Saturday, February 13, 2010

How to Write a Novel 2: From Idea to Plot

Quote: “Plot is not just about having a single great idea; on the contrary, a good plot is an amalgamation of many ideas or elements of writing, including characterization, journey, suspense, conflict, and context. An idea is paramount, but without these supporting elements, an idea by itself is just that—an idea, an abstraction, not a 120- or 300-oage living being replete with shades, color, and texture.”
~Noah Lukeman

Song Playing:
“Time Lapse Lifeline” Maria Taylor

Yes! I am blogging on a Saturday! That’s how much I love you all!

Although, Saturdays aren’t a day off for me, they are actually one of my busiest days, so it’s not like a real Saturday. Not like you people who work Monday through Friday, and have two days off in a row. Mine are spread out—Sunday and Wednesday—which I kinda like. Work a few days, have a day off, work another few days, another day off, lather rinse repeat.

And boy, did we get some snow. At least three inches, and it’s still there this morning from last night. What is that you say? Three inches isn’t a lot of snow? I know, I am from Upstate New York (a tiny, tiny little hamlet near Kingston in the Catskill Mountain region), so three feet of snow wasn’t considered that much. But I am currently residing twenty minutes south of Atlanta, Georgia, and three inches that stick is a veritable blizzard down here. Plus it’s icing over. I am crossing my fingers for a snow day.

Anyways, it’s time to continue our journey through the How to Write a Novel series. Today’s topic is From Idea to Plot. Again, the methods I am describing are simply what works for me, so your mileage may vary.

From Idea to Plot

So now you have a shiny new idea you want to write a book about. Yay for you! Maybe this idea came to you as a dream (some of mine have), maybe you thought of it in a flash of glory and conflict, maybe you were doing something totally boring and mundane, and two previously unrelated ideas fused themselves together in your mind to form one AMAZING superhero type of idea.

However it happened, you have an idea. Or hopefully, you have several ideas for books, but it’s time to sit down and work on one.

1. Which Idea?

The first step isn’t to flesh an idea out as you might think, but to figure out which idea you want to work on. If you only have one or two ideas, or there is one in particular that feels like it’s burning a hole inside you, then this step is almost invisible, and probably not even a conscious one for most writers. Sometimes you wake up from a great dream and set to fleshing this idea out right away. If this is the case, kudos to you, and do a little dance of joy that you don’t have to decide which idea you want to work on.

It’s incredibly important to work on what you are fervently interested in. It takes a looooong time to write a novel, even if you type very fast (like me) so being almost obsessed about your idea is necessary energy (and will keep you out of prison. No one has been sent to prison for stalking an idea, that I know of. Most of the time, these people, these “published authors” are rewarded instead, with cushy book contracts). If you aren’t passionate about what you are working on, whether it’s fiction, non-fiction, or experimental haiku, it’s going to be very difficult to see this all the way through. So, pick the idea you find the most interesting.

If there isn’t one idea that grabs you, or you haven’t had an Eureka! moment lately, it’s okay. Don’t fret. It feels a little weird looking at ideas when one isn’t screaming in your brain to be worked on, but there are other ways of choosing what idea to work on. It’s like going shopping. Sometimes you go to the store knowing exactly what you want (a neon green trench coat) and you walk over to the neon green trench coat section, pick one up, and proceed to the checkout counter. But sometimes you window shop. You know you need some new clothes, but you’re not sure what sort of clothing you’re looking for.

So you need to figure out what sort of book you would like to work on. If you have already written several, maybe you want to develop something different than your previous novels (“I’ve written extensively about monkeys…maybe I would like to write a book about hedgehogs?”). If so, then this is a case of process of elimination. Trying new subjects is nice, but make sure you can still relate to the book in some way. For example, I have a main character who is an older middle aged man. I am a young woman. Pretty different from me on the outside, but internally he struggles with the same issues I do, so I have no problems relating to his struggles.

Maybe you want to write a book about a certain setting (IN SPACE!), or a certain plot (super spy finds love letters in code), or a certain concept (can a person overcome their upbringing?). Whatever it is, make sure it’s something you have a lot to say about. Like, a couple hundred pages worth of something to say.

