This is getting to be quite a long series of articles. I’ve already talked about how I knew I wanted to be a writer, second was what apps and programs I use as a writer and most recently, how I initially develop ideas. So today I’m going to take it a step further and talk more about how I develop the overall plot. After asking the initial series of whys that help us outline the characters and some key plot events, how do I create the whole story from start to finish?
To be honest, there isn’t an easy answer to this question as I’ve been doing something different each time I write a story. So, I’ll breakdown each approach and we can look at the pros and cons of each. That’s a good idea, else I’ll just waffle off on tangents like a fat drunk penguin. I’ll also be focussing on novels as short stories I tend to just build around a single rule or concept. I’ll talk about that at a later date if people are interested though.
When I started writing, I hated the idea of planning the whole story in detail, as if the joy of writing was seeing where the story takes you in the moment of writing. So I would start with a rough idea for the story, knowing only where I wanted to be when the current chapter ended, and I would just write until I got there. Whatever came out, I just let it flow. The problem was that I also hated editing and this method often led to huge excesses of description and action that I was too proud to admit needed to go! I’m a hoarder! My words are in stone! So, as much as I enjoyed the mystery of a story revealing itself at my fingertips, I’ve learned to start planning. See, it also meant characters motivations, structure and plot development was unclear. That needed fixing. To that end I learned to melt the stone and make lava – with my hands! I’m a boss.
This is how I started writing my first novel, so it’s needed a lot of editing!
Three Act Structure
This isn’t so much a method I used. I picked it up first among all the techniques mentioned today. More often associated with screenplays, I find it’s a useful guideline for all stories, especially as the language of cinema influences novels. Basically, the story is split into three parts. The first part introduces the character, the world and a problem that catapults the protagonist to a point of no return. The second part is them trying to solve the problem but only making things worse incomes or tragic ways (I like comedy, in case you didn’t know yet, muppet) and that continues until a learning occurs and a higher sense of awareness strikes them like a cliched lightning bolt. Usually its because of help from friends and aides too because we can’t just grow by ourselves. That wouldn’t be very dramatic. The third act is a resolution of this problem, featuring the climax where tensions are at their highest, and then the hero is left with a better understanding of themselves at the end. He’s not a muppet any more. Unless we are actually talking about a Muppets movie, of course.
Why I like it: I like this because it ensures a complete and satisfying story.
Why I don’t like it: It’s so vague that there is still plenty of work to do. Hence why I just keep it in mind as a general guide. You need one of the following too!
The Snowflake Method
I started using this to develop my second novel The Damsel, which is still in its first draft and another project, a fantasy parody novella. I found it really appealing and it reminded me of a screenwriting technique I learned in school. I first heard about it in a book on writing and it was developed my Randy Ingermanson (full details on his website).
Basically, you write a one sentence line that summarizes the main concept/struggle of your story. He recommends the descriptions on the New York Times bestseller list as inspiration. Then, like the many intricate parts of a snowflake, you build on it in tiny pieces. Expand that sentence into a paragraph. Then take each of those sentences and expand each of those into a paragraph. Before you know it, you have a page long synopsis already. After that… guess what? Expand each of those sentences into its own paragraph, and so on until you have scene descriptions and all you have to do is fill in the gaps with dialogue.
Why I like it: Each time you expand, you are explaining why or how something happens in your story and you only write what needs to be there. It allows the story to grow organically, but quickly, so you understand every step of your story and you can write virtually any scene in any order. This is huge, as I always wrote the story in order before and had to fully understand a scene before moving on. This method has saved me lots of time.
Why I don’t like it: I found that your story can easily become unbalanced. In your initial sentence it might not be clear how much of your expanded info is part of the first act, or the others. As such, I ended up with way too much information and scenes for my first act. I had to pick out what was really essential to the story. What I had done was useful though, it made good background information that I could refer to and helped me understand characters better. Similarly, but on the opposite end of the scale, the motivation for the final climax seemed to be lacking, or have a jump in logic. You really have to be careful about balance and pace with this method.
The Hero’s Journey
Last year I discovered a copy of The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler, which is a miracle in itself in Japan, but inside it details tropes of mythology and the traditional hero’s journey, which is a time old structure for story telling. It goes through detailed stages of how the hero’s traditional life is established, their journey to another world, problems faced, changes, a final problem and showdown, and then returning back to the home changed. After reading it I then applied the method to The Damsel which had gotten a bit bogged down in detail after a run in with the Snowflake Method above. It helped me clarify a few points and added a couple of much needed climactic and tension filled events.
Why I like it: It focusses on character development. So you know you will end up with a strong arc and a protagonist people care about. In doing so you do get some major scenes and turning points fleshed out as well.
Why I don’t like it: It’s not a quick method, not until you internalize the structure anyway. Plus, since you are working out stages of the story you have to then go back and think of connecting material to the story. It’s more of a jigsaw method, rather than the organic process of the Snowflake Method. Think of it as a more detailed description of the three act structure.
That’s where I am. I’m thinking the best way to develop a novel is to begin with the snowflake method until you get to the page long synopsis stage. Then I would recommend switching to the hero’s journey to put a strong backbone of structure into your tale. You should then be able to continue with the Snowflake Method to develop each part until you are comfortable writing the scenes. I’ll try this with my third novel.
So now I hope you understand why it’s taking me so long to get my novels out! Once I find a good, reliable method, I hope I can churn them out faster without sacrificing quality – if not actually improving on it.
What do you think? Have you tried any of these methods? Do you have a method I haven’t mentioned that you’d like to share? I’d love to hear it as I’m still developing my perfect routine. Let’s help each other!
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