We’re continuing with a series of guest blogs by novelist Susan Meissner on the subject of “Writing 300 Pages in 30 Days.” Today, Susan talks about Plot:
Once I have a firm grip on my cast of characters and I feel very comfortable with my settings, I produce for myself a map of how I am going to get my characters from page 1 to page 300. Getting my characters from page 1 to page 300 is my plot. And the map enables me to get there. You can call it an outline if you want, but a lot of people don’t like that word. I don’t even like it. If people ask me if I outline, I have to answer that I do. But that doesn’t make me the antithesis of a seat-of-the-pants writer. When I wrote “Blue Heart Blessed” (coming out in Feb ’08), I tried for days to come up with a scene-by-scene game plan. The thing refused to be outlined more than a couple chapters a time. So I went with the muse. I had to. My “map” was recreated every five days and I call that outlining by the seat of your pants. Outlining or mapping is simply visualizing where you will go, if not for the entire journey, then at least every few days. I need to have a map to keep me focused and writing. The map keeps me from sitting at the wheel of my writing vehicle staring at the road ahead, engine idling, and not going anywhere
I begin my map with creating one stupendous sentence that encapsulates my story in a nutshell. In Hollywood they call this the high concept. The 15-second elevator pitch. It’s the gist of the tale in one powerfully worded sentence that reveals my destination. It also suggests what felt need I will expose within the story. Creating the HC can take several days. Honestly this nut graf can be the hardest thing you will ever write. But you will use this lovely sentence, not only to keep your bearings as you write but also to pitch this story to acquiring editors. They love it when you can tell them with one powerful hook what your story is about.
When I have this treasure, my high concept, I begin to make the map. You can use a story board, or note cards or a spreadsheet. I don’t like any of those devices to tell you the truth. I like a yellow legal pad, a mechanical pencil and a Diet Coke with lime. I number a page 1 to 40 because most of my books are told in 40 scenes or chapters, about 7-8 pages each. Then I begin to plot the 40-scene journey with the pencil while sipping the Coke.
When you begin mapping out your story’s journey, you will want to be thinking about the major turns your story must take to get you where you want to go. Most novels have several key twists and turns. These are events that change the course of the story. Readers expect them. That’s what keeps them turning pages. If we take the epic novel Gone With The Wind, we can see the major turns Margaret Mitchell mapped out for her characters. You can think of them like this: 1. War is declared and Scarlett marries a man she doesn’t love. 2. The South is defeated and Rhett kisses Scarlett while Atlanta burns. 3. Scarlett cannot pay the taxes on Tara and again marries a man she doesn’t love. 4. Rhett finally marries the widowed Scarlett, they have a child. 5. The marriage hits a terrible snag and then, the worst thing happens, their beloved child dies. 6. Scarlett realizes (Finally!) she loves Rhett, not Ashley. There are probably other key turning events in a novel of this size, but most of us will be writing 85,000-word manuscripts or less. If you can dream up four to five key turning points, (and spread them out) you’ll be in excellent shape.
Your first turning point should happen sometime in the first quarter, (for me, scene 6) a second one at half-time (scene 18) another one or two in the third quarter (scenes 25 and 34) and a life-defining turn in the fourth quarter, (scene 39) which is your climax. In GWTW, this is when Bonnie dies. It’s not the end of the book, it’s the conflict at its zenith. The other turns should all pivot on the central conflict. They should drive home what’s at stake. They should bring out your protagonist’s best and worst qualities. The escalation of your conflict, with these key plot points, is your story arc: A half circle that starts at point A heads north to a rising battle against some kind of antagonistic threat and ends at point F or G with some kind of resolution.
Like crafting a high concept, mapping out your key plot points can be difficult, because we aren’t as familiar with the story and its characters now as we will be when we are actually writing. Remember you are only making a map. You’re not buying all the land between San Diego and Houston. As you travel you can change your mind about which roads you want to take and which stops you want to make along the way. You are still the one in charge.
With “Blue Heart Blessed,” I redid the 40-scene blotter a zillion times. Okay, maybe 10. But having it kept me writing every day. I still finished the thing in 10 weeks. Outlining your plot doesn’t imprison you. Not by a long shot. It frees you to write.
So how do you know what to plot for scenes 6, 18, 25, 34 and 39? Well, just think of all the things that could possibly go wrong for your character. Then make them happen.
Randy sez: Once again, Susan and I are on the same page. Fans of the Snowflake method will note that Susan’s “high concept” is my “one-sentence summary. And her 40-line sheet of paper is very similar to my spreadsheet. (By the way, I also shoot for about 40 chapters in my novels. It’s a nice number. This usually works out to 80 to 100 scenes.) The nice thing about a spreadsheet is that you can easily copy it when you’re ready to try a new version of it.
Unlike Susan, I would never admit to “outlining.” I don’t outline. I think one reason novelists hate “outlines” is that they conjure up images of Mean Mrs. Murphy from the sixth grade, who made us write outlines using Roman numerals, then capital letters, then Arabic numbers, then lower-case letters, etc. Half the battle was remembering which labels to use. The other half was figuring out what to do when you suddenly realized you needed to move a whole “tree” up a level.
I design my novels, but no Roman numerals are killed in order to create my stories. So if someone asked me. if I “outline,” I’d have to say no.
Here, I must take issue with Susan. Diet Coke? No way! I don’t drink “Diet” anything. I want the real-sugar deal. Maybe next time I’m working on my Snowflake, I’ll try a Classic Coke.
You will note that Susan likes about 5 major turning points whereas I like 3. Suit yourself, folks. The idea is to have a story structure that your reader can keep inside her head. The average person can keep about 7 things in their mind at once. After that, they have to start “chunking” things together. I like 3 because the Rule of Three is a major design pattern that is imprinted on our brains. Goldilocks and the Three Bears is a classic example. Any number of fairy tales have 3 brothers who must make their way in the world, or 3 suitors for the princess, etc. It’s a nice number.
By the way, Susan has said nothing about writing those pesky synopses. We talked quite a bit about those last summer. Most writers hate synopses, partly because they confuse them with outlines and partly because synopses are boring. They are boring because they are narrative summary, so we have a tendency to want to “show, not tell” and then the synopsis starts getting long and we wonder why we need the blasted thing. Since we covered all this long ago, I’ll say only that Susan’s 40 lines is a good start to writing a synopsis.
If I’m not mistaken, Susan has one more step in her process. If so, she’ll write a post on it tomorrow. In the meantime, feel free to ask her any questions you might have! I will be taking time off from blogging for a few days around Christmas, so we’ll be wrapping up this discussion shortly.