s the pattern of The Aeneid.) But how can we enhance it with individuality, our own creative flair?
A three-step formula for plotting:
1. First, sketch out the structure of the scenes:
- Challenge. (The character reflects upon it.)
- Resolve. (S/he does something about it.)
- Failure. (Their remedy doesn’t work. This is a good moment to drop in a page hanger: I thought the day could not get worse but events were to prove me wrong.)
- Transition. (Link to the next scene.)
2. Second, establish the settings: a bar in Houston, a cottage garden in Kent, whatever. Equip them with props that aren’t just furniture but add meaning to the story. (The tables were so tacky that even the flies wore gloves.)
3. Third, give your characters permission to wander about, within the structure of the scene. You know you have, say, 1500 words to make your protagonist Jed insult his girlfriend by mistake. She flounces off. He chases after her to apologize (too late). He drinks too much, fights the bartender, gets arrested, and then has philosophical thoughts in the jailhouse.
As long as you get those key points covered, you can be as creative and free-flowing as you like—within the scene.
You can be both Michelangelo and Kandinsky
Do you paint each incident in glowing color, carefully structured from the perspective of an omniscient narrator (Michelangelo)? Or should you let the reader into your character’s mind and share his intimate thoughts and emotions, chaotic and free-flowing (Kandinsky)? Now you can combine both approaches.
Plot a novel or long story using this 3-step method and you can pedantically paint by numbers, scene by scene, yet still produce a work that’s gloriously original. And nobody will accuse you of being formulaic!
About the Author: Dr. John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, judges the Writers’ Village story competition and is a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. He has been a successful commercial author for 42 years. A wealth of further ideas for writing fiction that sells can be found in his free 14-part story course at: Writers’ Village.