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How I Plot a Novel – Step One

Originally published at Through the Tollbooth. You can comment here or there.

Usually when I start a story, I begin with one of two things (or both).

1. Voice (how the character sounds)

2. An image.

Usually I just hear my characters talking in my head, especially when I’m writing in the first person point-of-view. That’s how I get the voice of the main character and the story. Sometimes though, I start off with an image. My book, NEED, started with me seeing this strange smelly man at the Common Ground Fair in Maine. Another book, LOVE (AND OTHER USES FOR DUCT TAPE) started because I was actually on the treadmill, and the TV was on with no sound, and I was flipping through the channels and I saw an image of a girl throwing up (You didn’t actually see the throw-up) and crying by a toilet and her mom looking really sad, standing in the threshold of the bathroom. So, obviously, images can come from anywhere. So can voice. But plot? Plot…..

Essentially and most simply put, plot is what the characters do to deal with the situation they are in. It is a logical sequence of events that grow from an initial incident that alters the status quo of the characters.
Elizabeth George

I realized yesterday that in all the stories where I’ve stalled out (Like written 50, 100, pages and then switched to another project), I’ve stalled out not because of voice or image, but because of plot. And in all the stories that I’ve completed, I’ve done this…. It’s a breakdown of how I look at plot and the structure of the story.

CLEAR BASIC GOAL – This is what the character wants.

In my upcoming NEED book, this is a pretty clear goal. She wants to save the world. I like big goals. ;)

CATALYST – What ruins the balance of the character’s life. This upsets the way things are going. It forces a change. This should happen pretty early on in your story. I like to say in the first quarter.

BIG EVENT – This is where your main character’s life goes KABOOM! It’s a change. It’s a big change. It’s like finding out your ferret is really from a different planet and also psychic kind of change.

PINCH - Here we are, halfway through the book and suddenly there is a STUNNING PLOT TWIST. This is the point of no return. Your main character can’t turn back. Your main character is committed. Your main character’s motivation is totally there and obvious.

CRISIS - Ah… We must decide something here. This is the lowest of the low points. Everything looks hopeless. Your alien ferret has been kidnapped.

SHOWDOWN – People call this the climax, but my daughter doesn’t allow me to say that word. She thinks it is icky. This is the big event where the main character and the big baddie clash.

REALIZATION - Now that the big clash has happened, we all realize how much the ferret owner has changed and learned.

So, I do all this after I’ve written a little bit of the story. I want to make sure I’m on track. Sometimes things change. A PINCH becomes a CATALYST, etc. Things move about. These points help me however. They might help you. They might not. Do not worry if you don’t do this or don’t want to do this. Write your own way. My only writing advice for people is really: Keep writing. Writing is a craft and an art. It’s like playing guitar, the more you practice the better you get. ‘

A story to me means a plot where there is some surprise. Because that is how life is – full of surprises.
Isaac Bashevis Singer

My next post will be my second plot look-thru. And these points I’ve talked about here come from THE SCREENWRITER’S BIBLE, a very good plot book with other stuff in it too.

-Carrie Jones