Plan a Novel 2: The Skeleton

So you've got a novel-sized idea. What do you do with that?

Well the next thing I do is a heckuva lot of brainstorming, with one goal in mind: the skeleton outline. (Note: I never actually called it that until now).

Much like in the idea stage, I slowly adding bits and pieces to the idea until I'm certain it's strong enough to support a novel. In the idea stage, I'm mostly looking at the premise and thinking, "I don't have a climax for this, but is this the kind of premise that could support a good one?" In the skeleton stage, I find that climax.

Put simply, I'm looking for the main parts of Syd Field's Paradigm (also known as a fleshed-out, screenwriting version of the Three Act Structure), specifically:
  1. Inciting Incident. This is the opening scene (or close to it), in which something happens to the MC that triggers everything else. Luke's uncle buys the rebel droids. Frodo inherits the Ring.
  2. Turning Point: The point of no return. The inciting incident ultimately leads here, where the MC is forced to leave their innocent world behind (or possibly they must choose to leave it behind for something greater). Luke's aunt and uncle are killed. Frodo flees the Shire.
  3. Midpoint: The reversal. Something happens, or some truth is revealed, that changes the direction of the story. This is sort of a screenplay thing, but I love it so much I use it in my novels. Ben Kenobi is killed. Frodo leaves the Fellowship.
  4. Climax: After a series of obstacles, successes, and failures, the MC faces their most difficult moment and, ultimately, must face the antagonist.
  5. Resolution: The MC wins (or loses), but I have to decide how much I want to resolve in this novel, and what I can leave hanging for possible future ones. (I have yet to write a novel where I resolve EVERYTHING).
I might also start thinking about Obstacles (those pesky things that fill the space between the Turning Point and the Climax) and Pinches (brief reminders of what the real conflict is, while the MC focuses on his current Obstacle). Filling out the rest of that checklist helps a lot too.

Often this is the stage where my characters show up. I usually have an MC, of course, but he needs a villain. He might need a straight man, a foil, or a love interest. In order to figure out the midpoint and the climax, I have to start getting to know some of these characters, maybe give them their own arcs. One of them might be lying to another, but why? About what? What happens when the other finds out?

But even though the characters show up, I still know very little about them. I don't know their voice at all, their families or background, or even whether they're funny or not. But there is one thing I must know in order to complete the skeleton: I have to know what each of these main characters WANTS.

Without that, it's hard to get anywhere. But the cool thing is, with that, large parts of the story start writing themselves. Especially when characters have conflicting goals.

Next week I'll talk about turning the skeleton into a full-on story, and the kinds of things I do when I get stuck. To you, though: What's your process? Do you follow a formula (like the 3-Act Structure) when you write, or do you wing it?


    linda said...

    Ooh, awesome timing! Last night I pulled up a ton of the structure/plotting articles I'd bookmarked before, because I realized that it's too hard to make myself write when I don't have the entire story mapped out. Everything felt like a muddle in my brain and I really wanted to get it all organized somewhere. So yeah, I love planning ahead and learning about structure. :) Personally, I prefer structural breakdowns that include more points/elements since otherwise I feel like I have a gaping hole in the middle, haha. Anyway, looking forward to your next post, and thanks for the great series!

    Joshua McCune said...

    I always tend to add extra turning points... my skeletons get more bones than originally intended (I've decided I'm a Plotser).

    Adam Heine said...

    I prefer more structure too, linda, which is why I turned to the Paradigm in the first place. The Midpoint and Pinches are just what I needed to get myself through the otherwise-unstructured Act 2.

    Nancy Thompson said...

    Perfect timing, Adam. I'm ready to start outlining my second novel. I need something to stimulate that starting point.