2. To Theme or Not To Theme

There’s a lot of fur flying over theme and concept and symbolism in the writing community. Some people write with a clear theme in mind, and some people don’t. Whatever works for you, is what I say, and that’s your little red wagon is what Stephen King says.

I usually have a question that I think about in regards to the book. Not a theme exactly, not a moral-bat (similar to the clue bat) that I hit the readers upside the heads with, but a pondering of mine. I think most books are like questions that writers are trying to find the answers to. A simple YA romance novel can be just as it appears to be, and the writer might not have had any other themes or symbols in mind while writing it, but the book is still the writer asking themselves the question: “If I put these characters, at this location, into these circumstances, what will happen?” This question might have Higher Implications about the human condition, or the nature of love, or what have you, but these Implications are almost always personal to each reader. I like having a single question in mind because it helps me stay on track.

3. What if?

Now that you have chosen the idea you want to work on, you can start the brainstorming process. If you are cowering in fear, no you don’t have to do tree diagrams like we did in middle school English. There are loads of ways to brainstorm. You just find the best way for you, and go from there. Also, be aware that this process, from Idea to Plot can take a long time. I have had ideas floating around in my head for years, for reals. You can keep the idea in your head for a while, thinking about it, chewing on it, and waiting to see if anything else comes to you. It’s almost better this way, because once you have a good bit of time to stew on the idea, other possibilities open themselves up to you that you might not have thought about before. But, on the other hand, I have also had the stroke of brilliance moment, sat down to write the idea down, and the plot, and characters, and everyone just keep coming until I was ready to write the book. Some authors exclusively do this one way or another, but I tend to go between the SHINY NEW IDEA phase, and Idea I Have Been Thinking About Since Moses Was A Wee Lad. Whatever works for you.

When you are ready to brainstorm, sit down, and start thinking. This is really, really fun. Try to ask yourself as many questions about your idea, and just let the ideas and questions flow like a river of milk and honey (or chocolate and soda, whichever metaphor makes you happier). Don’t tell yourself a thought or tangent is stupid, don’t worry about the logistics of a thought (in space, how could cavemen even get there?), just write down whatever comes to mind. I find it easier to phrase everything in the form of a question, because I get better, more relevant answers that way. Just What If? and Why? away:

What if a spy found encoded love letters and broke the code, and realized they were addressed to him?
What if those letters were a code for a tactical nuke strike? What if they were a code for a grocery store list? What if they were letters from his mom, who missed him?
What if another spy wrote the letter, meaning for him to eventually break the code and realize her feelings for him?
What if the person the spy delivered the letters to thought they were for her, and thought the spy wrote them himself?

And so on. The point is to just try and think of all the possible ways for this idea to play itself out. Sometimes I find it useful to purposefully reverse roles (especially gender roles) and expectations. So if I was writing the spy story, you might expect the story to wind up being a love triangle between the spy, the lover, and the recipient of the letters, but what if the letter recipient was the spy’s daughter and the spy didn’t know about it (I am aware this make no sense in context of a lover sending a spy secret messages, but do you see how my mind jumped from one idea straight to another? Don’t be afraid to make leaps and conclusions; you can always fill in the backstory so your new idea makes sense later)? So instead you have the lover thinking the spy was cheating on her “another woman” but this other woman turns out to be the spy’s daughter he’s trying to smuggle out of the king’s harem…and what if I reversed all the genders, so now it’s a woman spy, her son, and her lover?

The point isn’t to make your story so twisty and turny that the readers get annoyed, or worse, come to expect it (*cough*M. Night Shamaylan *coughcough*), but to develop the idea itself as something fresh yet recognizable. Maybe you don’t make it a twist that the spy’s son is trapped in the Queen’s harem, but something that the lover already knew about, so the story becomes a mission between the spy and her lover to free her son. It’s not necessarily plot twists (though they might occur to you at this stage) you’re looking for, but idea and concepts in general. You ever hear agents make some noise about “fresh” and “original” ideas? How about “non-clichéd” and “done to death”? That refers to ideas that have been done, over and again. A love triangle. A mother bent on saving her child. A farm boy who become a hero. These are all archetypes (way to use my English class!), but if you don’t think too far beyond a basic situation, it turns into something maybe not dull, or clichéd, but not something that feels new.

