Plan a Novel 3: Flesh and Getting Unstuck

— August 22, 2011 (9 comments)
You've got the idea and have even figured out the major plot points, but a handful of plot points won't always carry you for 80,000 words.

For me, I need intermediate plot points -- the Midpoint and Pinches I mentioned last time -- but even that's not enough. The characters need obstacles, goals, and subconflicts (that still related to the main conflict in some direct way) to get me from that first Turning Point to the Climax.

I get stuck at this point. A lot. As I continue to go over my story, making it bigger and bigger as I go, these are some areas I've found that help trigger ideas:

I usually know which characters have weak arcs at this point. Sometimes it's the MC, sometimes it's the secondary characters, sometimes it's the villain (heck, sometimes I realize I don't even have a villain).

Sometimes my major characters are in place, but it's still not enough. In that case, I'll look at the minor characters and see if any could stand to be bumped up. What are their goals and desires? How do they conflict with the MC's or the villain's?

Often I focus too much on plot and not enough on what I want to say. My themes change a lot over the course of the book, but thinking about them can help me find scenes and connect plot points.

So I think about what subjects I care about that maybe aren't addressed yet. Are there any hard questions I struggle with that I want one or more of the characters to explore? What naturally tugs on my heart? (NOT, however, "What message do I want to convey?" Whenever I do that, my stories always get preachy and soul-sucking.)

Usually this leads back to the characters. I think the best way to explore a theme is to make one of my characters face it themselves.

If the characters aren't providing enough conflict, maybe the setting should. Or maybe there's some critical gap in my world's history, or some cool bit of magic/technology/whatever I could highlight.

So I research(ish). Do I need a war? A revolution? I hunt around Wikipedia for something that piques my interest. Or more likely, I do more research into whatever country/era my world is loosely based on, until something pricks an idea and I realize I have to add that to the story.

Other times it's not history I need, but plot. If something feels weak to me, it's usually because it was my first idea. Lately I've been spending an increasing amount of time at TV Tropes for that -- dangerous, I know, but effective if I stay focused on the tropes I might actually use or subvert.

Often just subverting the weak point the plot is enough to drive the whole story in a new and interesting direction. At the moment, this is my favorite new trick.

Next week will be the last in this series, talking about outlines and cheating. But you tell me -- whether you plot ahead of time or not -- what do you do (or where do you go) when you don't know what happens next?

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  1. Great post, Adam! I think I'll be printing this one out for the wall.

    I'm trying to be a better plotter, but I think I'll always be a pantser at heart. My first drafts are always usually nothing more than a few vague ideas, a couple of characters, and I write and see what happens. If I get stuck I backtrack until it works again.

    Very unscientific!

  2. The problem for me, as I progress, is that I tend to add in extra points of conflict (sub-conflicts, as you say), and this leads to a web of interaction, both physical and emotional that must be addressed in near every scene, which becomes challenging to make it fluid (e.g., MC must worry about minor antagonist who wants to kick his ass, must worry about/dote on his girlfriend who he's left behind for reason B, must overcome his anger at sidekick over perceived betrayal, must overcome his guilt at perceived cowardice - which relates to perceived betrayal - must worry about his best friend, who's lost in the woods/possibly dead, must figure out what's going on in this new world he's landed on, which, btw, happens to be at war, and he's not quite sure which side's the good side... This is my current situation, and it boggles my brain on a daily basis :)

  3. First idea syndrome - I have it, but I'm battling it. Great post! :)

  4. Eek. I'm planning on addressing the character arcs, whether I have enough sub points, etc. as I go along. I have a pretty good outline with the major points in the story, but I have a hard time planning ahead when I'm not at a certain point yet. So I pants along and see how it works out. It's a dangerous method, but it's what I feel comfortable with so far. I just hope I don't write myself into a corner.

  5. @Keri: Every method is valid and every method works. Just be ready to delete whole scenes or chapters (<-- that advice also applies to every method, even obsessive planning like mine).

  6. Ooh, such a great post! You've definitely got me thinking about elements I need to develop in my story. I think secondary character motivations is something I need to work on. The motivations may be mysterious to my heroine, but they shouldn't be to me! :P Thanks for the super helpful tips.

  7. Glad to help, Linda. Ideally, we should know the goals and desires of every character, big or small, but I forget to do it with the small ones too.

  8. When I get stuck, if I can't write my way though it in a few tries, then I work on something else.

    It is amazing how the mind struggles though things, and within a few days, I'm usually back on point. But I have closed something for more than a year waiting for that revelation.

    It did come, by the way--the revelation about that ms that sat unopened for a year. It always comes--you just have to be patient.

  9. That's great to hear, Heidi. I've got a rough draft of something sitting around waiting for me to love it again too. Hopefully that revelation will come.