Let’s face it: ideas are a dime a dozen. There’s tons of books, movies, and video games. So don’t waste your breath crying about how all the good ideas are taken. When someone says a movie or book is really original, they don’t mean the concept itself, what they are really talking about is the way that particular writer told that story. That’s what you’re doing in the brainstorming process, finding the way YOU want to tell this story. Don’t worry about making your story “original”, instead, strive for finding your voice, your take on the matter. After you have found that, your story will become original. Because there is only one you, only one person in the entire world—nay, the entire galaxy—who has experienced, and felt, and said, the things you have felt and said.

Something useful at this stage is getting another friend, preferably a writer-friend, to help you out. Type up the general idea you have going on, and ask the friend to think of a bunch of What If? for the story. Or you could just talk to them about it, and bounce ideas off of each other. I do some of my best thinking out loud, in the clever disguise as a conversation with someone else. You can do this several times during the writing process. (Screenwriters apparently do this a lot, it’s called a “bull session” from what I understand, where massive amounts of alcohol, drugs, and caffeine are consumed, and they sit around saying What if we did this IN SPACE? What if the mother was really an alien?*) Getting someone else’s perspective on your story can help, even this early on. Of course, you don’t have to follow any of their suggestions, and they might not come up with anything you want to use, but I find my stories better developed when I think about all of the possible permutations an idea can take.

Also, it’s fun to return the favor for your writer friends. For some reason, it’s much easier to think of interesting plot ideas for a concept that isn’t your own, and sometimes you get your own ideas out of the bargain. Recently, I was helping a friend of mine think of professions for one of her secondary characters, and I suggested a matchmaker. The idea didn’t mix with her character, but in the meantime my muse was telling me about how I could have a character who was a matchmaker and everyone in town came to her for advice…

If you don’t have writer-friends, non-writer family members and friends work almost as well (at least in my opinion. Writers seem to pick up the knack of what sort of ideas you are trying to throw around, where as I occasionally have to explain a little better what I am looking for with the non-writers I know). This distance to writing is invaluable, since you are essentially asking them as readers.

A quick side note: Pay attention to what people complain about in regards to books and movies, especially if these complainants sound like they are well thought out. Even if the compliant devolves into disparaging comments about the directors, the actors, and how everyone in the history of EVAR are sell-outs, there’s usually a kernel of truth in the compliant. If you hear everyone complain that the latest blockbuster movie has no plot, or the characters were wooden, watch the movie and try to see where the movie went wrong. It takes a little while to be able to pick that truth out of the compliant, and should be taken as one person’s opinion, but over time it can help you avoid some of those mistakes. Likewise, pay attention to the books you don’t like. Yes, you can learn from the books you love, but if you can pin point what exactly about the book you disliked, you can try to avoid the same mistakes in your own work (not that you can please everyone, so don’t even try. This is about learning how to tell a story the way you intend for it to be heard).

3. Which way to go?

So now you have your idea, and you have some thoughts about what could happen. You might know what your question is, you might decide that you could care less about questions and themes, and you just want to write a good read.

At this point, you might name your characters, and dive right into writing the story. If you have never tried this before, I recommend doing so. A lot of writing is experimentation. I am still learning what the best method for me is. You might decide you hate brainstorming, too many tree diagrams in grade school thank you very much, and start writing with only the vaguest of ideas. As I said, that’s your little red wagon. Only you know what will work best for you, but I would recommend a certain amount of experimentation. How will you know what does and doesn’t work for you if you don’t try out new ways of doing things?

Personally, I have never finished a book I just sat down and started to write. This is often referred to as the seat-of-the-pants method, because you are essentially flying by the seat of your pants. I do like writing out a scene here and there before I start the novel, just to get a feel for my character (and in a vain attempt to get my character’s voice worked out before I start the book, so there is less thrashing around in the beginning) but I have at least three novels that aren’t finished because I didn’t know enough about the plot and characters before I started. I do find cool things about my characters when I am just typing away, but eventually (usually around 30-50k depending on the idea and amount of caffeine I have coursing through my veins) I stall out because I don’t know what is going to happen next. Some people will go back through the book and mine it for ideas, but that never seems to work for me. So if you are a writer who can do that, I salute you! Maybe you can guest post and tell us a little more about how to write an entire novel from the seat of your pants.

Assuming you need a little more information on your book and characters, you will continue your quest…

4. The End? The End!

There is a large dividing line between writers about “the end”. Some writers have a vague to strong idea about how the book is going to end, and the rest of them have no idea how it’s going to end, and furthermore, if they plan the ending out, it kills the rest of the book for them. I know a few writers who straddle the fence and can write both ways, but these are the minority in my experience (what is that, loyal minions? Which way I do I write? I usually have a vague idea about how it’s going to end, an idea that might change with one scene, but one that is there nonetheless).

5. The Plot

As I stated before, a plot contains the events of your idea. Even if you don’t know the events that carry out the end of your idea, an idea only really becomes a plot when you know something about the characters, what the conflict is, and how it’s going to work out. In the most basic of terms, if it’s going to be a happy ending or a sad ending. If the guy is going to get the girl, or if he’s not going to get the girl. Even people who don’t know HOW the book is going to end usually know the TYPE of ending the book is going to have (i.e. happy or tragic).

6. Wrapping things up…or am I?!

You may have noticed, and been too kind to point out, that my post about how to turn ideas into a plot has wandered ALL OVER the place, between theme, and plot, and characters, and even how some people finish a book versus how other people finish a book. You may have attributed it to my naturally long winded nature, and my love for tangents, and if that is the case, you are not entirely wrong.

But also, and almost so obvious I feel silly mentioning it, your idea encompasses all of those aspects of a book, making it REALLY hard to talk about one as a separate element. Because ideally, they aren’t separate elements. It’s not like ordering from an a la carte menu, and mashing the separate elements together, but more like a stew (Bruce Almighty, the comedy with Jim Carrey, springs to mind, “Buffalo is like a big cookie.”…so there, Writing is like a big cookie…) with each element growing from the other, and making up the whole novel.

As I continue the How to Write a Novel Series you will notice yourself having different ideas about your novel, about the plot and characters; your basic idea will evolve. Rest assured that’s okay, normal, and healthy for the growth of your novel. Creating characters is a great way to develop your plot, and the events of your plot is a great way to develop your characters. I just can’t write it all down into one post, because, to quote Natalie Whipple, Sweet baby kittens, this post is long enough (you are kind, and gentle, and sweet to a) not have mentioned this and b) made it this far. Bless you, good sir, bless you)!

I have broken the entire novel writing process into smaller, manageable bits. But in practice, as you work through this, you will be constantly tweaking one element with regards to another. You might start with characters, and move on to idea, and then theme, and finish up with the plot, instead of sitting down and working on the characters, and then when they are done you work on the plot, and once that’s done you move onto the imagery. It’s more like cooking dinner with each burner holding a separate pot, and you have to stir them all at the same time: plot---characters---setting, what’s the setting---plot, plot again---setting---characters—worldbuilding—theme, theme---oh goodness, the theme is burning---stir the dialogue, don’t want it getting too stale…

You get the point.

There are many, many ways to develop your idea into a plot. Decide what works best for you, and don’t be afraid to experiment. The great thing about writing is that you don’t have to do anything in front of an audience the first time. You could write a book written in second person about hedgehogs, if you want to, and no one EVER has to see it. I think writers are lucky in that regard; when you sing, and mess up, everyone knows it. Likewise for painters, and nearly every other artist. Not so for writers. You could write the world’s worst novel (actually, I am pretty sure I already did) and no one will ever, ever have to read it. You control what people do and don’t see. So feel free to experiment!

Next time, on Elizabeth’s blog—How to Write a Novel 3: Characters!

*No screenwriters were hurt during the making of this hyperbole

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